Is clean eating making you feel dirty?
The #instafriendly diet fad could be more trouble than it’s worth
Gluten-free oats, soaked overnight, infused with berries, unicorn dust and virgin’s blood—if recipes from your ‘clean-eating’ friends have you scouring supermarkets for exacting ingredients, that makes two of us. And when a pizza and beer binge leads to anxiety sweats, calculating that your next ‘cheat’ meal is 200 light years away, you’ve likely caught the clean eating diet bug.
A fad diet, first associated with British blogger Ella Mills of Deliciously Ella, it gained infamy in 2011 and rose to prominence with wellness experts, restaurants and influencers riding the wave of #eatclean. Think cauliflower crust pizzas, dates as dessert, and kombucha and kefir replacing food you can actually pronounce. So why are doctors criticising it and does clean eating do more than attract likes to your Instagram posts? Dr Vishakha Shivdasani, a medical doctor specialising in nutrition, and Dr Jaini Savla, psychologist at Mindsight clinic, discuss.
What is clean eating?
According to Shivdasani, “There is no clear-cut definition for clean eating—it involves consuming more whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and healthy fats — and limiting processed snacks, sweets and other packaged foods. But the definition can get more restrictive depending on the person doing it.” With benefits including fat and weight loss, higher energy levels, improved skin and hair texture, mental well-being and sleep quality—why shouldn’t you clean up your act right now?
More of a holistic lifestyle change than a diet, Shivdasani clarifies that this doesn’t automatically mean gluten and dairy are your enemies. Randomly cutting out food groups could lead to deficiencies and pose health risks, and should only be done on a doctor’s recommendation.
She adds, “If someone adopts a couple of rules like cutting out sugar and processed foods, and doesn’t see benefits, they might keep adding rules and cutting out food groups until they do. So it’s a slippery slope.”
Can clean eating cause anxiety?
The Spice Girls said it best with their song ‘Too Much’ (…of something is bad enough). Medical professionals believe that vilifying foods and following a diet with military precision can lead to an increase in stress and anxiety, social isolation and a wholly negative relationship with one of the most pleasurable parts of being alive—eating.
Says Savla, “When we restrict our food based on sweeping generalisations, we paralyse ourselves with fear. We have an intimate relationship with food. When we label some as clean, and others as not, our disgust reflex responds strongly, which has a negative effect on us. Rather than categorising foods, we need to equalise the amount of proteins, carbs and fats we intake.” A balanced diet, just like everyone and their naani has been preaching for years.
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“Why do I have to follow a meal plan? Why can’t I just go to therapy and work on my mind first? Once I’m happy I’ll eat!” It’s something I thought of a lot when I was unwell. I wanted to skip the eating and weight restoration part and work solely on my emotional needs. What I didn’t realise though, was that in order for psychotherapy to work, I needed a brain that was semi up to scratch. Starvation meant that wasn’t the case. On the topic of controversial experiments, I want to talk about Ancel Key’s ‘Minnesota Starvation Experiment’. If you’ve been to therapy, studied anything health related or perused any ED websites, I’m sure you’ve at least heard of it. The reason why it’s brought up so often is because it gave us a great look at how restricting calories can affect the body and the mind. Unlike the horrid experiment I spoke of the other day (The Fast Track Trial), participants were grown men and were restricted to 1570 calories/day over a 6 month period. What they found was amazing. Participants started obsessing over food, stashing food, collecting cookbooks and consuming excessive amounts of caffeine (hello Coke Zero obsession). They developed depression, irritability, anger, and one participant became suicidal while another cut off three of his fingers. Participants also started to withdraw, lost interest in previously enjoyed activities, and overall sociability and sexuality reduced. Even more interestingly, is the emergence of binging, ‘out of control’ eating and feelings of self disgust and shame that emerged in the rehabilitation period (once they were required to eat 3000 calories a day). With all of these symptoms, do you think it then would’ve been possible for these men to sit down a few times a week and explore their thoughts and feelings? The reason why we talk about this experiment so much is because it shows that a lot of the behaviours associated with ED’s are a result of a starved brain. Of course eating and weight restoration are never going to be the cure for a restrictive ED, but when the brain literally can’t function without food, we need it to get things started. Now go and eat your damn breakfast 🥞💕
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Savla explains why eating a few Doritos can make you feel like you’ve committed murder as you look down at your cheese-stained fingertips in shame, “The clean eating diet has gone so far that people have stopped relishing what they are eating, leading to binge-eating at times. The fear with which they put the food inside their body also creates so much anxiety that the digestive system secretes excessive juices, further leading to digestion and gastrointestinal problems.”
Along with acidity, smelly farts and bouts of diarrhoea, an obsession with clean eating could change relationships. Faced with constant ridicule and nagging when you’re out with friends, you’d rather just stay home.
Says Savla, “People avoid social gatherings, leading to social isolation. Others start showing signs of obsessive compulsive disorder as they micro-analyse calorie intake, and become more susceptible to eating disorders like anorexia, and bulimia, and orthorexia nervosa (a yet-to-be-verified term for an obsession with eating food that one considers healthy).”
The middle path
No food is dirty (unless we’re talking aphrodisiacs), there’s nothing wrong with adopting healthy habits, taking a swig of the trendy Kombucha, or swearing off shiver-inducing candy binges. As long as you’re not chaining yourself down with calculations, checklists, claustrophobic rules and ‘healthy’ substitutes that are conning you. As food god Anthony Bourdain said, “your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”