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'Clean Eating Is Just Another Way To Punish Ourselves'

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Rachel Heng’s new novel is set in a dystopian future where wellness culture is law – but, she argues, our health obsession is already dangerous

Last week, Nigella Lawson caused a stir by warning that ‘clean eating fads’ might be disguising eating disorders. ‘People persecute themselves [for] what they do eat and what they don’t eat,’ she said. ‘A lot of so-called healthy eating is
a cover-up for an eating disorder.’ It’s not the first time the TV chef (and fan of night-time fridge raids) has spoken out about the clean eating industry (something that has, in recent years, undeniably become an industry). A few years ago, she also lambasted the term ‘clean eating’ itself, saying it implied that ‘any other form of eating is dirty or shameful’.

The causes and manifestations of eating disorders are complex and multifaceted, so to draw such a direct link between the two feels reductive. But it’s certainly true that the ‘persecution’ surrounding food Nigella identifies has become a reality of our daily lives. There is, as she points out, the loaded and punitive vocabulary that often surrounds wellness: think ‘clean’ eating and ‘cheat’ days, which imply a certain ideal way of life that is puritanical and disciplined. There is also the sense
of competitiveness and prestige that now surrounds all things wellness, fuelled by the constant onslaught of #fitspo Instagram posts that constantly scroll before our eyes.

Indeed, Vogue in recent years declared wellness to be the latest must-have status symbol, observing that, ‘For a growing percentage of individuals with high discretionary income, wellness has become an important part of the luxury lifestyle... just like there are Smart Car types and Porsche types, there are yoga types and boot-camp types; exercise has become another arena to compare and contrast your personality and lifestyle with others.’

I witnessed some of this first-hand while working in a high-pressure finance job in London over the past five years. Most people I knew who didn’t work in the industry seemed to imagine my job involved The Wolf Of Wall Street-type excesses: long liquid lunches, drug-fuelled all-nighters and unrestrained partying. But that culture has more or less disappeared in the last few years.

People still partied, but now the ultimate badge of honour for those with money was to rack up more marathons, Iron Mans and Arctic treks than your colleagues. I had one colleague who regularly made protein shakes in the office pantry, another who biked 10 miles to work every day and back, yet another made a habit of only eating limited portion sizes, as counselled by a nutritionist he had seen. Outside of my company, I met executives who hired in-house chefs to cook meals of the clean-eating variety for their employees. At the conferences I attended, early morning yoga classes
were not an uncommon feature. Fresh juice bars were all the rage.

I couldn’t help but get caught up in it all. An annual check-up one year showed that I had high cholesterol. In this environment, that felt like a personal failure, like an inadequacy of discipline or will. So I soon began an intense regime of yoga and running. I had always hated salads, but I started eating them with fervour. I loved crisps and chocolate, but instead of my daily afternoon bag of Walkers, I was tucking into seaweed crisps, hating every bite. I didn’t follow a ‘clean- eating diet’ per se, as my lifelong love of unhealthy food was simply too difficult to shake. But, while I didn’t have anything close to an eating disorder, there was an element of obsession and self-flagellation involved in my new controlled lifestyle that became strangely addictive.

This culminated in my participation of Oxfam’s annual Trailwalker event – a 100km walk through the South Downs where we raised £7,000 for The Gurkha Welfare Trust. But while I was glad to have contributed, deep down I knew it was not charitable feelings that had made me so determined to participate in this back-breaking event. It was the second long-distance event I’d done that year, and all part of my new-found obsession with what I thought was being healthy. But while on the hike, I developed an inflamed Achilles tendon that would leave me unable to walk or run without taking painkillers. Stubborn as always,I finished the race, but my busted tendon had long-term ramifications.

When the doctor told me I should lay off running and all vigorous exercise for at least a year, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. It was only then that I realised how I had been using guilt and shame as sources of motivation. I suddenly felt lighter, freer and more open to possibility.

I began thinking about what I really found meaningful in life. Eventually, I started writing a dystopian novel set
in a version of New York where life expectancies were 300 years and wellness had become a punishing, competitive sport. Two years later, I sold the book, left my job, and started a masters in creative writing.

The way we persecute ourselves for what we eat and how much we exercise is very real. tHere is a dangerously seductive logic to this noble goal – what could be wrong, after all, with trying to keep ourselves healthy? I often feel, however, that most dystopias start with a utopia, with the shimmering promise of some perfect life. While the immortality that I imagine in Suicide Club is not yet a reality for us, we run the same risk as the gleaming, self-flagellating characters in my novel, of letting our precious lives pass us by as we struggle fruitlessly to extend them.

‘Suicide Club’ by Rachel Heng is out now (£12.99, Sceptre)

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