Long Reads

"Why we should stop worrying about clean eating, and embrace our love of food"

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Kate Leaver
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The clean eating trend has been dominating our Instagram feeds for months. As Ruby Tandoh releases a new book encouraging us to rediscover the joy in food, freelance writer Kate Leaver explains why her philosophy is one we should all learn to embrace

The sound of cracking open an ice-cold can of Fanta on a summer’s day. The particular crunch of a Greggs sausage roll. The thick stickiness of doughnut icing on your fingers. How often do you stop to notice the joyous sensation of the food we’ve been told is forbidden? How regularly do you let yourself scoff something delicious, simply because your body is craving it?

Ruby Tandoh, former Great British Bake-Off finalist and food writer, wants us all to stop and smell the bubbling mozzarella draped over a pizza. In her new book, Eat Up, Tandoh encourages us to stop thinking of food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ditch the kale worship and rediscover what it is to eat what you want, when you want it. It is, quite frankly, a revolutionary manifesto on the joy of food – and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

We are in an age of profound anxiety around food and, while there is some recent backlash to the clean eating fad, we are not quite clear of its influence yet. The hashtag #cleaneating was used on Instagram 31 million times in 2017 alone. We are at a crucial moment in history when food is more about purity and morality, than it is enjoyment or nourishment (I Spiralize, Therefore I Am). 

With our stringent approach to nutrition-via-Instagram, we have even created a new eating disorder. Orthorexia is defined as an obsession with pure foods and clean eating and, while there are no formal statistics on the prevalence of the disorder, it is beyond alarming that it exists. It is estimated that 1.25 million people in the UK live with an eating disorder. As a survivor of anorexia myself, let me say how toxic, frightening and enticing the diet industry can be. It is deeply important to listen to rational detractors, like Ruby Tandoh.

“Our anxiety about food has reached a crescendo. There are so many people saying what you can and cannot eat,” Tandoh tells me. “The diet industry is very flawed. It capitalises on people’s very human anxieties about health. It says that even if you’re doing well, you’re not quite glowy enough, or you might be happy but your hair’s not quite shiny enough. It’s about constant improvement and that’s not how it should be.”

I can relate. My own relationship with food has been tense, taut, complicated and dangerous for most of my life. I was anorexic as a teenager and, while I consider myself well into recovery, I cannot quite shake the fear and confusion I face around food. I am gullible and impressionable when it comes to the glossy promises made by the beautiful people on Instagram, despite their wanton absence of any actual qualifications in nutritional science. Desperately trying to navigate the conflicting messages of the food industry – one moment telling us to survive on quinoa-stuffed peppers, the next telling us we are worthy of triple-choc gelato – I ask Tandoh for the answers. How do we overcome our fear of food?

“So much of it is about learning to trust yourself,” she says. “Despite the fact that we have these bodies that are amazing regulatory systems that know what they want, and when they want it, we outsource all of these decisions to other people. Our bodies might be ravenous for something but we look to someone else to tell us what to eat. We need to learn to trust our own bodies.”

For Ruby, this means listening to the rumbles of your stomach and giving your body what it craves – as well as looking at what you need emotionally. She doesn’t endorse binge eating for emotional comfort, of course, because that is yet another sign of disordered eating. She does, however, wholeheartedly encourage people to indulge in glorious, greasy, fatty, sugary foods for the joy of it alone. And to do so without guilt – because we have spent too long lacing our favourite foods with remorse, before we even have a chance to enjoy them.

“What I want is for people to prioritise their emotional and social health, in the same way as their physical health. So if all of your friends are going to Wetherspoons for dinner, it’s important for your social health to go and have a bit of something, too. It’s not about eating jelly babies all the time: it’s about being free to eat what you want.”

Perhaps the loveliest bit in Tandoh’s book, to me, is about sharing food and feeding someone as a gesture of love. Tandoh has struggled with an eating disorder in the past and, despite recovering before she started writing the book, it has still been a process of healing for her: as has her relationship with her girlfriend, Leah.

“Part of developing a healthy relationship with food and coming to terms with my own appetite has been eating with my partner and feeding her. It’s this wonderful thing: when you love someone, you want to feed them and make them grow big and strong. You wouldn’t dream of sending them out the house having only eaten a Penguin bar, even if you might do that yourself, because you want to nourish them. So it’s this strange thing where you learn to value feeding yourself in return.”

Tandoh’s book is really a call to arms. It’s time that we learned to fall back in love with food, to use it to nourish our bodies and our minds, to share it with people we love and, sometimes, to relish it with total abandon.

Food is not about morality and it is more than just fuel; it’s about love and joy and freedom and family and friends, and the simple delight of getting icing sugar stuck under your fingernails. I will be raising a spoon of Ben and Jerry’s chocolate-chip cookie dough to Ruby Tandoh as I try my very best to embrace her glee around food. I’d encourage you to do the same.

Images: iStock