The Dirt on Clean Eating
Is it just me or is our culture sending a bit of a confusing message lately? On the one hand, the body positive movement is gaining momentum every day. On the other hand, the societal message that we must “eat clean” has never been more pervasive. This creates a rather puzzling cultural dynamic. And nowhere is the message louder than on social media. Food bloggers have sprung up in record numbers lately. One need only take to instagram to see five million pictures of acai bowls and chia pudding. An interesting twist? A not-insignificant number of these bloggers have publicly spoken about past struggles with disordered eating. The pictures tend to be gorgeous, but what is the message towards recovery here? I find it somewhat puzzling when people label their pictures with #edrecovery, directly followed by #cleaneating. Now I am certainly not a dietician, but I am a psychologist who has worked in several inpatient eating disorder treatment centers. From everything that I have seen and learned, recovery and “clean eating” typically cannot coexist peacefully.
Because what is clean eating exactly? A quick google search of the term yields a plethora of definitions:
“At its simplest, clean eating is about eating whole foods, or "real" foods — those that are un- or minimally processed, refined, and handled, making them as close to their natural form as possible.” (fitnesscenter.com)
“Clean eating back to the natural health food movement of the 1960s, which shunned processed foods for the sake of moral and societal values (rather than health and nutrition issues)” (cookinglight.com)
“It is not a diet; it’s a lifestyle approach to food and its preparation, leading to an improved life. It means choosing organic whenever possible, drinking lots of water, and avoiding anything high in sugar and anything fried.” (cleaneatingmag.com)
“Clean eating includes structuring your diet to get proper nutrition, help manage diseases, avoid developing diseases in the first place, lose weight, remove toxins, and just feel better.” (dummies.com)
Seriously? How is it possible that something so talked about can have no agreed upon definition? One thing is for sure- those definitions do not sound particularly conducive to recovering from a disorder that involves a focus on manipulating food intake and weight. In fact, the definitions above suggest that clean eating appears to very much skirt the line between diet and disorder. Indeed, the term Orthorexia has been coined to describe an eating disorder that involves an obsessive pursuit of pure and clean eating, to the detriment of one’s happiness, functioning, and at times, health.
So what is a recovery warrior to do? I would strongly argue that clean eating is not something to pursue when in recovery, ESPECIALLY early recovery. Perhaps individuals who are not prone to eating disorders can “eat clean” and get away with it, but when you are in recovery, their diet is your eating disorder. It’s an important mantra to keep in mind, given the aforementioned cultural wave. So when you feel the pull to begin engaging in chatter about wholesome and pure ingredients, repeat to self :“Their diet is my eating disorder.” And make no mistake, clean eating does fit under the umbrella of diet. Recovery, true recovery, involves letting go of dietary restrictions and rules. The idea is to break the rules that ED created for you. Clean eating is restrictive. It simply is. And trying to eat clean may just be leaving the door open for ED to slowly weasel back in and morph those rules into being more and more restrictive and problematic.
So the dirt on clean eating? My vote is stay away warriors. Recovery means eating for nourishment, eating what makes you feel good, and eating in a way that helps your emotional and mental well-being. That can involve both sweets and salads. Freedom from rules and obsession is the goal, and getting back to living your life is the reward. And life should be fun, imperfect, and messy. Not clean.