Clean Living and Clean Eating: Movements for Behavioural Change

Movements that pretend to provide both a moral and hygienic compass always end up referring to the legislator to regulate behaviour. This approach hasn’t changed in 200 years.

Two eras of Clean Living and its effects

The beginning of the era of Clean Living was the popularisation of health concern into a behavioural concept. In the late 18th century, the perception arose that businesspeople who sold goods to consumers weren’t very concerned about the health of the latter. And while there are always reasonable concerns to be raised about the safety of any given product, early writers of “moral” lifestyles did not only care about health issues, but the implication of the action itself. No other than Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) was one of them: in his essay ‘Observations Upon the Influence of the Habitual Use of Tobacco Upon Health, Morals and Property‘, Rush nourished the early anti-tobacco movement, describing it as ‘offensive’, a bad influence on morals and even believed there existed a connection to alcoholism.

But tobacco wasn’t the only adversary of the early Clean Living movement:

“Besides alcohol, substances such as tobacco, tea and coffee were considered harmful in awakening “evil traits”. Men were considered to become debilitated by alcohol and tobacco, and women were believed injured by coffee and tea. Along with temperance reform, anti-tobacco sentiment arose during the first Clean Living Movement.”[1]

Dietary reformers such as Sylvester Graham also included the demonisation of sugar, spices and especially masturbation, which was considered to be a cause of insanity. This was the first movement, the Jacksonian Era Clean Living Movement from 1830 to 1860.

The Clean Living movements uniquely included being political, in that they advocated prohibition and general behavioural policy. What had begun in the 19th century would return at the beginning of the 20th century. The so-called Progressive Era Clean Living Movement used the momentum of the first one and stigmatised the use of alcohol as immoral and dangerous, eventually leading to the 18th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Along came anti-smoking regulations and bans on narcotics. Behavioural moralisers from the Jacksonian Era hadn’t understood what these new progressives utilised: the power of government.

Think about this: until the beginning of the 20th century activists had to convince lawmakers that legislating things like sugar, tea, tobacco, alcohol or sexual activity was a rightful thing to do. They mastered the vocabulary of fear, associating insanity, moral decay, disease aso. with totally unrelated consumption of luxury goods, in order to engrain the idea that “social hygiene” was a goal to aspire to.

In Clean Living Movements: American Cycles of Health Reform, Professor Ruth C. Engs (who is also a staunch advocate of lowering the drinking age in the U.S. today) makes the point that these movements function in a cycle of about 80 years. He further explains that initial goals of a Clean Living Movement don’t end up being the sole ones: the movement started in the 1970s was about anti-tobacco policy, but generated more steam and grasped for more topics along its way.

The suspicion towards the food industry that leads to more regulation

Despite the similarities in the name, the relationship between Clean Eating and Clean Living isn’t self-evident at first. #CleanEating looks more like a symbol of virtue-signalling online, a meaningless term to show off that you have some sort of knowledge about your nutrition. If anything, what would it actually mean to eat clean? When a CNN journalist asked on Twitter what this implies, she got answers like “eating fresh fruits and veggies” or “not eating anything artificial“. The first statement is a reasonable approach to food, in that you should diversify your nutrition, which seems to be the essence of this movement. But there is a problem: the idea that we’re eating “artificial” foods nowadays translates into a deep scepticism towards the food industry and by that, into new technologies.

The clean eaters fervently reject GMO-foods, even though the science in is on genetic modification. Or as the International Council for Science puts it:

“Currently available genetically modified foods are safe to eat. […] Further, there is no evidence of any ill effects from the consumption of foods containing genetically modified ingredients. Since GM crops were first cultivated commercially in 1995, many millions of meals have been made with GM ingredients and consumed by people in several countries, with no demonstrated adverse effects.”

This movement feeds the pseudo-science aspirations, by pretending that it causes gut diseases, that there hasn’t been proper testing (spoiler: there has), by lying about the origins of the scientific studies which have been conducted on GMO’s, or putting out pictures like these:

screen-shot-2017-02-07-at-23-31-06

Even though it is possible that the Clean Eating Movement won’t make its essence about enacting legislation, its influence has already fuelled general distrust in the food industry. In most parts of the world, GMO foods are heavily regulated, rules which are unlikely to change in the near future. If the movement ends with the beginning of the century, then history tells us that it will be back soon, with more ideas for bringing government in the everyday living habits of ordinary people.


[1] Engs. 2011. Clean Living Movements: American Cycles of Health Reform, p. 42, The first Clean Living movement, 1830-1860, [ONLINE]

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