Victoria Beckham has eaten the same dinner daily for 25 years. That’s not ‘clean’ eating

Everyone knows ‘clean eating’ is just dieting rebranded for the Instagram generation

"I love to cook for my kids, I love to cook for my parents, I love to cook for my friends," footballer David Beckham told restaurateur Ruthie Rogers on her podcast, River Café Table 4 recently.

Attentive listeners may have noticed there was someone missing from this list: his wife Victoria. He went on to reveal the reason why. “I get quite emotional about food and wine, when I’m eating something great I want everyone to try it. Unfortunately, I’m married to someone that has eaten the same thing for the last 25 years. Since I’ve met Victoria, she only eats grilled fish, steamed vegetables. She’ll very rarely deviate away from there. The only time that she’s ever probably shared something that’s been on my plate was actually when she was pregnant with Harper. It was the most amazing thing. It was one of my favourite evenings. Can’t remember what it was, but I know she’s not eaten it since.”

The revelation that the woman formerly known as Posh Spice has eaten practically nothing but fish and vegetables for dinner for 25 years led to a slew of “eat like Victoria” articles, including a segment on ITV’s This Morning. The response oscillated between pity, faux outrage and sneaking admiration for her discipline. Nutritionists were wheeled out to debate the merits of restricted eating (verdict: fish good; lack of variety bad.) Some of the commentary focused on how she shouldn’t be shamed for what is obviously an eating disorder.

Though Victoria Beckham spoke about the importance of family meal times, the word that she uses most often to describe her own diet is 'clean'

Let’s deal with that first. It is, of course, deeply problematic to diagnose an eating disorder in anyone else, especially someone who has spent years fending off unwelcome commentary on every aspect of her weight and her diet. In the 1990s, she was cruelly dubbed Skeletal Spice and later wrote about her struggles with obsessive eating habits in her book, Learning to Fly. The level of attention given to every pronouncement made by a female celebrity on her diet is also boringly predictable.

Still, she did invite commentary on it during her own outing on the same podcast last September, when she spoke for 30 minutes about her approach to food, a topic that she must have known would attract scrutiny – especially in the wake of a worrying post-lockdown rise in eating disorders. This is, after all, Victoria Beckham we're talking about. Nothing she does is by accident.

She is, she explained, “a very fussy eater” and a “very, very disciplined” person who likes “things cooked in a very simple way. I don’t like oils and sauces and butters. To most restaurants, I’m probably the worst nightmare.”

Having listened to both episodes, I was left feeling slightly depressed. Sharing a meal with the people you love is, for David Beckham as well as many other people, one of the single greatest pleasures of life. So many of the happy memories he described were tied up in food – from the jellied eels he loved as a child to the British wagyu steak he recently barbecued for himself on a Saturday afternoon and enjoyed with a glass of expensive wine. But not so much, it seems, for Victoria. Though she spoke about the importance of family meal times and has previously talked about how important it is that her kids see her “eat healthily”, the word that she uses most often to describe her own diet is “clean”.

“Clean”, in the context of food, is a word that makes me want to hurl a wheatgrass shot at the nearest wellness influencer. Clean suggests food is not a source of pleasure, but something dirty, base, shameful, suspicious, animal, uncontrolled. Her list of unclean foods seems to include all forms of dairy, which she doesn’t touch; sugar, which she assiduously avoids; and red meat, which she hasn’t eaten since she was seven. The only sauce she likes is balsamic vinegar, and in restaurants, she insists on doing the seasoning herself. If you’re wondering what she eats when she needs cheering up, the answer is wholegrain toast with salt.

Beckham explained that her “very, very disciplined diet” evolved during her Spice Girls days as a response to the demands she was making on her body. “Very quickly I came to the conclusion that unless I adapted a very healthy way of eating I would be just more inclined to sit there and eat the entire contents of the bread basket which when you’re eating out regularly is probably not the healthiest, not when you’re on tour and you’re expecting so much from your body.”

To her credit, she meticulously avoided any mention of dieting, weight or body image or appearance, even though everyone knows “clean eating” is just a more socially acceptable word for dieting. Instead she contextualised her eccentric and stultifyingly dull diet as core to her identity. “It’s who I am” she said, more than once, a claim which has more than a ring of truth. “I expect a lot from myself being a working mum of four children. I work out a lot and I eat very, very healthily, that’s just who I am.”

Good for her, I guess. Still, for anyone of roughly her vintage, it was hard not to immediately place this attitude to food in the context of the horrific scrutiny of female celebrities in the 1990s, an era when eating disorders were as essential a part of the package as an Instagram account and your own make-up line is today. "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels", Kate Moss is reputed to have said, and as teenagers, we repeated that admiringly to one another, as though we would finally know true happiness if we could only 'work up the discipline' to maintain an eating disorder.

At a time when women were put under relentless pressure to be thin, and then excoriated the second they started to look too thin, Beckham was daily fodder for the tabloids. It wasn't just the tabloids either: after she had her first child, the Guardian invited a spokesperson for the Royal College of Midwives to speculate on whether she could possibly have lost 'all that weight' through breastfeeding alone. "Posh Spice has a 'starved' look, not normally associated with breastfeeding mothers, who tend to look healthy," she pronounced. On the Chris Evans TV show, shortly after she had given birth and at a time when she was under unbearable daily judgment from the media, he forced her to get up on a scales and weigh herself on live TV. Beckham herself has written about how her confidence was destroyed by a photo that appeared of her in a bikini when she was pregnant; how she barely left her hotel afterwards or sat outside. "Do I relax on the beach in a bikini? No. I am still hugely self-critical," she said in 2017.

Everyone knows 'clean eating' is just dieting rebranded for the Instagram generation

So it’s not at all surprising that a deeply misogynistic culture which alternately mocked, judged and lusted after women in the public eye has left Beckham with complicated feelings about food and her body. But that’s all the more reason why she should know better than to try to normalise what is at best, a very rigid, restrictive approach to food, and at worst a gateway to a life-threatening disorder. After all, one person’s disciplined eating is another’s dysfunctional attitude to food. As a public figure who has successfully built a fashion brand – and someone with 29.4 million followers on Instagram – she understands better than most that her words carry weight, even if her diet of steamed fish and vodka and tonic doesn’t.

The idea that eating the same, extremely restrictive meal every day for 25 years is clean, or evidence of your discipline or the high standards you set yourself as a mother, is one that needs to be roundly debunked for the absolute tosh it is. That’s not clean, it’s cruel self-punishment. If Victoria Beckham had boasted that she has been on a diet for a quarter of a century, it would have attracted far more pity than admiration. But that’s essentially what she’s saying – everyone knows ‘clean eating’ is just dieting rebranded for the Instagram generation.

Clean is fine if you’re talking about kitchen sprays, say, or how you like your clothes to smell when they come out of the washing machine. It’s not a word that should ever be used in the context of food. Food is nutrition, joy, comfort, togetherness, novelty, memories and adventure. Good luck getting that from a slice of wholegrain toast and salt.

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