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.