The Effects of 'Clean Eating' on Health and Body Image
I'm nervous about putting my thoughts on this subject out here today, but I think we're all entitled to our opinions and I'm sure many of you have an invested interested in the current discussions going on. So here I am wading into this turbulent sea of the clean eating debate.
Monday morning, a colleague who doesn't fully know my dietary intake or why I eat what I eat, excitedly asked me if I had heard about the drama at the weekend on Bee Wilson and Madeleine Shaw - Madeleine Shaw had started crying because she was questioned about the negative affects of the 'clean eating' trend on the public, in particular, young girls. I hadn't and I winced inside as she continued.
Why? Because I've had this problem before. Friends rolling their eyes as they discuss Instagram food hashtags, past colleagues claiming that the idea of diets helping certain conditions being "bullshit" and a general love to hate vibe around wellness bloggers. For this reason, I try to keep what I write about on the low down and will only talk about it to a few select friends. I write about how food is helping with my symptoms, I write about my concerns over the effects of chemicals on endometriosis and I write about exercise, meditation, etc - all the things that are linked heavily with what has been dubbed "clean eating" or "clean living".
I understand the very real and genuine concerns of nutritionists about the affects of "clean eating" and the surrounding culture has on young girls, I appreciate how this can and does feed into a need to control all areas of eating and eating disorders, but I cannot stand the smugness, throwaway comments and ready to wage war attitude that I see cropping up in the media and around me. I especially can't stand it when those who claim it's all bullshit don't know what it's like to live with endometriosis. Who have no idea what the pain feels like if I eat pizza, drink a coffee or eat something sugary whilst on my period or even on a relatively normal day. When I am crying, barely able to stand or unable to stand at all, rushing to find the nearest toilet and unable to sleep for a few nights in a row, it's definitely not bullshit to me.
When I was 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 - all the way up to 24, I starved myself. At the peak of my anorexia I was eating an apple and a diet coke a day, sometimes a cup of soup in the evening or a glass of milk. I threw my packed lunch under a car every morning and eventually began selling my sandwiches to my friends. When I couldn't stay hungry any more, I binged. I couldn't make myself sick, so I worked out on my exercise bike for three to four hours straight. I didn't exercise for health reasons, I exercised as a severe punishment - all the while telling myself how disgusting I was. My adolescent years were peppered with trips to the doctors and psychologists, only for me to stop going because I didn't want to let go of anorexia - it was my friend, it kept me slim. With the help of trashy magazines, I learnt how to crash diet, I clearly remember reading how to live off 700 calories a day, with meal plans that included KITKATS and a glass of wine. I remember a papery Sunday magazine's columnist punishing us for that extra slice of bread, telling us we'll never get rid of the bits we hate if we aren't self-disciplined. These magazines, newspapers, TV shows all taught me how to hate my body and push myself to extreme limits. I didn't care what I put in my body or what anything did to or for my body, what I cared about was calories and fat - according to the media, that's what mattered.
Whilst a serious car accident taught me to be grateful for my body, it was my endometriosis coming back that taught me to learn to love it. It was through discovering what foods helped battle the fatigue, what foods kept me strong when my immune system was weak and what foods triggered flare ups, that I began to understand what the body needs and how to feed it. I learnt to respect my body and felt so sad for all I had put myself through for so many years and so grateful that it had stuck by me and kept going. I was relieved to find out that I had food intolerances (common in women with endometriosis and yep, I was tested, I didn't self-diagnose), as throughout my teenage years I thought my swollen belly was fat, which was the trigger point for my obsession with diets.
Instead of making insanely sugary cakes only to watch others eat them (I mean Oreos in the icing and KitKats laid across the top, with a whipped cream centre), I started creating foods I was excited about, that made me feel good and also helped me manage my symptoms. When you're signed off work, you're sick and the doctors can't give you a cure - finding hope in the form of (what I think is) delicious and healthy food is exciting and empowering. Whilst trying to manage my endometriosis, I began healing my old wounds left behind from anorexia and developed a new hobby, inspired by the likes of Deliciously Ella, The Minimalist Baker and This Rawsome Vegan Life. Discovering the endometriosis diet coincided with discovering these sites, and the journey I took to changing my lifestyle was less lonely, less weird and much more fun with the help of these food bloggers.
In turn, I have begun to develop a healthier attitude towards exercise. I have been finding YouTube tutorials much less scary than the gym and much more friendly. I've begun incorporating exercise into my week because it brings me energy and helps with my mental health, not as a form of self-loathing. My Instagram feed is full of women wishing me well, encouraging me to love myself and take care of myself, and give myself positive self-talk and self-love.
If this health trend didn't exist, I'm not sure I'd be at the point I am with my attitude towards health, food and my body. So whilst I don't like the name clean eating and I understand the underlying negative implications, I also think we need to look at both sides of the story. Maybe I am being naive in thinking that every post with a yoga position and a smoothie telling me to love myself is genuine, but at least it's not telling me the only way men will think I'm sexy is if I do 100 squats a day and starve myself for that glass of wine on that date.
Yes, we have a long way to go with our relationships to food and our bodies, but let's not forget how far we've come.