Kale is out: Why young women are rebelling against clean eating

By Hayley Gleeson, ABC, 27 Jun 2016, 9:40am

The sheen on the world of wellness — of sugar-free this, and gluten-free that — is finally starting to wear off.

During a visit to Australia earlier this year, celebrity chef Nigella Lawson gently denounced clean eating and other restrictive diets as unbalanced and unsustainable.

“I want to feel well,” Ms Lawson told Annabel Crabb. “But I don’t think that if I give up gluten and never again have a piece of cake that … I’ll have nothing to worry about.”

She continued: “I do think, at the base of [the clean-eating obsession] is the human holy grail, which is eternal life. You may as well just enjoy eating in this one, I think.”

But Ms Lawson is not alone; people have become increasingly weary of the so-called wellness and clean-eating trends, whereby images of Gwyneth Paltrow-inspired abs, grass-coloured juice and flower-adorned acai bowls achieve cult-like status in social media feeds, but leave many feeling anxious and ashamed of what is on their own plate.

Indeed, there is a growing movement of young women on Instagram who are revolting against #wellness: instead of boasting about yoga, quinoa and kale, they are posting photos of bacon-laden burgers, cheese-covered fries and extravagant milkshakes.

It is a blatant middle finger to the judgement and shame that surrounds indulgent food and a rejection of the stereotype that women should be skolling smoothies and #eatingclean, not eating what they please.

For these young women rebels, pizza is not just pleasure, it is political.

Take, for example, Melbourne-based cookie company Sweet Mickie, which sends up sugar-quitters and health obsessives with iced, buttery biscuits that quip, ‘I Quit Kale’, ‘No Carbs, No Fun’, ‘Gluttony is Back’ and ‘Kate Moss Lied’.

“Right now, gluttony is the cool thing [for women]. It’s sort of shifted from wellness to indulgence — that’s now the new ‘cool’,” 30-year-old Sweet Mickie creator Emma Head tells ABC News.

“I think women are either eating really healthy, or really unhealthy … there’s no middle ground,” Ms Head continues. “So there’s a bit of a rebellion with girls [on social media] going, ‘Hey, I can eat pizza … I’m a rebel, I’m cool, I’m eating carbs’.”

Australian fashion bloggers Jess and Stef Dadon (AKA How Two Live) regularly Instagram shots of their indulgent snacks: ‘freakshakes’ from gourmet donut chains; Tim Tam and peanut butter ice-cream sundaes; and fries drowning in melted cheese are dotted amongst photos of their slender legs and quirky outfits.

And then there is Freshmen15: a wildly-popular account on which photographs of cheesy fries, mozzarella sticks, pizza and over-the-top desserts regularly attract over 10,000 likes.

Freshmen15’s tagline — “We gain weight for a reason” — is an attempt to reposition the extra kilos commonly gained during one’s first year of college (the “Freshman 15”) as a cause for celebration, not crash dieting.

“We want people to go college and not be afraid of the Freshman 15, but to experience and embrace it,” one of the six young women creators of Freshmen15, Christina Aquilina, tells ABC News.

“We gain weight because we’re enjoying ourselves. We gain weight because we’re living life, because we’re enjoying college … we’re not counting calories.”

Yet another Instagram account, Girls With Gluten, posts pictures of women having their cake, and “eating hers, too”.

Here, attractive young women pose not with dainty chia seed concoctions but head-sized baked goods; celebrities and models dressed in stylish ensembles chow down (or claim to) on burgers and pizza and ice-cream sundaes. Lady Gaga goes gaga for pasta.

The trend exhibits hallmarks of an online movement called “snackwave”, which writers Hazel Cills and Gabrielle Noone defined at the Hairpin in 2014 as “the current internet phenomenon of young women and teenage girls expressing an obsession with snack foods” — burgers, grilled cheese, ramen, burritos, pizza.

With roots in pop culture, snackwave is chiefly about exaggeration and extremism — “You don’t just eat pizza. You run a blog devoted to collecting pictures of celebrities eating pizza” — but importantly, it is also political, a rejection of the idea that women should subscribe to clean eating.

“Health food culture is often a thinly disguised way of policing women’s bodies,” Ms Cills and Ms Noone write.

“In a way, Snackwave is a protest against this mindset.

“Snackwave is about taking pleasure in foods that are deemed off-limits for women who want to stay thin and traditionally attractive.”

Certainly, clean eating has also been blamed for the rise in the eating disorder known as orthorexia — a fixation on “righteous eating”, or an unhealthy obsession with healthy food.

While orthorexia is not recognised as a clinical diagnosis, experts warn it can have severe mental and physical health consequences: malnutrition, nutrient deficiencies, a preoccupation with food, and stress and anxiety around eating.

“Some people have become too obsessed [with healthy eating],” says nutritionist and University of New South Wales lecturer Dr Rebecca Reynolds.

“Nutrition has gone crazy … there is more ‘demonising’ of certain foods and nutrients, and more idolising of [others], often without the backing of scientific evidence.”

While she would prefer to see Freshmen15 and Girls With Gluten striking a better balance between ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ foods, Dr Reynolds admits she likes what they are trying to do.

Clean eating and other overly-restrictive diets are “cultish when it’s taken to the extreme and obsession is involved,” she says.

In fact, while they might have good intentions, it seems so-called health bloggers may inadvertently be promoting unhealthy attitudes towards food and eating.

For a 2014 study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, researchers from the University of Florida conducted a content analysis of 21 of the most popular ‘healthy living’ blogs, all run by women, to determine what kinds of information they were publishing.

After assessing and coding the blogs’ content, the researchers found a high prevalence of messaging pertaining to appearance (exercise images, beauty, self-objectifying phrases); thin appearance-ideal (fat stigmatisation, thin praise); and disordered food/nutrition (guilt-inducing messages, food substitution, dieting, restraint), while presenting very little in the way of ‘health’ information.

While the content did “not approach the inflammatory nature of pro-eating disorder websites,” the researchers said, it “might be problematic for viewers who have eating or body image issues”.

On the contrary, Ms Aquilina says Freshmen15 has played an important role in her own recovery from an eating disorder, which saw her spend three months in a treatment facility at the end of her Freshman year.

“[Freshmen15] is part of me showing that [eating] is not something to be ashamed or scared of, it’s showing that if anybody’s going through this same exact thing, that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” she says.

“Life’s short, it really is, and for us to base everyday around how many calories we want to eat or how many calories each meal [contains] is just ridiculous.”

For sure. But can swinging from one extreme (obsessively healthy eating) to another (flaunting an apparent preoccupation with hyper-fatty foods) be just as big a problem as say, anorexia?

Is it just me, or is there something discomfiting about women who zealously catalogue photos of their carby conquests? Is this ‘recovery’ from an eating disorder, or another stage?

“We know with an eating disorder, a lot of it is about ‘black and white’ and ‘all or nothing’ thinking — so if you’re still exhibiting that type of thinking [it may be] a leftover [symptom] of the eating disorder,” says Professor Tracey Wade, the dean of the School of Psychology at Flinders University.

People in recovery from eating disorders may naturally want to “prove” they no longer have a problem, Professor Wade tells ABC News, and it is not necessarily problematic behaviour.

“But again, you don’t want to get trapped into that being … your main focus in life. You want to be able to eventually move on from food … to really get passionate about other things in life, such as your own wellbeing, your career, your studies, the community you live in,” she said.

Which is exactly how British comedian Arabella Younger feels about food, too.

Ms Younger, 28, parodies clean eating (“stylised courgette rubbish”) on her Instagram account Deliciously Stella, where pictures of her scoffing chips and gravy or Nutella straight from the jar leave her 124,000 followers in stitches.

“[I wanted] to sort of point out how silly it is to take photos of our abs all the time,” Ms Younger tells ABC News.

“I think that we were just overrun [with wellness and clean-eating rhetoric], there was nobody holding a mirror up to it going, ‘Actually, this is a bit insane’ and … maybe we should question that. Should you really give up gluten unless you’re celiac? Actually no, there’s no scientific evidence for [doing] that.”

And yet Instagram users — arguably more women than men — swallow it up.

“I think women really fall for the ‘clean’ and the ‘cheat’ language,” Ms Younger says. “Women are really like, ‘Oooh, guilty! I had some cake!’ Whereas a man would never be like, ‘I had a sausage sandwich this morning — cheat day!’ He’d be like, ‘I had a sausage sandwich’.”

Which might be funnier if it was not so uncomfortably true.

“It sounds a bit grandiose … but the thing that [I’d like people to take from Deliciously Stella is] to take yourselves just a little bit less seriously,” she adds.

“We’re much quicker to congratulate [women] on being beautiful or being slim than we are on being funny or clever or kind.

“And those things, I think, are way more important.”

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