The Problem with the "Clean Eating" Resolution (& normalizing eating disorder behavior)
Let it be known that I am not a fan of “resolutions.” “New year, new me” is not my thing.
We dream of what our resolutions will give us, how much happier we’ll be when we get there; how much more we will have, thus, more we will be.
Resolutions give us this super feeling that only once we reach our goals, we’ll get closer to being “better.” Resolutions rob us of feeling that we are enough, as is.
We talk and we hope our resolutions will come true, but many of us forget mid-year. We don’t put a manageable action plan together, we don’t have accountability, and we forget why we started. We lose steam, and forget why it matters, anyway. The hype is over, it’s not as glamorous, and your friends have gone back to their old ways. We don’t get super specific (link), so we don’t know step 1, 2, 3, and so on.
Let’s talk about a common “New Years Resolution”:
I will eat clean.
Specifically, “eating clean” doesn’t have a clear definition. Eating clean could mean eating whole, unprocessed foods; no sugar; no dairy; never eating out at restaurants; eating clean Monday-Friday, then splurging over the weekend; water and vegetables only; no fruit- that’s sugar; no carbohydrates- even the natural ones… rules, rules, rules.
Truly, “eating clean” could mean something different for everyone. That’s my first problem with eating clean; that everyone is on board, judgement in hand, and no one actually has clarity on the term.
Secondly, let’s look at some of the definitions named above: do you see a problem with any of them? You could begin with looking at the (very) restricting nature of the diet. And you could say “eating clean” omits entire food groups. You could say that it’s impossible, and that is what appeals to so many.
When I had an eating disorder, I also felt like a champion for doing the impossible. I felt on a high when everyone was eating cake and I didn’t… even on my birthday. I felt this euphoria for packing my lunch when everyone went to a greasy diner, and a disciplined warrior for saying no to “bad” food, even though I was starving and there were no other options.
Clean eating, like any diet, can be dangerous, and/or it can set us up to fail. When we restrict so much, especially when we aren’t used to a certain type of lifestyle, we crave it, and we finally get it, we tend to binge. Think about it: you say “I can’t have X” and that’s all you want. The next time you see it, you’ll likely devour double the amount you normally would, feel guilty about it, and so the restrict-binge cycle begins.
Take away cigarettes from a pack-a-day smoker, and they’ll hunt down some cigs and smoke two packs.
Only, the difference is, we need sustenance to survive; you can avoid smokes and actually improve your life.
When I began my eating disorder, I could have labeled it “clean eating”- it very much looked like a wholesome, healthful way of living. But as people praised me for being so dedicated to my new way of life, I became addicted. “No way could I only eat that. Gosh you’re so healthy,” they said. Perhaps they said it to make themselves feel better. But whatever their reason, it fueled my obsession for continuing my golden girl status as “clean eater extraordinaire.”
This “clean eating” obsession lead me to read every label I could get my hands on (whether I was interested in eating it or not), become anxious anytime I had to leave the house or eat out, and left me (inwardly & outwardly) questioning every step of the cooking process for friends and in eateries. It left me exhausted and those who were with me pleaded with me to just relax.
If you’re waist-deep in food labels, knowing calorie counts and grams-per-serving by heart, avoiding all white food, everyday, or doing anything else to trick yourself into not giving your body what it needs… meanwhile, pissing everyone around you off, then you have two choices:
2) Hide it.
If you’ve ever felt so passionate about something that you want to know everything about it, then you know it’s not so easy to just stop. It’s an obsession, and a habit at this point. But, if you can truly stop the obsession, feel genuinely relaxed around food, and develop a flexible approach to your diet and wellbeing, then applause, applause!
You can hide it by giving it a label: “Oh, I’m just super into nutrition. I want to be a registered dietician, or nutritionist. I love this stuff. I want to help people.” ((cue: angelic expression))
Or, you can hide it, like sneak around. I know all about this one.
I was an expert liar when it came to my food and exercise habits… my “clean eating” was relaxed on the outside... I thought. I found snacks I felt “safe” with and would let others see me eat them, all the while, replacing mealtime with secret exercise, ridding myself of invisible calories. I went grocery shopping alone, would spend hours there checking every label and comparing, and had my safe food.
I’d take a (realistically) healthy breakfast with me to school and throw it out the window. At least my mom felt better about seeing me take it. I’d cook for others to at least let them enjoy food. I “didn’t know” why I was losing weight. I went to nutrition and therapy appointments to appease everyone. I sat in silence some days, or really dug deep to make some sense of why I would have to be there.
I’m just eating clean. I’m fine. I’m not losing any more weight. I’m not exercising like a maniac. I’m watching what I’m eating… shouldn’t I be? Isn’t that the healthy thing to do?
We rationalize destructive behavior.
And sometimes we don’t even know we’re doing it, because everyone else is, too. We normalize eating disorders (or eating disorder behavior) and call it “clean eating;” “resolutions;” “temporary,” or even a “lifestyle change.” Like, you can’t just “diet,” you have to make a “lifestyle change.”
If we talk about eating disorders and addiction, we must talk about recovery long-term. Lifestyle changes.
We must challenge resolutions, why we do them, and this generic term, “clean eating.” Your intention to be a “clean eater” may come from a place of competition and spite. It may turn into danger and loss of independence. We must know why we act the way we do, and challenge our irrational thoughts.
It’s hearing that sugar is bad, and eating a donut anyway; having birthday cake on your freaking birthday! It’s wanting to exercise for three hours, but forcing yourself to do 30 minutes. Hearing that less food is better, and more exercise is key… and knowing that doesn’t work for you. That’s not a magic solution.
“Clean eating” is a trap; it’s an excuse to some, and a setup for failure for others… all leading back to negative feelings. As you make “resolutions,” if you must, banish rigidity. Reject food rules and guilt surrounding your body, food, and exercise.
What do you think about "clean eating?" What about resolutions (vs. maybe, reasonable actions)?