If you've ever looked up healthy recipes on Pinterest or turned to Instagram for some fitness inspiration, then you've probably seen recipes and foods called or tagged as "clean eating." Generally speaking, clean eating is a term used to describe a diet of whole foods that have been minimally processed.
I have a history of disordered eating, but I've been in recovery and treatment for a while and I feel like I'm in a pretty good place when it comes to my relationship with food. Plus, unlike so many of those self-proclaimed fitness experts on Instagram, I actually know what I'm taking about when it comes to diet and exercise. I've taken college nutritional courses (and aced them, thank you very much), and passed both my personal training and group exercise certifications. I know what nutrients fuel the body best, and what sources of food are great for getting those nutrients.
So when my editor asked if anyone would be willing to try clean eating for a week, I volunteered. I was curious to see what this trend was about, and I wanted to see how I could consciously try to eat only healthy things for a week, given my complicated history with food.
Honestly, I thought this would be a simple assignment. I already consider myself to be a pretty healthy eater. I shop the outside of the grocery store, because it's where my favorite foods are, I don't really care for the taste of bread, and I'm the person who brings a bag of fresh cherries into the movie theater instead of buying candy. With the exception of weekend desserts and my addiction to diet soda, I thought eating clean would be a cakewalk, minus the cake part.
But it turns out "eating clean" isn't easy. And if you're already in recovery for ED, it can be a slippery slope towards letting disordered habits creep back in.
Day one of clean eating started off like any other day for me. I made my usual breakfast of egg whites, spinach, and goat cheese with a side of fruit and nut butter (delicious). My first hurdle came when it was time to make my coffee. Usually, I take it with milk and Splenda, but because it's an artificial sweetener, Splenda's not "clean" by any stretch of the imagination. I rooted around and found some honey to sub in, but honey in coffee tastes like garbage. I realized I needed to find a natural sweetener stat, otherwise I wouldn't last the week.
Other than that, the day was boring. I made a salad with fruit and nuts for lunch, and took the time to grill my own chicken instead of using the prepackaged stuff I usually buy to save me time. I snacked on a banana. Dinner was turkey with butternut squash noodles and homemade tomato sauce. Why are people always bragging about #cleaneating online? This was a totally normal weekday for me.
On Day 2, I started to remember why eating healthy is a challenge for so many. I woke up with a sore throat and a big work deadline, and all I wanted was a diet soda to help me cope.
I set out on this experiment thinking perhaps I could smugly declare myself Team #CleanEating forever. But if that requires breaking up with soda, count me out.
I'm in a committed relationship with both Coke Zero and Diet Coke. I'm usually pretty good about limiting my intake to the weekends. (I don't drink alcohol, so a tall glass of Coke Zero is to me what a cocktail is for others). But when I'm stressed out or not feeling well, only cold carbonation will do.
But Diet Coke and Coke Zero are artificially sweetened with aspartame, which is delicious, but definitely not clean. I forced myself to sip seltzer water with my eyes closed and tried to pretend it was Coke, but like masturbation versus sex, the real deal is just better. I set out on this experiment thinking perhaps I could smugly declare myself Team #CleanEating forever. But if that requires breaking up with soda, count me out.
I was happily making my coffee with stevia and milk when my partner came along and ruined my morning. "Oh, you can have milk?" he said. "I didn't think that counted as clean." If my life were a movie, this is where the sound guys would edit in a loud "stop the record" scratch.
No one seems to have any idea what "clean eating" actually is.
I've never had a problem with eating dairy and still thinking of myself as a healthy eater. It's also important for me to eat calcium because I went through premature menopause as a result of my premature ovarian failure, which makes me prone to osteoporosis. And beyond that, there have been studies that say eating full fat diary can lower your chances of developing heart disease. But clean eating does require that foods be minimally processed, and milk is most definitely processed. Could I eat dairy and call myself a clean eater?
To find out, I did the worst possible thing when you need a clear answer: I asked my friends on the internet. People had different opinions as to whether dairy was considered "clean": Some said yes, some said no. The conversation made me feel like I was failing at this assignment. Also, no one seems to have any idea what "clean eating" actually is.
In an effort to be helpful after what will forever be known as Milkgate, my partner brought home some homemade potato chips from the deli. "Potatoes, oil, salt." he declared proudly, offering me the bag. "They're clean."
I opened my mouth to give him a verbal beat own, because who eats potato chips and call themselves a healthy eater? Then I remembered exactly who does: My favorite celeb mom/model/awesome human Chrissy Teigen. When she released her cookbook Cravings, she got some criticism from people who thought her healthy recipes weren't healthy enough, prompting her to reveal her super simple definition of clean eating: "Food without 1000 ingredients." And then she said this:
If it's good enough for Luna's mom, it's good enough for me. Those chips were amazing.
For me, the worst thing about trying to eat a clean diet wasn't avoiding chocolate or eating veggies. It was making food. I realized that 90% of the time when I eat something that's processed, it's not because I'm craving it; it's because I'm in a hurry and eating processed foods saves time and money. I'm lucky that I work from home, so I have time to cook eggs and prepare salads or wraps instead of having to grab a frozen entree or buy something for lunch. But when I'm super busy, I often scarf down a processed granola bar instead of cutting up a cucumber or something that would be considered clean.
When we hashtag our photo of microgreens with free-range chicken and vegan dressing with #cleaneating, if we're going to be totally honest, we should be tagging it #privileged too.
As much as the health and wellness community on social media promotes clean eating as something that everyone should do because it's supposedly good for you, the concept is inherently pretty classist. Not everyone has the time to prepare fresh food for themselves, and there's a significant cost associated with buying fresh produce. And don't even get me started on what your household budget would look like if you only bought organic. When we hashtag a photo of microgreens with free-range chicken and vegan dressing with #cleaneating, if we're going to be honest we should be tagging it #privileged too.
Although I went into the experiment hoping to reassure myself that I was in a good place with my ED recovery , today I realized that wasn't the case. I got onto the scale this morning, only to discover that I hadn't lost any weight this week. Perhaps more importantly, I was disappointed that I hadn't lost any weight. Even though I didn't take on this experiment to try to lose weight, I guess part of me secretly hoped that eating clean was code for being on a weight loss diet. Turns out old habits die hard.
I think that clean eating might be great for people who want to eat a nutrient rich diet. But if you're someone like me who's prone to disordered eating habits, the line between clean eating and disordered eating can get a little fuzzy if you're not really careful. There's even a type of eating disorder called orthorexia, where a person becomes obsessed and fixated on eating healthy foods. While clean eating and orthorexia aren't the same thing, for someone like me who's had issues with disordered eating in the past, I can see how clean eating could reach that tipping point.
Being thin and taking care of yourself aren't the same thing.
Despite my better judgment, I know part of me still buys into the concept that healthy = thin. But here I was, making food choices based on what was best for me nutritionally, and I wasn't losing weight. I felt healthier eating clean. I slept great, my skin was clear and I didn't have my usual afternoon energy slump. But "clean eating" doesn't necessary mean the same thing as "weight loss plan."
Being thin and taking care of yourself aren't the same thing. I know this firsthand, but I sometimes still need sometime to wrap my head around it. This is part of being in recovery. Food is part of life and will never go away, so I'm proud of myself for trying this experiment to see how I handled it. But I know that for me personally, clean eating isn't the best way to manage my food intake.
By Day 7, I was so over this experiment. Not because I found it particularly hard to "eat clean," but because I don't like the way our wellness culture has become so competitive and punitive. My ED recovery aside, I felt like it was too easy to compare myself to other people's clean diets and find myself lacking. And I never did figure out where dairy fits in to clean eating, if at all.
Having to scour the ingredients on a box of food or think about whether my meal ticks off the boxes on a clean eating checklist is just too close to some of my old disordered eating habits for comfort
Before this experiment, I didn't really think of foods as "clean" or "dirty", and going forward I'm not going to worry about whether what I eat would qualify as clean to anyone. Having to scour the ingredients on a box of food or think about whether my meal ticks off the boxes on a clean eating checklist is just too close to some of my old disordered eating habits for comfort. I'm not saying that clean eating is wrong for everyone, or that people who eat clean have an eating disorder. It's just not a good choice for me personally.
I'm a big believer in moderation, and I don't want to be made to feel like I'm "dirty" as opposed to "clean" if I choose to eat a cheeseburger and fries. So after this experiment was over, that's exactly what I did. After all, any food can be clean if you wipe your chin afterwards.
If you struggle with disordered eating, please seek professional help or call the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) helpline at 1-800-931-2237.