Ella Mills, née Woodward – aka ‘Deliciously Ella’ – was on Radio 4 this morning discussing ‘clean eating’. Many will know her as one of the main advocates of this fashionable nutritional advice, even though she now says she doesn’t like to use the phrase ‘clean’. Her best-selling book suggested that food could be used as medicine and could help cure illness.
In August 2015, Isabel Hardman and I looked at the cult of clean eating in The Spectator. It had all the elements of a classic cult – devotees, a life-changing, inspirational message, a distinct lack of evidence to back up any of it – and now, it seems, even its most prominent priestesses are starting to repent.
Mills’s book became one the fastest-selling debut cookbooks of all time. She capitalised on the clean-eating phenomenon – and countless women have followed her advice. She suggested people cut out gluten and dairy. Milk, she said, ‘can actually cause calcium loss in our bones! This is because milk causes the pH of our bodies to become acidic which triggers a natural reaction in our bodies to bring the pH of our blood back to neutral’. When we drink milk, she said, calcium is drawn from our bones in order to rebalance the acidity it causes, which can result in a calcium deficit.
This was news to the qualified nutritionists we spoke to. As Isabel and I pointed out, many of the clean eating gurus seemed unqualified to offer dietary advice. Yet they cashed in on it, and went about telling us what was good – and bad – to eat. Now the inevitable backlash has begun, and they are cashing out. But much of the damage has been done.
We talk about the era of fake news. Well, this was the era of fake nutrition. It was dreamt up for commercial success, at the expense of impressionable women looking for advice on Instagram. It fed on fear: a fear of gluten, dairy and other newly unfashionable foods. The high priestesses’ mantras, such as ‘eat clean’ or ‘it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle’, are now found all over eating disorder websites. As Hadley Freeman put it, ‘Deliciously Ella is the precursor to Donald Trump’. They are both part of the ‘bullshitting culture’. Mills won’t like that, which perhaps explains why she is now so keen to distance herself from the clean-eating movement. But this should all serve as a warning: in the era of fake nutrition, it’s worth taking everything with a pinch of salt, even if the gurus suggest otherwise.