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

How Your Body Image Affects Your Weight & Health

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Today I’m going on a slight rant about something that has been on my mind for a while – body image. And because the majority of my clients (all but 1) are male athletes, I don’t run into the overt self-degrading body comments as often as many of my dietitian colleagues who work with women. However, I’ve run into a number of women lately who either put their bodies down, avoid social situations or the beach / pool / bathing suits because they feel “fat”, obsessively cover up their bodies, obsessively diet or exercise (or both) or engage in other self-depreciating comments and related behaviors stemming from how they feel about their body. And I always walk away thinking “one day she is going to look back and think ‘damn I looked good’ and regret wasting so much time and energy hating a body that helped her cross finish lines, hike mountains, pick up small children, build a beautiful garden and do so much more.”

And though I won’t get into the psychology behind body image and self worth or how to improve your body image (you can read more about that in this article), I do want to talk about how this affects a person’s overall health and sense of well-being. First and foremost, the people around you might not notice the subtle behaviors and words you speak (unless you have dietitian or psychologist friends) but your kids will (children, grandchildren, children you teach or coach). Anyone who has spent 5 minutes with a child knows they pick up everything. Now, let’s say you are that female who won’t wear shorts in the summer because you hate the way your legs look. Your little girl will stop wearing shorts and at some point think her legs look bad too. Or maybe you are the grandma who won’t wear a bathing suit to the beach because you can’t fit into the one you wore last year. Your grandkids will wonder why you aren’t going in the water with them. And finally, if you are a coach of young girls, an entire team will learn about how they should be viewing their bodies from what you think of yours.

In addition to affecting the people around you, I’ve noticed that women who don’t love the bodies they live in spend entirely too much time thinking about food and exercise. And by cutting out certain foods, going on cleanses or popular diets or drastically slashing their food intake, they are cutting out a number of nutrients necessary for good health. And the effects might not be obvious at first, but over time they will catch up to you. Cut calories and it will be difficult to get a number of vitamins, minerals and protein in your diet (And when you fall short on protein you will start losing muscle mass. Over time less muscle means you burn a few less calories each day and you won’t be able to exercise as hard in the gym so you burn fewer calories while working out. Both of these make it challenging to keep weight off over time. Plus less muscle means activities of daily living like gardening, picking up kids, or lifting groceries may be tough). Switch to a vegetarian diet and you better really plan on incorporating protein since you will need more total protein to keep and build muscle. Drop dairy and your bones, teeth and nails will suffer over time (yes you can eat kale, spinach and other leafy greens but you will need at least 10 cups of raw leafy greens a day if this is your only source of calcium). I’ve seen women in their 20s with osteopenia (low bone mass, this often comes before the brittle bone disease osteoporosis). And this is just the tip of the iceberg. But, here’s the most important point: your body image affects what you eat (more than just total calories) and don’t eat. And over time I’m going to make a stretch here and say (from observation) that body image-induced changes in diet affect your intake of vitamins and minerals and over time, consistent vitamin and mineral shortages will affect how your body functions and could impair several aspects of health. So, if you feel like you fall into this category of women or men who loathe your body, make the commitment right now to work on this. I promise you that you are wasting time as well as mental and physical energy. Plus, the changes you are making in an effort to keep weight off may be doing more harm than good.