Clean Eating Sucks

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clean eating sucksThe term clean eating makes me cringe. At first it makes you feel superior while you reach for a virtual pat on the back. “Wow, you eat clean all of the time? You’re so good!” After the thrill wears off, you’re left feeling judged followed by shame.

Why is Clean Eating so Seductive?

Perfectly posed, flawless photos of barely clothed self-proclaimed fitness gurus have taken over instagram. They lift, jump around and tells about their meals of fish, chicken, broccoli, and sweet potatoes. No words are necessary. Their social media accounts scream “you could look like this too if you stay disciplined and eat what I eat!” It’s sales 101. Who wouldn’t want to be part of this exclusive group? The clean eating community provides more than just a sense of identification. It also gives people a little boost. Hey, what I’m doing is better than what you are doing. Clean eating seduces people with community, a common bond and a feeling of control. In a world where so many things are out of our control, we often reach for something, anything, we can control to decrease our anxiety.

What’s Wrong with Getting Sucked into Clean Eating?

“I eat clean most of the time,” an athlete recently told me, his sentence trailing off in volume as his eyes looked downward in shame. “But, sometimes I eat wings, fries and a few beers with the other guys,” he confessed, as he glanced up waiting for his penance. One small step away from the rigid rules of clean eating and you’ll feel like a failure. Any deviation can lead to a landslide – bingeing on forbidden foods. The authors of Intuitive Eating call this the What the Hell effect. The moment a forbidden food is eaten, overeating takes place.

How are these people in shape? For some it’s a cycle of diet, extreme exercise and bingeing. I bet more than 90% of the women and 70% of the men don’t feel great about their body (1, 2). They are fishing in the vast social media ocean for likes and positive comments. Many also engage in disordered eating and exercise (over exercising, using cleanses, laxatives, diuretics or fat burners, dietary restriction etc.).

How Can You Loosen Your Grip on Cleaning Eating?

Last week I ate lunch with one of the baseball players. He had a few cookies on his plate. One of our new players (who hasn’t figured out yet that I’m not the food police) came in and said “are those cookies good for your body?” His response was classic, “they’re good for the soul,” he said with a warm smile as we continued our conversation.

Instead of trying to “eat clean,” consider eating healthy foods most of the time while eating “play” foods, foods that are good for your soul, when you want them. Allow yourself flexibility with eating. People who allow themselves some food flexibility are less dissatisfied with their bodies and weigh less than those who don’t. Don’t judge yourself and never allow others to judge you based on what you are eating.

Eat the real thing. If you are craving a freshly baked gooey chocolate chip cookie, have one. Don’t try to get by with a low fat kale cookie made with cocoa powder (unless of course you’ve found one that is delicious). Eat what you are truly craving. If your anxiety hits the ceiling as you worry about your weight, remember it’s one cookie or a few cookies. Another gem from Intuitive Eating:

If you get pleasure and satisfaction in eating you won’t eat as much.

If you have issues with the scale, set it aside (the attic is a good place) and focus on how you feel. There are foods that may taste good in the moment but if you have too many of them, you might not feel as good. Let feeling help drive your food choices.

Moving Away from Judgement and Shame

I have probably tagged some posts on Instagram with #cleaneating. After all, I’m in the business of selling better performance, in sport and in life. I want to reach as many people as possible. But, I don’t want you suckered into a life filled with strict rules, judgment and shame. You also don’t need to live unto to someone else’s standards of an “ideal body.” Doing this will compound negative feelings about your body. Any time you feel a little down remember what your body has done and can do for you. It’s time to look past those finger pointing, clean eating photos and, like Hilary Duff (below) tell them to #kissmyass.

1 Eur Eat Disord Rev 2013;21(1):52-59. 

2 Research on Males and Eating Disorders

3 Weight Loss Truths

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If you haven’t been bombarded with weight loss ads over the past week, you’re probably on a remote island soaking up the sun with the waves gently teasing your feet (bring me next time). There’s something about the start of a New Year that makes people freak out, lose their senses and develop completely unrealistic eating plans they will never follow for more than a few days. Before you get sucked into a crazy diet or juice cleanse, you should know the top three truths about weight loss.


1) No One Eats “Clean” all of the Time

Instagram and Facebook are full of photos of broccoli, brown rice and chicken meals neatly placed in Tupperware and followed by #mealprep #eatclean. The only thing more boring than looking at these meals is eating them day after day. No one eats like this all of the time. No one.
I’ve worked with a number of elite athletes who cut weight before a fight, match or event. They diet down, compete then loosen up their diet a bit before they need to diet down again. They aren’t eating bodybuilding-type meals every day year-round.

2) There is No One Perfect Diet

Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, juice cleanses, Paleo, Whole30. There is no “perfect” because what’s right for you isn’t necessarily right for me. Figure out what changes you can realistically stick with, combine these with the general principles of healthy eating and start there. Forget what everyone else is doing, how your neighbor dropped 50 lbs. or what the actress on the cover of a magazine did. If you can’t stick with a plan, it won’t work.

Progress, not perfection, is the goal.

Celebrate each “win,” those small changes you’ve made that will add up to a big difference. You won’t necessarily notice a weight loss right away by making a few simple switches in your diet. However, I would rather people focus on the immediate difference – more energy, feeling better, more sleep, than the number on the scale. Feeling better each day will drive you to continue when the scale isn’t moving much.

3) You Must Exercise for Weight Loss

Can you lose weight without exercising? Yes absolutely. However, if you do not exercise you will lose more of your weight as muscle then fat. In addition to burning fewer calories each day when you lose muscle, you will notice a decline in strength and as you get older and everyday activities will become harder to do – lifting groceries, gardening, washing your car.

If you are not an exerciser and typically fall off when you start a new workout program, figure out what you like to do and do it. Forget all of the back-and-forth “noise” about high intensity interval training, the amount of rest in between sets and if you should train until muscle failure (until you cannot possibly lift the weight again). Instead, determine what brings you joy. What do you love to do? Dancing, yoga, hiking? What did you love doing as a kid? Hula hooping, double Dutch jump rope?

Do what makes you happy. Get moving and stay moving.

In addition to following these weight-loss truths, spend time feeling good about your body every single day. I meet so many people that are hyper focused on losing 5 pounds or 50 lbs. As they rattle off the reasons why they want to lose body fat and how this will drastically alter their life and make them happy, my mind often drifts off. I wonder what percentage of their thoughts are consumed by losing weight and dieting and if they are hyper-focused on controlling this aspect of their life because something else isn’t right. A marriage, their job, a friendship, their child’s behavior. If I ask the right questions something else they are ignoring often comes up.

Maintaining weight within a good range is very important for overall health. Obsessing about weight and dieting isn’t. I’ve coached enough people to know that one day you’ll look back years from now and wonder why you wasted so much time hating your body.

You’ll look back and say, “damn, I looked good! I wish I felt better about myself.”

“I wish I wore shorts in the summer.”

“Why didn’t I go to the beach in a bathing suit?”

“I wish I went to that party.”

I promise you, no one is criticizing your body. Every one around you is too busy focused on themselves. So go out and wear shorts, put on a bathing suit, try on that dress.

If you don’t love your body now, you won’t feel your best every day. You won’t enjoy life to the fullest. Work in this first (or in conjunction with healthy eating / a healthy approach to weight loss).

Because it’s a waste of time to spend your days bashing the body that does so much for you.