• "Sometimes it feels that diets are becoming a gateway for being a good person, a disciplined person who has an air of clean-eating ‘holiness’..." (Corbis RF Stills/Getty)
The rise in #cleaneating and food snaps on Instagram has given rise to 'smugness' among some dieters, experts say, and it’s not helping anyone.
By
Alana Schetzer

19 Jul 2017 - 2:22 PM  UPDATED 19 Jul 2017 - 2:22 PM

No sugar. Fructose-only sugar. Paleo - no wheat, dairy or pasta, please. Vegan. Raw vegan.

Eating - the very simple concept of providing fuel for our body - has never been more complicated or exhausting. It’s a rare person who doesn’t have at least one friend who espouses their current eating plan as the ‘best thing they’ve ever done’.

Healthy food or dieting trends are no always just about what you put in - or leave out - of your mouth. Sometimes it feels that diets are becoming a gateway for being a good person, a disciplined person who has an air of clean-eating ‘holiness’ that comes hand-in-hand with a tight backside and stellar recipe for bliss balls.

“Sometimes it’s motivating for people to hear all about your diet and other times it makes other people feel really bad about themselves because they’re not as ‘dedicated’.”

This ‘smugness’ has infiltrated mainstream culture and it’s getting harder to swallow, some experts say.

“There’s certainly an element of smugness with some people, who are expressing it as part of who they are. When they show us pictures on social media of what they eat, and how much time they spent on preparing it - they’re telling us something about themselves as a person,” says Fiona Sutherland, an accredited dietitian with Body Positive Australia.

Going on about your exciting new diet to your friends, she adds, may send a different message than the one intended. “Sometimes it’s motivating for people to hear all about your diet and other times it makes other people feel really bad about themselves because they’re not as ‘dedicated’.”

As is the case with many current dieting trends, there may be an emphasis on cutting out certain food groups and highlighting others as ‘super’ foods that have so-called near-magical powers. This emphasis on such subjective “good” and “bad” foods can also create distorted attitudes to eating, says Zoe Nicholson, an accredited dietitian with Figureate Consulting.

Comment: Please quit the diet talk
Food can be celebratory or perfunctory, lavish or frugal, fast or slow. But it can never be the measure of your worth as a human being. If you still want to ‘go on a diet’ that’s up to you, but there’s no need to evangelise to others.

Improving your eating habits through a diet should improve your connection to quality food and ingredients, rather than create an untenable negative relationship with good food. “It sometimes [creates] a false sense of connection,” she explains.

A quick glance on Instagram shows an avalanche of images that might have the intention to correlate a person’s choice in food with their lifestyle, and themselves. If someone drinks a green smoothie for breakfast and doesn’t snack, the unspoken suggestion might be that they’re simply better than everyone else.

That's how it comes across to me, for instance. There's something infuriating about seeing a highly-produced, filter-heavy photo on Instagram featuring a close-up of chia pudding or an avocado smoothie that’s heavy on the subtext “I’m so good”. I find it far from inspiring, and more an exercise in showing off that person's figure and designer leggings than a lesson in healthy eating.

“We live in a very appearance-driven culture and we live in a culture that has this idea that if something appears a certain way, then we’re somehow better. But it doesn’t work that way in real life." 

Nicholson says this connection between food and identity is not only misguided but sometimes, it can be harmful.

“We live in a very appearance-driven culture and we live in a culture that has this idea that if something appears a certain way, then we’re somehow better. But it doesn’t work that way in real life.

“When you attached value and a sense of virtue to those food choices, we’re heading down a very slippery slope. Some people are really vulnerable to those messages and it feeds their disorders.”

Nigella Lawson, the “Domestic Goddess” herself, has slammed the “moral superiority” that some food or diet trend advocates try to link their eating with values.

"What I don't like about clean-eating is that it really seems to be indicative of a view that finds eating dirty, shameful, impure, something to disapprove of or to fear," she told crowds at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2015.

"I also don't like - some people, not everyone does this - the smugness that goes with it. Everyone is entitled to eat as they wish. I don't mind at all, as long as nobody stops me eating what I want I would never interfere with anyone else's eating patterns.”

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The other problem with this food ‘smugness’ and link to identity is that it ignores that fact that many people want to eat well, but there are a plethora of reasons for why this doesn’t happen: lack of time, multiple dietary needs in the one household, lack of cooking skills and education.

There’s also cost. Food is expensive, especially in regional and isolated communities, where a packet a chips can be much cheaper than a head of broccoli.

“We don’t talk about the affordability and access issue to healthy food enough,” Nicholson says.

“A lot of people don’t have access to those types of food and a lot of people struggle to eat well, not necessarily because they’re uneducated, but because they don’t have access, or you’ve got people under a lot of financial stress. Inequality is one the biggest issues in getting people to eat more healthily.”

“The only good diet you should be on is a social media diet. I don’t follow anyone who makes me feel bad about myself - that’s my version of keeping things clean.”

While both Nicholson and Sutherland are encouraged by the upswing in people’s interest in nutrition, they say that interest needs to be balanced by an assurance that people are getting enjoyment from their meals.

For those seeking salvation through food, Sutherland says there’s only one diet that works: an online one, meaning that people should consider restricting how much they obsess over other people’s social media dieting successes.

“The only good diet you should be on is a social media diet. I don’t follow anyone who makes me feel bad about myself - that’s my version of keeping things clean.”

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