Is 'clean eating' and 'guilt-free' food damaging the way we think about food?

Moralising over food is a 'type of hysteria', says cook and food author Maggie Beer.
Moralising over food is a 'type of hysteria', says cook and food author Maggie Beer. Photo: Shutterstock

There are more than 600,000 #guiltfree posts on Instagram.

So-called guilt-free chocolate brownies made from dates and cacao powder, guilt-free "nicecream" with almond milk and frozen bananas, and guilt-free banana bread that doesn't use refined sugar.

One mainstream brand of low-calorie ice-cream has even put the words "guilt free" on the side of their tubs.

It doesn't take a lot of analysis. To be #guiltfree your food needs to be low calorie, sugar free, raw and preferably photogenic too. There's absolutely nothing wrong with any of these foods, but when they are declared to be guilt free, the original versions become tainted by default.

"Guilt free" isn't the only popular food tag on social media: #cleaneating also features heavily, with more than 44 million posts, many featuring quinoa, overnight oats and of course, green smoothies.

To be in a constant state of angst and guilt over food and eating is no way to be living.

Dietitian Nina Mills

Nina Mills is a dietitian and "intuitive eating counsellor". She thinks that terms such as "guilt free" and "clean eating" could be damaging the way that we think about food. "These words and phrases have roots in morality. Which would be fine, except that as humans, we tend to internalise these moral judgments about food onto ourselves," she says.

Mills says there is a "moral superiority" that comes from eating in a "clean" and "guilt-free" way. On the flip side, falling off the #cleaneating wagon can lead to further moral judgments – for example, that we've been "bad" or "naughty". Terms such as "cheat day" and "junk food" also play into the same psychology.

"Overall, talking about food in these binaries of good and bad can leave the way we eat feeling chaotic, out of control and lacking pleasure," Mills says.

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Dietitians are not alone in wondering how popular food terms are affecting the way we think about food. Cook and food author Maggie Beer has a similar view. "It's a type of hysteria," she says. "It does worry me."

"It goes to a fear of food, which is the most negative thing you could have. If people are fearful of food they'll never be looking for real food or good food."

Beer notes that while ice-cream is an occasional "indulgence" it's something to be enjoyed, not something to feel guilty about. "I want to buy or make the best possible ice-cream that I can. It's not something that you eat every day. Pleasure is really important," she says.

Clean eating generic pic

'Food is just food,' says dietitian Nina Mills. Photo: Shutterstock

So how have terms such as "guilt free" and "clean eating" taken hold in mainstream culture? Mills believes our preoccupation with health has played a large role.

"We are hyper-focused on what food may be doing to our physical body," she says.

"'Bad' foods are going to be our undoing, 'good' foods are going to keep us in perfect physical health. We get it drummed into us from everywhere – the media, our government health campaigns, social media."

The problem with this, Mills says, is that we need to eat multiple times a day and have complex needs above and beyond nutrition. "To be in a constant state of angst and guilt over food and eating is no way to be living," she says.

Mills says marketing campaigns that use these terms are adding to the issue. "Marketers are using emotional manipulation to appeal to our moral character," she says.

"And of course, with repeated exposure, these words start to become part of our mainstream vernacular."

If we're going to return to a less moral way of talking about food, Mills says we need to drop the moral judgments. "Food is just food," she says.

"At the end of the day, we all need to eat in order to survive as a species – there is no getting away from that. So, surely being at peace with food is more appealing than living life in constant struggle with it."

Beer has another approach. She says we can shift the emotive language around food by falling in love with cooking. And for maximum effect, we can teach kids how to cook too.

"When you can start a youngster with a love of food that comes from the very basics that's how you can get away from all this hysteria," she says.

"It will empower children to enjoy food and have fun."