Clean Eating is a Dirty Word
I detest the word “clean eating.” It’s hard to put into words my dislike for something that is just a word. It’s not racist, it’s not mean spirited but to me it isn’t just a word. It’s a word that implies or infers an air of negative emotion or elitism around food.
When someone says to you “I eat clean or I have a clean diet” what do you imagine? Do you imagine they are eating food that is literally clean, scrubbed to remove the dirt or do you imagine food that is not processed and “has fallen from the tree.” A few years ago I would have said the first one, someone makes sure to scrub their produce after bringing it home from the farmers market or grocery. Now, it’s someone declaring that they are following a form of eating where they only eat specific foods that are deemed healthy.
What is my problem with this? I mean it’s only a word and people that are “clean eating” are eating how I as a sports nutritionist would on a whole recommend. Yes, my problem with it is multi-faceted but comes down to this. Someone who tries to follow a “clean diet” or “only eats clean” they start to create unrealistic expectations about themselves and the food they eat. They might believe that they are somehow better than others for eating this way, they might believe they are more virtuous than others that eat processed food, they start to believe there are good and bad foods and others that look to “clean eaters” may start to believe that they are not as good a person because they do not “eat clean.”
Clean eaters may only eat specific types of foods and if they do, they feel validated and may feel that they have taken the moral high ground. My goal is to teach others that they are not better or worse than someone else because the foods that they ate are better for them. If someone eats a raw kale salad and you have some crackers and cheese are you are looked down upon? Is there something inherently bad about cheese and crackers? No. Depending on the type of cracker and the type of cheese, you could be getting in some good whole grains, lean protein, calcium, etc. Is the person that eats the cheese and crackers a bad person? No. Is the person that eats the raw kale salad “good?” Not necessarily? Kale is a good choice, and one that people should try. But someone shouldn’t be judged by what they eat. Your worth is not determined by what you eat.
As this is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, I want to highlight and bring awareness to this, and share how my past eating disorder impacted my life. Plus, ultimately work to prevent new disordered eating athletes. Growing up, I looked at food as a way to better my performance. Not in the correct way though. I looked at food as whether or not I thought it was a “bad” food or a “good” food. Would the food make me gain weight, would it help me to lose weight? Would I feel shame after eating it, would I feel elated when I was able to abstain from not eating it? Would I think and obsess over eating it but deny myself it because it wasn’t a “good” food. Would I feel the need to over exercise after eating it, did I feel that after I ate the food my body got fatter? The answer is yes. I was obsessed with food and the thought that I was too fat and if I got fat I wouldn’t be able to swim as fast and wouldn’t be as loved. Someone looking from the outside at my food choices might have said “wow she only eats healthy foods, what a good diet.” But in reality my obsession over food led to body dysmorphia, anorexia and ultimately bulimia. I battled bulimia for about 8 years of my life. It was an incredible struggle to go through, but ultimately it allowed me to use my experience to help others. And I now know my “WHY.” The “Why” is used in business, life and athletics to determine why we do something. What is our reason and passion behind it? Not knowing our why makes it harder to know why you want to achieve a goal. For example, why are you trying to qualify for Boston, why are you working overtime and 70 hours/week at your job? What is your WHY? I thought my why used to be that I was a sports nutritionist because I wanted to help athletes to succeed using proper nutrition. But it’s so much more than that.
My why is: I am a sports nutritionist because I am passionate about helping athletes to learn to make the best choices for their body, to educate them on foods that will help them succeed, to make them confident in how they look and the foods they choose, to help them realize that food does not equal who they are as a person/athlete and to ultimately help them break the destructive bond that they have with food. Or that food has over them. It’s liberating to know what one of my main purposes in life is and it’s exciting to be able to do it. So let’s dive into this subject just a bit more and touch on a few other topics.
Who has seen the ads for the latest detox, juice cleanse, fast or that chemicals in our food are killing us? I hope everyone raised their hands. They are everywhere and the media, celebrities and even celebrity doctors and “gurus” tout their latest products. And in 99% of the cases, it’s to make money first and foremost. I detest (again with detest) fear mongering and people that use fear mongering as a marketing tactic.
Chemophobia- Definition: “irrational fear of chemicals. Grounded in the simplistic unscientific belief that chemicals are potentially dangerous simply because they are synthetic, while all things natural are chemical free and therefore safe.” So, when something sounds like a chemical, it can induce a widespread panic about the product or food. The fact is, everything is composed of chemicals, including all foods. Yes, even blueberries. Our body is made up of chemicals. As a nutritionist, I often abbreviate the term carbohydrate with CHO. It’s not because carbohydrate has those letters, it’s because CHO stands for carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. These are considered chemicals. Let’s look at the chemical dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO). It is a colorless, odorless compound that can cause death. It sounds terrifying. But it’s actually water or H20. The old adage “the dose makes the poison” applies to every situation. Too much water can kill you, it’s called drowning if swallowed or hyponatremia (if you drink too much water and dilute your electrolytes).
When certain health gurus/doctors tie chemicals to toxins they are scaring you. Of course there are some truly bad chemicals and toxins. All chemicals have the ability to be a toxin in the right amount. Just because a food is natural does not make it safe, and just because a food is created in a laboratory doesn’t make it unsafe.
What about body detoxes? Shouldn’t you use those every few months to make your body clean again? Don’t you need to do one to rid your body of the chemicals in your body, or to accelerate weight loss? NO!!! Our body detoxes itself every day. It’s what the liver and kidneys do for us every minute, hour and day. You don’t need a diet to detox your body. If you’d like to stop eating food that doesn’t make you feel the best, go for it. But you’re not detoxing your body. You’re giving it food that makes it feel good. Don’t believe a fad diet or detox system (even from an RD or MD) who says their foods or diet detox plan will detox your body and you’ll lose weight, have more energy, feel awesome, etc. You can do all of those 3 things and more by just choosing foods that your body wants you to eat. And if you want to give it something that isn’t necessarily going to make it perform to 110% is it going to hurt you? Of course not. As long as you’re eating good choices 80-90% of the time, you’re fine. Of course I’m not advocating for a dietary free for all where you eat everything in sight. And if you’d like to see exactly what I recommend, click here.
I’m so fed up with hearing from so called experts what foods should and shouldn’t be put in our body. What foods are in, which are out. Which will kill us, which won’t. Is sugar bad, is it good. Is fat bad, is it good. The frustrating thing is, some of these experts even have an MD behind their name. But most often I find that those that are perpetuating these myths do not have the education to back up their claims. Instead they re-circulate what they hear online, through groups/forums, social media or they attended a certification program that isn’t backed with real science based evidence. It’s the cool thing to do, and they repeat without understanding they are perpetuating unsubstantiated nutrition myths. For months, in fact years I’ve tried to do my part by publishing a blog that gives science based evidence for fitness and nutrition. I’ve taught the clients and athletes whom I’ve worked the proper way to create healthy meal plans, what foods are best of every day nutrition, training and racing nutrition, recovery nutrition, etc. I don’t use buzz words and because of this, I don’t have the cool factor that many nutritionists speak of. And really, I’ve been ok with it. It can be frustrating at times to see people with little education have followers in the thousands. But I’ll keep plugging away, doing my part to spread the word on science based nutrition and to be the anti-fear monger. Because I want to help athletes to be the best they can, have healthy relationships with food and their body and to perform at their best. I won’t sink the level of using fear mongering, using pictures of unrealistic bodies or pushing athletes to eat in any sort of fad diet structured plan. Because I already help athletes achieve a healthy body, mind and performance all while teaching them through proper guidance and education. My goal is also to prevent more eating disorders. Which brings me to this point:
Orthorexia: it the development of a fear of food. Certain foods become off limits. They are deemed “bad” or “dangerous.” This has been on the rise in the past few years and the psychological journals now are recognizing it as a serious medical disorder. I believe I had this years ago, and I can see it in many others today. And the scary statistic is: about 30% of patients with anorexia or bulimia showed symptoms of orthorexia before developing full blown anorexia or bulimia. So really, this is the last step before potentially developing a full blown eating disorder.
How does someone start on a path to orthorexia? Have you ever done an elimination diet? Doing an elimination diet is one way that a person can develop orthorexia. They hear that foods that contain grains, dairy, sugar, GMOs, etc. are bad and they must be eliminated. The person might be vulnerable to believing that the things on the elimination diet are really “bad” and sets them out on a path of towards “don’t eat these foods, they are bad for you.”
Social media sites like Facebook and Instagram show pictures of athletes or just average people/fitness models eating meals that they are proud to show. They are proud their meal didn’t contain sugar, proud their meal didn’t contain gluten. When someone says they are gluten free. It’s like they are wearing it as a badge of honor. And if you ate gluten you are somehow in the wrong, making you less of a person. Who else has heard someone say “this food is gluten free and proud that they are eating it because they think it’s healthier?” Again, hands should be raised. Let me add, I work with athletes who truly do need to eat gluten free due to Celiac disease or an intolerance. And for this reason I do say when my recipes don’t have gluten. However I have many recipes that do contain gluten, because for the majority of people, it is 100% ok. When you start to take being proud of eating a healthy balanced diet too far, and you become proud of eating only certain foods, or only foods that contain this, then you’re going down the wrong path. I have been guilty of saying “no added sugar.” But I also try to balance that with showing foods that others deem unhealthy-foods like dairy, pasta, the occasional treat. Sure I do advocate for a less added sugar diet. I want my athletes to know how to make smart food choices not relying on added sugar (unless they are training/racing). But having things with added sugar is fine in moderation. Truly, unless you have a food allergy or a metabolic disease, everything should be ok in moderation.
Dictating your Worth:
When foods starts to dictate how you feel about yourself, you have a problem. The foods you eat do not make your worth. When you are inundated with images and words saying don’t eat this, or only eat this. Or you see very thin (even possibly muscular) people saying to only eat these types of foods, this is not what you want to believe. It’s so hard, but when someone judges you, or you feel like you are being judged for the foods you are eating, you must put up a barrier around you and say to yourself or out loud “food does not dictate my self-worth.”
I’m not saying to not eat healthy. But there is a difference. It’s ok to look at the ingredients, it’s ok to pick the healthier choice, and it’s ok to not have dessert. It’s ok to avoid most unhealthy foods, it’s ok to feel a little guilty about having too much ice-cream. But it’s not ok to obsess over the foods you’re eating, to avoid foods that contain a “bad” food, to have so much guilt around eating a food that you become anxious or depressed.
So What Do You Do?
How are you thinking about food? How are you reacting to food? Are you judgmental around others and what they eat? Really look into your psyche and think about how you are around food. How do you feel about yourself? It starts with love and self-acceptance. No matter where you are right now, you are good enough. Say it out loud with me. YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH! You don’t need to be anyone you’re not. That’s not to say we all can’t make our awesome self’s even better by working on smaller goals. But if you don’t love yourself right now, for who you are today, you won’t be able to find peace with yourself, your food choices or your body. Stop looking at fitness models, or those that strive for unhealthy levels of body fat. Strive to be healthy and to be the best you that you can be. Not everyone is supposed to have a 6 pack. And not everyone is supposed to have huge muscles. We were given our bodies from genetics and while we can work on making ourselves healthier, trying to achieve someone else’s idea of the perfect body or of the ideal body is rubbish. You aren’t designed to look like anyone but yourself. Strive to make yourself better by doing things that nourish you. Eat healthy foods that you love, exercise because you love it and you want to live a long and healthy life, make choices because they feel good and occasionally enjoy the foods that don’t provide the nourishing nutrients your body needs. That’s totally fine.
Where am I now?
I won’t lie and say that every day is super easy to make the best choices 100% of the time and every day I love my body completely. Of course I can’t say that and that’s perfectly fine. I make the healthy choices for my body 80-90% of the time and my body is happy with that. If you were to look at a picture of me, you’d see that I am not stick thin and quite muscular.
In fact at last count I was 22% body fat. And I am very happy with that. I don’t care for scales although I do allow my athletes to use them as long as they aren’t obsessive with weighing themselves. I’m much more a fan of using body fat as muscle makes it seem like we might be heavier, body fat gives a truer story. And if you might be saying 22% is great, or you might be saying “I’d rather be 18%.” That’s fine and I can get you to a healthy body fat. But for me, I am content as I am in my unperfected body. Since I know the science of exercise physiology and nutrition, I know how I can get to 20% to 18%, etc. But here’s why I’m not going to do that. Because I know that if I strive to attain a number that forces me to start to restrict too much, or deprive myself of the foods I truly enjoy, I will be starting down a path towards disordered eating. And I will not go there. Eating a chicken breast, spinach and brown rice every day does fulfill my advice on eating healthy/lean protein, healthy fat, nourishing carbs and veggies. If I were to eat that every day it would not be enough to satisfy my hunger for diverse foods or variety. I would rather allow myself to have ice-cream if I want it then deprive myself to attain a weight, a look or a % body fat just because. So here’s what I’d recommend:
Some Choices I recommend:
• I advocate for a primarily plant based diet, but if you’d like to eat meat, it is your choice (and I do too, just not every day). But try to choose a diet based in plants, beans, legumes, fruit, nuts and seeds. These foods will benefit your body immensely.
• Think about having meat/fish/protein as a side dish to your meals
• Eat a wide variety of foods and as long as 80-90% of your diet contains foods that benefit your body, 10-20% of the foods you eat can be ones you chose just because you like them
• If you eat primarily foods that benefit your body, everything is ok in moderation
• Be mindful around your eating. Are you hungry, stressed, angry, bored. Learn to look at your emotions around food. Do you reach for certain foods when you have those emotions? How does food make you feel?
• Remember that you are not or do not become a good or bad person just because of what you eat
• Reduce the amount of screen time or personal time you have with people who only post pictures or talk about eating specific foods that are “good” or “bad”. Unfollow or erase them from your Instagram accounts if you need to.
• Seek help from a professional if you feel like you have a problem with body dysmorphia (perceived flaw in your body), feelings around food, orthorexia or an eating disorder. I would love to assist you on your journey to a healthy body, mind and better performance. Reach out to me today- www.fueledandfocused.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
• Strive to be healthy, but not to be perfect
• Decide today that you are going to be the “best you that you can be.” No one else is you and that’s great. God made us each individual and we aren’t supposed to be anyone but who he made us to be.
I am here to help you in any way that I can. Whether you feel like you’re in an endless cycle of doing diets (low carb, no sugar), food elimination diets (paleo, whole30), you feel like you might be obsessed with food or your weight, please reach out for help. As stated above, I am at email@example.com. I have several nutrition plans where I will work with you 1:1 to start to reverse an unhealthy mindset, you’ll learn to love food and your body again plus learn how to achieve athletic success with a healthy nutrition plan.
If you feel like you have moved past body dysmorphia and disordered eating thoughts and patterns and you have a full blown eating disorder, please seek treatment. Please call your general care practitioner, seek treatment from a counselor (social worker, family counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist) or reach out to the National Eating Disorder Hotline: toll free, confidential Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 or call the Anorexia and other disorders helpline at 630-577-1330, open Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Central Time.