I’ve been struck recently by the proliferation of #eatclean and associated hashtags on social media. And I admit, it angers me. The clean eating’, ‘fitspo’ and other extreme ‘health’ or diet trends seem as distorted to me as full blown anorexia or bulimia. It might do a good job of masquerading as health, but really, if you can’t sit down and eat with friends and family, I question how ‘healthy’ your lifestyle really is.

You might ask why it bothers me. Why don’t I just unfollow, ignore it, live and let live. Well, if you choose an extremely healthy diet because it is a true health decision or a moral choice, not driven by societal pressure or inner guilt or compulsion, fine. However for many with active eating disorders, or who are in recovery, the old ‘clean eating’ movement offers the perfect (often subconscious) mask to continue with disordered behaviours, avoid challenging fears around foods, and to maintain some form of restriction. In short, you can ‘eat clean’ and convince yourself and the world that you are ‘healthy’ or getting better, but remain very tied to your eating disorder. You continue to appease the critical voice by only eating a select group of foods or follow very specific nutritional requirements. You still can’t eat with others, because your restricted diet (now based on pseudo-health claims) doesn’t allow it. You may even be a healthier weight, but if you’re still so utterly terrified of ‘bad’ fats, sugar or refined carbs you can’t eat a piece of birthday cake, then whatever the reasons you give for that choice, how emotionally healthy is that? It’s not the definition of freedom I’d like to aim for.

And honestly, from an aesthetic point of view, most people really don’t want to see your kale and spinach smoothie or your bowl of overnight oats. I especially don’t want to know that you did a 15k run on a paltry bowl of berries and non-fat high protein yoghurt, before I’d even dragged myself out of bed for my regular cup of tea (cows milk, if you’re interested).

It is incredibly easy for those of us who have a tendency towards rigid behaviour aimed at gaining a sense of control, or who are plagued by a general sense of guilt or uncertainty, to fall into this trap. It also feeds the competitive mindset which is so common in eating disorders. I’m not immune from this. If I were, perhaps I wouldn’t care so much. But it pushes my buttons. I often feel guilty that I’m not buying into the ‘clean eating’ trend even though I can see it is almost the same as an eating disorder. Veganism, too, is a lifestyle choice I am often tempted to move closer towards. And here, I can see the moral arguments. I get it. But would it be healthy for me emotionally? Definitely not. I know myself well enough to know that for me, it would be a dangerous move. And the thing that concerns me is how a black and white, restrictive mindset has increasingly seeped into popular culture. The line between an eating disorder and so called ‘healthy’ eating is becoming terrifyingly blurred. I think it probably indicates a bigger, social problem, but that’s a topic for another post.

I’m not against healthy food at all, I love colourful veg and whole-grains as much as the next person. But absolute rules are not helpful. We might not like the ‘food is fuel’ analogy but it is true. I might have turned up my nose at the idea when a dietitian first suggested it, and I definitely don’t emotionally believe it or always apply it to myself, but there really are no good and bad foods. I wouldn’t judge someone else for enjoying a croissant for breakfast once in a while, or for eating chocolates, or ice cream. It is nice to be able to join in a summer barbecue or drink mulled wine at Christmas. To me, recovery – and health – is about no longer being scared of food. It is making choices based on what our bodies need nutritionally and maybe even just what we fancy. And that’s what I’m aiming for, even if I’m not sure how to get there a lot of the time.

So before you pat someone on the back for their green smoothie, think again.

Join the conversation! 7 Comments

  1. Whilst I understand your post and your reference to veganism in regard to disordered eating, especially if a person struggles with rigid control issues, please understand that vegans aren’t necessarily on some health binge. Some prefer to reduce the suffering of animals rather than eat at ease in a restaurant or have ice-cream with their friends.

    I would absolutely not recommend veganism to someone with food issues but please don’t lump it in with fitspo.

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    • Hey Olivia. I can’t talk for Emma, but it didn’t appear to be bashing veganism. She said if it’s for moral reasons she hasn’t got a problem, but I understand all too well what she was trying to say. Nothing wrong with veganism (except it’s been shown that vegans have a lower life expectancy than vegetarians) if it’s done for moral reasons. I thin for weight loss it’s questionable. I understand her temptation. I am constantly tempted by it, or paleo, or anything that would help me restrict my eating. I know that. I battle with it. I think ‘ooh, if I was vegan, then evil cheese would be out of my life’ but I am recovered from an eating disorder. Except it’s a bit like an addiction and that temptation never goes away.

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    • Hi Olivia. Thanks for your comment. Just to clarify, I completely respect veganism as a lifestyle choice and have a lot of sympathy with the ethical and environmental reasons for it. My concern is that for some, it can be used as a smoke screen for continued restriction of food choices, and ultimately feeds the psychological issues which drive eating disorder behaviour. This isn’t the case for everyone of course. I hope that makes sense.

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  2. Hit the nail on the head Emma.
    I’ve had mental health problems for years. Like yu I blog about my recovery and how creativeness has helped me deal with more difficult aspects. My main problem is Major Depressive Disorder. However, since my teens I have struggled with my weight and my body image. When I was 16, I threw my dinner up into binbags and threw them out to avoid tell tale signs in the toilet.

    It didn’t take over until I was in my late 20s and in a very abusive relationship. I lost control of everything else in my life, so I controlled my eating. It started out as me promising myself 2 normal meals a day and throwing up my main meal. It wasn’t enough. Quickly it progressed to throwing up all meals- I never binged, I hated that lack of control, but I hated feeling in any way full even more. Eventually, I was eating a punnet of raspberries and a tuna lunchpot a day.

    I pulled myself out of the situation and eventually addressed my eating. Although I saw a GP most months to review my antidepressants, he never once mentioned the fact I had dropped over two stone in a year.

    Even after I started to eat properly again, I had my list of ‘safe’ foods. That took even longer to shake and it still stays with me. Proper exercise was the only thing that helped me in the end. It taught me that fuel in equals results out. After training, I enjoyed eating what I wanted, because I knew I could with the exercise and the healthier approach.I soon realized that fuel i meant results out. I loved my muscular frame. That’s muscular, not razorblade hips. For the first time in my adult life, I was happy with how I looked. I even accepted going up a clothes size because it was muscle and it represented hard work. It broke my heart when on my sports team’s forum I suddenly started to see ‘Eating is Cheating’ rhetoric. I raised the alarm, but was accused of hysteria.

    Now I feel out of control again. I can’t afford to play roller derby anymore, ESA claimants can pretty much only afford a hand to mouth existence. I have struggled again recently with my body. Sometimes on bad days I know I’m going to make myself sick before I even finish my lunch. As you know, that cycle of disgust perpetuates. I am trying hard to control it. I always described my eating disorder as an addiction- an addiction to control when all else seems beyond you.

    So thankyou for your honesty. It’s brave, and it helps people, so keep it up. Much love ❤

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    • Thank you for sharing your experiences. I find it horrendous that your GP didn’t pick up on your weight loss and am very glad you were able to make steps towards recovery even in the absence of formal help. It can be a much more difficult battle in these circumstances. It is great that you found exercise helpful in recovery – I have a similar experience with running (not long distances but it helps me to connect to the need to fuel my body properly). If you are struggling at the moment maybe speak to your GP about a referral for some kind of talking therapy? Services have come a long way in the last few years and it may be helpful. Take care.

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  3. I think this quite a reasonable response to the dark side of the “clean” eating craze. There’s definitely some overlap between this movement and the diet industry. Of course, it’s possible for people to follow healthy diets by drawing inspiration from what I believe are well-meaning attempts to counteract the plethora of processed, nutrient-poor foods available today. It’s hard to avoid them. I’ve suffered from an eating disorder and continue to have serious body image issues. I’ve had to be very careful about how I think about food. It shouldn’t be a source of anxiety. While self-awareness is necessary in order to avoid going too far with restrictive eating, people who suffer from eating disorders are already prone to obsessing about food. When they don’t get the outcomes they seek, it’s easy to blame oneself for not conforming to rules. I suspect that a lot of people get sucked into what is essentially dieting under the guise of clean eating. I don’t hear many people talking about that, so thanks for this.

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    • Thanks for your concern. I’m healthier and happier than I’ve ever been! Regular exercise and a nutritious diet are critical to maintaining one’s health – this is one thing I believe is true for everyone regardless of weight as many people who aren’t considered overweight aren’t particularly healthy. I could be a thin smoker but by no means does that mean I’m healthy. Humans today are far more sedentary than our bodies are designed for, so I think it’s good for public policy to encourage people to develop strength, flexibility, and endurance. The problem, in my view, is the messaging we get from the media and the food and beauty industries. Females in particular are under intense pressure. In the face of so many confusing studies I prefer a common sense approach. Our bodies are the vehicles that get us around from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed. If we want to feel good, have energy, and function properly, we need to give it the conditioning and fuel it needs. They’re machines, really. I do think we should spend less time reading about calories and more time listening to our bodies and thinking about the value of the food we put in our mouths. It takes a lot of dedication, though. Best of luck to you!

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About Little_Em

www.progressnotperfection.co.uk

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Eating Disorders, Recovery

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