Clean eating: what is it and why is it so controversial?

Nigella Lawson criticises 'clean eating' fad popular with the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Miranda Kerr

(Image credit: Denis Charlet/AFP/Getty Images)

Celebrity chef Nigella Lawson has spoken out against 'clean eating' this week, warning that the trend can be used to mask serious conditions such as eating disorders.

The diet is popular among celebrities including Gwyneth Paltrow, Miranda Kerr and Jessica Alba. So what exactly is it and why is it so controversial?

What is a clean eating diet?

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Clean eaters try to eat foods in their most natural state. Therefore processed foods, such as crisps, sugary cereals and biscuits, are off the menu.

Meals consist of lean meats, vegetables, fruits, pulses, nuts and seeds - and packaged food should contain only recognisable 'whole food' ingredients, rather than additives and sweeteners. Some clean eaters also prefer to avoid dairy, gluten, refined sugar, caffeine and alcohol.

What do its supporter say?

Clean eating fans insist the diet is not about consuming less or more food, but better quality food. Eating whole foods boosts health, energy and mood, they say. Several studies have also shown that reducing ready meals and fast food can reduce life-threatening conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and even certain cancers.

Ella Woodward, food blogger and author of Deliciously Ella, says her diet of whole foods helped her take control of Postural Tachycardia Syndrome, an illness affecting the autonomic nervous system.

So why are critics against it?

Nigella Lawson says the problem with clean eating is that it makes other ways of eating seem shameful. "People are using certain diets as a way to hide an eating disorder or a great sense of unhappiness with their own body," she says.

"There is a way in which food is used to either self-congratulate – you're a better person because you're eating like that – or to self-persecute, because you will not allow yourself to eat what you want."

One woman, Carrie Armstrong, from Newcastle, told the Daily Telegraph how her clean eating diet had turned into an obsession, causing severe weight loss.

The "pathological fixation on eating proper food" was named orthorexia nervosa in 1997 by Dr Steven Bratman, who wrote about his own obsession with evangelical eating. However, the term is yet to be officially recognised as an eating disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, says the newspaper.

Other experts are concerned about people cutting out food groups from their diet. One Harley Street sport nutritionist told the Telegraph that diets outlawing entire food groups are causing more deficiencies than he has ever seen before.

Another nutrition expert told The Spectator that some "wellness gurus" are "injecting an unwelcome degree of paranoia into society, without any scientific backing". The message from experts appears to be "everything in moderation".

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