The health-food crusade and the super-food saint

 “My philosophy about food is very simple. It is the only thing that can give us our health. Other things can take it away, such as drinking, smoking and a lazy lifestyle. But food is what makes us what we are” (Bee, 2015). 

As a consumer, observer, and cynic of health-foods, my philosophy about food is far from simple.  I like quinoa, prefer diet drinks and once thought Manuka honey might cure a cold. Yet I will happily demolish an entire tub of ice-cream and enjoy sneering at people who spend money on spirulina or flaxseed to add to their green juices.

Whilst it may seem strange to disapprove of people trying to improve their health (what could possibly be wrong with that?) the health-food industry makes me feel uneasy.  Health-foods offer more than just nutritional value; they are prized as a means to physical, spiritual and moral salvation.  Like the super-food saints who preach the benefits, we are promised that if we buy into the industry, we too will become more productive, more attractive, and happier.

Our rising health-consciousness is causing a growing discrepancy in health equality; the moral language of food is only for the saintly classes.


“I’ve got some spirulina in my cupboard”

This quote from my focus group is an example of how the health-food industry infiltrates our lives, and our kitchen cupboards. Coming from Brighton, it is hard to ignore it. There, you will find more vegan restaurants than fast-food outlets, and the yoga-loving, kale-eating population make it appealing to be part of their cult. But 40 years ago, advertising products as natural or wholesome would have only attracted the “radical vegetarians,” not the common consumer (Belasco, p.3, 2007). Today the health-food craze is transforming from the hipster hippies into the mainstream; health-foods are invading the high-street. The gluten-free aisle has expanded almost as fast as our national waist-line, and entire industries now produce green superfood drinks. The inflation of health-foods is also visible amongst those around me.  Many of my friends and colleagues have swapped regular milk for non-dairy substitutes, and are more likely to buy a Nakd snack bar than a mars bar. Logging onto social media, it is almost impossible to escape the barrage of Instagram snaps of healthy meals, gym selfies or #cleaneating tags. I’m starting to feel left behind.

Being healthy has become something to shout about. Those who used to be termed as health-food ‘junkies,’ ‘nuts,’ or ‘freaks’ are now heroes.  Many food-authors and bloggers have made careers from the online interest in healthy eating. Proposing often radical dietary change, these authors tell us their saintly stories, miracle ‘cures’ and righteous recipes to inspire us to turn our lives around and free ourselves from the burden of disease.  For those willing to convert, all you need is several £100s of kitchen equipment, exotic superfoods and buckets of free-time for yoga, juicing or exercise classes…Who’s in? Well, it would appear lots of us are; the success of these female foodies is astounding. Rising health-food star Deliciously Ella wrote the fastest ever debut cook-book to sell in the UK, winning almost half a million followers on Instagram (Woodward, 2014).

Although many of us are joining the health-crusade, the partition between the healthy and the unhealthy is significant. Despite our frenzied pursuit of health, we are in the midst of an obesity crisis. Being healthy is increasingly compulsory, where lifestyle marks entitlement to good health. Those who don’t appear to be trying hard enough are thought to deserve ill health. The modern food bloggers carelessly ignore this: as if everyone should have the desire, time and resources to convert to their better way of life.

Who am I to judge? Since I’m from a similar demographic to most of the health-food bloggers, and I like quinoa, perhaps I’m not convinced by their doctrine because I already have the resources to live a healthy lifestyle. But the more I have questioned this, the more I realised that it is because of our similarities that I am able to judge them: their ideals of perfect health are unrealistic even to the well-equipped of us. It’s not hard to imagine that for people from different backgrounds, cultures, or religions, the health-crusade flaunts itself as an exclusive club for the moral elite.


The land of soya milk and honey

The success of these bloggers is largely due to their invitation towards better times.  Shunning the horrors of modern life where people are stressed, over-worked and over-weight, these authors offer an escape to a promised land: back when life was simple, food was real and society was. Paleo-dieters are so keen to reject modernity that they are willing to return to the Stone-Age. Other health foodies admire the medieval period when humoral pathology focused on balance and connecting “mind and body.” To my dismay, an explanation of how the humors must be in balance recently appeared on the website of entrepreneur and blogger Primrose’s Kitchen (Matheson, 2015).  Raw-foodies revel in the 19th century, when Sylvester Graham (of the Graham cracker) proposed that eating “plainer and more natural food” was healthiest (Graham, p.136, 1849).  Similarly, the recent “clean eating” movement reflects an eagerness to escape from the modern threats of pollution, contamination and industry, whetting our appetites with an Eden of natural, fresh ingredients.

Whilst these food disciples make it seem easy to join their pilgrimage against modernity, most of us don’t have the means to escape. Only the middle class, the beautiful, the happy and the genetically blessed have a chance at health-food stardom. And those who don’t fit this mold, the “fat, flaccid and forlorn,” are judged as unhealthy and morally inferior (Metzl and Kirkland, p. 3, 2010).

Furthermore, I struggle to understand why everyone is so convinced that their way is the best. Making outlandish claims about health and diet without evidence is irresponsible, not honorable.  What’s more, after recent scandals in the health-food world, it’s hard to regain their trust: in 2015, Australian food Belle Gibson was caught lying about having terminal brain cancer, her would-have-been released book The Whole Pantry detailing her cure: a plant-based diet. “None of it’s true,” admitted Gibson (Nianias, 2015). Another fraudulent foodie recently in the press is founder and preacher of the alkaline diet Dr Robert Young, who has been charged with countless instances of fraud, and for practising medicine without authentic qualifications (Allyn, 2014).

Even though these cases of fraud are rare, the media and marketing impacts us every day, deceiving us into thinking that their products are healthier. But most of their advice should be taken with a pinch of salt (as long as it’s organic, pink, Himalayan rock salt). To fulfill our role as conscientious consumers, marketing presents us with ‘moral’ choices: foods are given labels such as organic, free-range, Fairtrade or farm fresh through which we can prove our goodness. But what do these words really mean? And how can we trust them? Even products branding themselves as ‘honest’ or ‘innocent’ make me suspicious.  But it is vital that we are suspicious. The persuasive rhetoric of health-food marketing exerts huge power over how we think.  Just look at chia seeds: good marketing is the only explanation I can find for how an essentially tasteless, texture-less grey seed has become the current must-have.


Marketing beauty: buy the glow

As well as food marketing, health foods promote themselves through ideals of beauty and goodness. The discourse of healthy eating not only talks about how certain foods make you feel, but how they make you look too. Whilst losing weight features heavily in this-–most bloggers write about weight-loss and their exercise routines– many of the authors have suffered from difficult relationships with food in the past.  Food author Madeline Shaw (2015) describes her conversion to clean eating after years of “depriving and binging.”  Now, she frames her diet around the principle that if we

“ditch the junk food” we can transform our bodies and give ourselves “glowing skin” (Shaw, p.4, 2015).  A staggering number of bloggers seem fixated by the effects of food on their skin. Books such as Amelia Freer’s Eat. Glow. Nourish (Freer, 2015), Angela Liddon’s Oh She Glows (Liddon, 2015), or Madeline Shaw’s Get the Glow (Shaw, 2015) all glisten under this premise. Just as Christ’s face “shone like the sun” during his transfiguration (Matthew 17:2), these food saints offer spiritual salvation.  Conveniently, many food bloggers also double as professional models or work for the beauty industry. Youtube vloggers such as Niomi Smart use their channels to simultaneously air beauty tutorials and healthy recipes (Smart, 2015).  Not a single food-blogger has dared reveal themselves on a bad hair day, or when stuffing their faces with goji berries. This angelic appearance has even extended to the food: the immaculate Instagram snaps ensure the food glows with goodness too. However in doing so, these food bloggers are demonstrating a level of narcissism I find hard to digest.


The price we pay for health

Even more concerning is the way in which our responsibility for health is a matter of class.  Healthism, the term placing health “at the level of the individual” is usually represented as a middle-class attribute (Crawford, p.365, 1980).  Health-foods, particularly super-foods, can afford to charge extortionate prices for their reputed benefits (a 110g pot of acai berry powder will set you back by £22.99).  I don’t blame these businesses for monopolizing on the consumer drive for health; their job is to make money, not to act as a public health service.  But it is the price of healthy foods in general which is upsetting. Ignoring the fancy health-foods, the price gap between healthy and less healthy products has been continually expanding over the past decade (Jones et al. 2014). As healthy foods become more and more expensive, a greater number of people will be excluded entry into the haven of health.

The health-food world seems oblivious of these price differences. Deliciously Ella’s trademark sweet potato brownies contain a range of expensive ingredients: Medjool dates, maple syrup and ground almonds; not on the weekly shopping list.  As well as isolating people who are not from well-off middle class backgrounds, the class division in the pursuit of health poses a more hidden threat.  Research suggests that amongst lower socioeconomic groups, the impact of healthism is greater. This is demonstrated by the higher prevalence of somatic symptoms in these groups. Disorders such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome are believed to be caused by similar political, ideological and medical forces as the healthism movement, but, unlike the pursuit of health, are not exclusive to the higher classes (Wessely and Greenhalgh, p. 203, 2004). Therefore, whilst many people from lower socioeconomic groups are excluded from eating a healthy diet, they still suffer from the burden of responsibility placed upon them.


Summary

The discourse of healthy eating is governed by moral imperatives in which the obligation to eat well is challenged by a lack of clarity and choice we have to achieve an optimally healthy diet.  Whilst we are becoming more health-conscious, health is becoming tied to ideals of beauty, social-class, and a perfect lifestyle.  Marketing plays a large role in the health-crusade by influencing consumers’ decisions. Yet it also creates confusion, and makes it hard for us to feel in control of what we eat.  The available health-information about food was described in my focus group as a “minefield.” This analogy extends to the entire health-food industry: the discourse of healthy eating is riddled with moral language promoting superior lifestyles exclusively available to the saintly classes.  If only this minefield were that easy to avoid.


References

Allyn R. 2014. “Controversial alternative health provider pleads not guilty to charges.” CBS8.URL:http://www.cbs8.com/story/24544235/accusedfakedoctorpleadsnotguiltytofelonycharges. Accessed July 2015

Bee S. 2015. “Good Nutrition.” Sally Bee Heart Healthy Food.. URL: http://www.sallybee.com/#!goodnutrition/c1hix. Accessed July 2015

Belasco WJ. 2007. Appetite for change: How the Counterculture took on the Food Industry. New York: Pantheon Books.

Crawford R. 1980. “Healthism and the medicalization of everyday life.” International Journal of Health Services 10(3):365-88.

Graham S. 1849. Lectures on the science of human life. London: Oxford University.

Greenhalgh T, Wessely S. 2004. “’Health for me’: a sociocultural analysis of healthism in the middle classes.” Br. Med Bull 69(1):197-213.

Freer A. 2015. Eat. Nourish. Glow: 10 easy steps for losing weight, looking younger and feeling healthier. London: Harper Collins Publishers.

Jones NRV, Conklin AI, Suhrcke M, Monsivais P. 2014 “The Growing Price Gap between More and Less Healthy Foods: Analysis of a Novel Longitudinal UK Dataset.” PLoS ONE 9(10). DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0109343.

Liddon A. 2014. The Oh She Glows Cookbook. New York: Penguin.

Matheson P. 2015. “About Us.” Primrose’s Kitchen. URL:http://primroseskitchen.com/about-us. Accessed May 2015.

Metzl, J. M. and Kirkland, A. 2010. Against Health: How Health Became the New Morality. New York: New York University Press.

Nianias H. 2015. “Belle Gibson: The health food blogger admits she lied about having terminal brain cancer.” The Independent UK. URL:http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/bellegibsonthehealthfoodbloggeradmitssheliedabouthavingterminalbraincancer10194764.html. Accessed May 2015.

Shaw M. 2015. Get The Glow: Delicious and Easy Recipes That Will Nourish You from the Inside Out. London: Orion.

Smart N. “Niomi Smart.” YouTube. URL:https://www.youtube.com/user/niomismart. Accessed June 2015

Woodward E. 2014. “About.” DeliciouslyElla. URL:http://deliciouslyella.com/?s=healthy+eating. Accessed June 2015.

Woodward E. 2015. “Sweet potato and carrot mash bowl.” DeliciouslyElla. URL:http://deliciouslyella.com/sweetpotato-carrot-mash-bowl/

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