Thinking of cutting down on the bad stuff post-Christmas? For some, it’s a new religion. Elise Rana Hopper looks at the cult of clean and why these days, healthy eating means getting naked
Who would’ve thought it? Google ‘naked Geordies’ and G-Shore’s Charlotte Crosby only just makes it into the first ten results – pushed aside by a cute illustration of two women, fully clothed, holding an apple and an avocado. These are Forest Hall mums Samantha Cartwright and Tracey Spowart, and the only thing that’s naked is their food.
The Naked Geordies are caterers with a difference, purveyors of treats that are sweet but also ‘clean and lean’, in accordance with a trend that seeks to strip the diet of processed foods, refined sugar, and often dairy, gluten, and meat.
Although the parameters of clean eating aren’t rigidly defined, it’s a lifestyle trend that’s growing in popularity, bringing together the interests of paleo-eating gym bunnies, juice-cleansing dieters, vegans and the gluten- or lactose-intolerant. What is clearly defined, however, is the aesthetic: this is a food movement that knows how to look good, popularised by bloggers who are for the most part slim, attractive and extremely social media-savvy.
Clean eating poster girls include chef Tess Ward, Vogue contributors Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley, celebrity nutritionist Madeleine Shaw and at the top of the tree, 24-year-old vegan blogger Ella Woodward, whose book Deliciously Ella became the fastest-selling debut cookbook of all time earlier this year.
Closer to home, Sunderland Masterchef finalist Stacie Stewart has swapped her vintage-style bakes for clean eats and protein treats with her second book and ‘Eat Naked’ deli venture.
As trends go, ‘clean and lean’ may be a health thing, but it’s also a food thing – you don’t have to be eating clean, raw or naked to be at least mildly intrigued by the possibilities of courgetti or cauliflower rice.
While pulled pork, smoked ribs and burger bars proliferate to the point of saturation, ‘clean and green’ presents a fresh, chic alternative to ‘dude food’ that resonates throughout the food world. When Alain Ducasse, the most Michelin-starred chef in the world, re-opened Paris’s legendary Plaza Athénée last year, both meat and refined sugar were conspicuous by their absence from the menu.
In October, GQ magazine pronounced the best burger in the world as Brook Headley’s Superiority Burger in NYC’s East Village – and it’s vegan.
Food-fashionable West London is awash with paleolithic fine dining and artisan raw food restaurants, while closer to home, the North East has seen the arrival of new veg-centric ventures, from Newcastle city centre restaurants Painted Elephant and Supernatural to clean eating cafés such as The Naked Deli in Heaton.
Spotting a gap in the local street food scene, chef and food stylist Vicky Turnbull caters for supper clubs and to growing numbers of home delivery customers, providing ‘salads, spreads and sprouts’ from her Gosforth-based business Wheatberry. Meanwhile, the North East Vegan Festival ‘Nevfest’, which has sold out the Stadium of Light, is now running twice a year to cope with demand.
For Ted Mason whose blog Something Clean, Something Green came top in the Food & Drink category at this year’s North East Blogger Awards, the appeal of ‘clean’ is the creative challenge it presents him as a cook – although he is not a vegan, many of his recipes are, and confounding the stereotype of bland and boring is something
“I think challenging myself to develop recipes that are ‘clean’ and vegan has made me enjoy food more, as there’s a lot of room to be creative and come up with new ideas, and then enjoy eating the results,” he says. “The term ‘clean eating’ has become somewhat overused – to me, it just means eating food that’s free from artificial additives, added sugar, and is generally more natural and healthy.”
“It’s food as it naturally should be, and there’s a market for it,” says Paula Donaldson, co-founder of new Whitley Bay cafe and juice bar Pulp Fiction. Paula and her fellow founders Rose Duncan and Michael Faulkner have experienced for themselves positive effects of a plant-based diet, from weight loss to alleviated asthma and IBS, and though anecdotal, such potential benefits are a big draw.
“People of all ages are becoming more aware of the dangers of sugar and processed food, and might be taking steps towards eating more healthily even if they can’t do it all the time – we do a lot of post-gym takeaway dinners,” says Rose.
“Of course some people walk in, see we don’t have scones or bacon, and walk out. But a lot of people are travelling here especially – vegetarians, vegans, those on gluten- or lactose- free diets, or just people who are interested in what we’re doing.”
Yet food trends are as fickle as any fashion. Pontification about whether the avocado – the most photographed food on Instagram – is ‘overcado’ may represent the height of media navel-gazing but there’s no doubt that the smugness of #eatclean is crying out for a backlash.
Australia’s Belle Gibson caused more than a stir in the wellness-blogosphere when the life-threatening cancer her diet had purportedly beaten back turned out to be a complete fabrication.
Indeed, the nutritional pseudo-science that the trend can attract often proves bogus at best, and dangerous at worst: cutting out multiple types of food may improve the health of one person, but lead to malnutrition in another. The psychological implications have also begun to be flagged up, with multiple references in recent months to ‘orthorexia nervosa’ – a term coined in 1997 by Dr Steven Bratman to describe a compulsive fixation with healthy eating that is, in effect, a “a disease disguised as a virtue”.
“We don’t count calories, we’re not about ‘looking good naked’ – clean eating is about good, whole food and plenty of it,” argues Paula. “It’s true that some people can become obsessed about what they’re putting into their bodies, but for us, what we promote is putting goodness into your body, with the shortest possible distance from food source
And countering the assertion that regimented diets might threaten food culture by taking the joy out of eating – and more importantly, eating together as a form of social bonding – there is, in a very 21st Century way, a strong online community of blogs and forums where clean eaters offer each other advice and support through recipes, tips and success stories. Organised online but active in real life, veggie and vegan meetup groups are mushrooming across the UK, bringing like-minded people together for meals out, festivals, potlucks and more. Taking pleasure in the food you do eat – clean, naked, vegan or otherwise – should never be a dirty habit.
“Eating food in its most natural state isn’t a fad,” says Paula. “It’s just food to give you a future.”