The woman who knows the dirty truth about clean eating

Alice Barraclough
Daniella Isaacs: 'When did wellness start making us sick?' - All Rights Reserved. Max Lacome, maxlacome.com

From spiralizing courgettes to religiously making that 7am spinning class, the wellness industry has us ordering charcoal bread for brunch and rushing to the gym in our lunch breaks, just because clean-eating bloggers promise us that we too can get abs like them if we change our lifestyles.

With more than 13 million posts on Instagram, #wellness is three times larger than the worldwide pharmaceutical industry. Its cheerleaders are Gwyneth Paltrow and Belle Gibson, the Australian blogger who claimed she beat cancer with healthy eating.

But could this gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, fat-free (fun-free) life actually be doing more harm than good? And is sticking to a diet limited to so few food groups a recipe for illness, rather than health and happiness, as we’re led to believe?

Daniella Isaacs, 27, joined the cult of contemporary wellness in 2014. She ran 5k every single day and followed endless recipes promising positivity, empowerment and perfectly toned abs. She even wrote for some of the world’s most well-known wellness brands. She became ultra-obsessed with being “healthy”.

But after two years of extreme anxiety, fragile bones and no periods, Isaacs is speaking out against the social media feeds selling #fitspiration and #fatburnersupersmoothies. In a new one-woman show called Hear Me Raw, she asks: when did wellness start making us sick?

I can track the date that I fell down the wellness hole on my Instagram account

Daniella Isaacs

After completing her degree at Bristol University, Isaacs went on to study acting at the Oxford School of Drama and, afterwards, created a successful two-man show called Mush and Me, which took her from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival all the way to the mecca of wellness – Australia. It was here that she started becoming hyper-aware of the way she felt physically.

“I can track the date that I fell down this wellness hole on my Instagram account,” she admits. “The first morning I woke up [in Australia], I was like: ‘Well, I don’t know what to do, I don’t have any friends and I’ve got two months here to perform this show that I’ve done already for a month.’ I had lots of free time so I thought I should go to the gym.

“I then started googling online what food would make me feel even ‘better’. I read the ‘rules’ and I lost weight, which as a by-product meant I was healthy. But then I started getting compliments and validation – and when you’re not really getting validation from elsewhere in your life, it becomes a very addictive thing to cling on to.”

Even though Isaacs claims she wasn’t sporty as a child – in fact, when she was at school she would hide in the locker rooms and pretend she had a period every time there was a swimming lesson – she suddenly became addicted to going to the gym and how she looked.

“I was obsessed,” she confesses. “There wasn’t a day where I wouldn’t run. So when I came home [to London] a few people – my sister, especially – were like, ‘You’re too thin, what are you doing?’ And, I’d be like ‘I’m well - this is wellness.’”

Ruled by when she should eat and exercise – “If you had said to me, at the time, ‘Daniella, we need to meet at 8 o’clock’, I would freak out, worrying about when I’m going to have breakfast and when I’m going to go to the gym” – Isaacs cut gluten out from her diet (because she’s coeliac), then she cut out dairy, sugar and, finally, meat.

About | Clean eating

Before leaving Australia, Isaacs dipped her toe in lifestyle journalism and started writing a couple of hotel reviews. The last place she reviewed was a glamorous resort in the Whitsunday Islands, off the coast of Queensland. “I thought I found my place in the world,” she says. “So I got in touch with the wellness brand and they called me in and asked me if I could write recipes. I’ve always been really into food. In fact, I was obsessed with what I was eating.

“They wanted all their recipes to be gluten- and sugar-free, so they ended up paying me quite a lot of money – this un-trained chef – to write 175 recipes. So I became their copywriter, and they’ve now got books filled with my recipes, my words, my advice – and what’s so sad is that no one checks the facts. There’s no responsibility that’s taking place within the wellness industry.”

Isaacs slowly started to question where these brands were getting their information from – Google? Food bloggers? Influencers? “It took me quite a long time, but once I realised their information is not founded on medicine or science and no one actually has an answer, I thought, ‘God, no one knows what they’re doing’. We’ve been absorbed like a religion, looking for answers.”

Unhealthy eating: Isaacs says that taut abs and glowy skin just didn’t bring her happiness Credit:  

From the front line of wellness, Isaacs says that taut abs and glowy skin just didn’t bring her happiness. If, God forbid, she went out with her friends for dinner, she would always choose the restaurant in order to have complete control over the situation. “I got to a point where I’d ring the restaurant beforehand and tell them that I had someone coming – I wouldn’t say it was me – and explain they can’t eat this, this and that. I knew I was doing something wrong because why would I do that on the phone and not in public? There was a sense of shame around it,” she says.

The truth is, Isaacs isn’t alone in this wellness obsession. I have friends that can’t order a normal cheeseburger off a restaurant menu – they have to swap the bread bun in for an avocado and replace the French fries with a salad. I, too, feel guilty if I devour a delicious bowl of pasta knowing that I haven’t gone to the gym that day. The term “clean-eating” has become so loaded and negative. Food should be nourishing and enjoyable, not regimented and moralised to exercise.

“What scares me about this whole thing is that loads of people don’t go to the extremes I went to,” says Isaacs, who was told she was anorexic by her doctor. “Late at night, I would Google: ‘No period, now what?’ and I started reading about orthorexia, which is an eating disorder characterised with an unhealthy obsession with healthy living.”

As a term, orthorexia – coined by Dr Steven Bratman in 1997 – isn’t officially recognised by medical bodies, “but it’s thriving”, says Isaacs.

Anorexia | How to approach someone who you think or know has an eating disorder

So when does healthy eating, or rather “eating clean”, become an eating disorder? And how can we change the sentiment that eating healthy will make you “good”? While there is nothing wrong with eating local, wholesome food or being a vegetarian or vegan, fixating on certain foods and crazy exercise regimes just because someone on Instagram said it will make you healthy should not be condoned.

Isaacs summarises it perfectly with a make-up bag anecdote, she says: “What’s in my make-up bag is different to what’s in yours – we have different skin tones and skin care routines, we have different personalities and like different make-up brands. So what we eat should also be different, because we have different muscle mass and different DNA. No two people should be eating the same diet just because it’s branded as making you ‘well’.”

Hear Me Raw is at London’s Soho Theatre (sohotheatre.com/whats-on/ hear-me-raw) until 21 October