Clean Eating And Feeling Dirty

Have you downed your green juice this morning? Virtuously sipped your turmeric soy latte? Artfully smashed your avocado on gluten free toast? Massaged your kale (yes, really); channelled your chi with chia seeds and executed your sun salutations clad in excruciatingly expensive ‘activewear’? It seems that we currently live in a world where eating disorders dressed up as clean eating are oh so achingly cool.

I work with scores of clients each year suffering from eating disorders. A growing number of them do not fit the stereotype of what what people immediately think of when one says ‘eating disorder’. My post is not about the eating disorders where people starve themselves to emaciation and end up in hospital within an inch of their life. That is not cool. That is Anorexia. What I refer to are the eating disorders that are masked as the latest accessory; comparing oneself with peers and friends on who has made the ‘healthiest’, ‘purest’ and ‘cleanist’ meal. I refer to the ones that claim that they ‘don’t have an eating disorder’; they just don’t eat gluten, sugar, wheat, meat, dairy, eggs or bread except for every other Thursday at 12.06pm. These same people have all admitted, without fail, to really feeling fed up, hungry, depressed, losing their hair and damaging their eyesight from the malnourishment to which they subject their bodies, in an attempt to feel more control of themselves, of their lives and to appear ‘better’ than others.

My post does not, of course, refer to those people who have bonafide allergies and exclude certain food groups under medical direction. Members of my own family and close friends have health problems, which mean they physically cannot eat certain foods without quite painful and unpleasant consequences. I have seen, on numerous occasions, what a real allergic reaction to a food group looks like. This is not being fussy or trying to overly control one area of their life and ‘win’. It is called having a condition.

If you read the papers, watch the news, or scroll through social media, you will know precisely what I mean when I say that the band wagon of ‘clean eating’ is in full swing. Everyone is doing it, right? If you’re not, then you clearly don’t care about yourself or your health. WRONG. Wrong, wrong and wrong again. What is the fuss? Surely promoting healthy eating is a good thing, right? Indeed it is, but as with so many things, it’s a question of balance. This is something that fad diets and self imposed restrictive eating does not achieve.

The concept of ‘clean eating’ is not bad in itself. It advocates eating food in its natural form or as close to its natural form as possible, minimally processed without artificial additives, sweeteners or other nasties. So far, so good. What is not so good is the effective demonisation of foods that don’t fall into (what can be) quite rigidly defined parameters. Why has the clean eating fad become such a phenomenon? In the main, it is because it is the darling of social media. Type in #cleaneating in Instagram and you will be flooded with carefully filtered photographs of goji berry smoothies, porridge with a scattering of cacao nibs and, of course, the worshipped avocado!

Social media reaches out to everyone, but is part of the DNA of the younger generation and some of the advocates of clean eating have, through this use of social media, become celebrities themselves; Deliciously Ella and the Hemsley Sisters to name a few. They are young, glossy and invariably from affluent backgrounds. This is ably demonstrated in their ability to spend inordinate amounts of time in the careful placement of the aforementioned cacao nibs on their porridge, garnished with a nasturtium plucked from the garden that morning. This is then often photographed by a professional and, boom, there it is for you to sigh wistfully at whilst you glance at your own hurriedly thrown together breakfast angrily wiping the dribble of milk from your chin.

What is more, the proponents of clean eating who instruct us to remove wheat, gluten, dairy, sugar and caffeine from our diets more often than not, hold no nutritional qualifications and yet their word is treated as gospel by the more impressionable. Clean eating is the new religion. Certain ingredients are revered above others. They are having their own fashion moment and the best way to achieve this is to bung it into a coffee. Cue the turmeric latte, coconut milk macchiato et al.

Cutting out entire food groups without a medically supported reason is positively unhealthy. You risk missing out on the nutritional benefits that they offer. What is more concerning are the clean eating aficionados, who instil this in their own children. Birthday parties are now full of Hugos and Aramintas who must keep a distance of at least 10 feet from the gluten-laden birthday cake, which they are desperate to sink their teeth into. No problem because Mummy (let’s call her Gwyneth) has given them their own quinoa and courgette cupcake with a carob frosting blessed by the local ayurvedic practitioner. Of course, children need to eat a healthy diet, but it is essential for them to eat a range of nutrients at a time when their bodies are growing so rapidly and, importantly, not develop food hang-ups themselves or grow up wanting to eat *all the food* in rebellion.

The American comedian Chris Rock did a stand up piece about food fads in the Western world. He remarked pointedly that during the famine, you would never hear an Ethiopian say they were food intolerant. Punchy yes. It certainly hits a nerve.

There is a strong argument to suggest that, rather than teaching people to embrace healthy food, it is fostering a positive fear of food. All foods not deemed ‘clean’ must, therefore, be dirty. It is a narrow prescriptive approach to eating. As a result, there has been a dramatic rise in orthorexia, a condition which literally means “fixation on righteous eating.” The term was only introduced in 1997 by an American physician, Steven Bratman. In the young and vulnerable, it can easily tip over into anorexia. The huge irony of this is that the rigid, restrictive approach to eating marketed as clean eating causes people to become ill because they are missing out on the essential nutrients provided by a varied and inclusive diet.

Food is not a fashion accessory. Slavishly following the commandments of the clean eating celebs will not give you their lifestyle. In many cultures food is about the ritual of sharing, celebrating and communing with family and friends. Surely then, the clean eating Insta crew must suffer from the other phenomenon of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) regarding all the wonderful food they could be enjoying. What happened to baking at home, using fresh ingredients, adding them in yourself to fill your kitchen with the delicious smell of baking and then enjoying your treats (yes, treats) with family and friends, all washed down with a cup of tea? This is not allowed within the rules of clean eating. Going to a coffee shop or out anywhere means pre packing your own snack in tupperware, preferably one you have made yourself, consisting of ‘raw foods’ such as nuts, dates, some form of nut butter and additional superfood powder. This apparently isn’t an eating disorder, even though as much time, if not more will be spent scouring the list of ingredients of products as anorexics do looking at the calories / carbs / fat content.

As a part of my psychotherapy and mental health training, I spent 6 months volunteering within the Priory group; a residential treatment centre for those with addictions and eating disorders. All meals were freshly cooked daily by chefs. They used normal ingredients, potatoes, rice, vegetables, salads, cheese, meat and sugar. The meals were healthy and balanced. The puddings were there to supplement calorie intake but they were there for the other patients to enjoy. And enjoy, they did. I watched people faces instantly light up when they saw their favourite treat, they’d sit down with fellow patients or friends and family to enjoy their favourite sweet treat. Refined sugars and all! The feeling of nostalgia one gets when eating a food from childhood or that evokes happy memories can work wonders for the soul and coincides beautifully with how the more traditional therapies work. I stand by my belief that eating the food you enjoy can work wonders for the mind and body. Your favourite food is like a hug, and although I don’t agree that food should be used to suppress or enhance emotions, I don’t believe it should be used as a punishment either.

The great thing about food is that it is something to be enjoyed; infusing you with vitamins, nourishment and new food discoveries rather than food rejections. Joy replaces fear and living replaces obsession. Anything that people focus on too much can become so habitual, that it can become disordered. This can easily escalate. Amanda Hills, a writer and psychologist who specialises in eating disorders, explains:

“We all know what’s good for us – it’s fruit and vegetables; less of everything and less sugar. If everyone ate like this we wouldn’t be faffing around with things like gluten-free. It has become a thing now. It’s a first world problem.”

Now, where is that nasturtium…

Go Well.

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