Why I am Over Clean Eating
How often do you see magazines with phrases such Clean Eating or Good Nutrition splashed over them? Do you feel motivated to attain that almost perfect diet that those phrases portray? I did. I bought many health magazines over the years, tempted by the goddess on the front cover and the promise that I too could attain a body like that. I recall standing at the counter with an almost palpable level of excitement and hope that this could be just the answer that I need to drop 10/20/30/40/50 pounds.
‘This is the one,’ I’d say.
Sadly, that merry-go-round – see promise, get excited, buy magazine, shop for sugar free/gluten free/addictive free/unprocessed foods, eat highly restrictive unsustainable diet, and give up – continued for nearly twenty years. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t drop pounds fast and I didn’t feel great. Or if I did lose weight, I’d quickly gain it back when I returned to eating normally. I have felt repeatedly deflated that I haven’t achieved that “perfect” cover page body. I was constantly unsatisfied and obsessed with when my next meal was coming. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I then turned that disappointment into self-critical messaging that I am a failure and, as a result, suffered with cripplingly low self-esteem for a long time.
‘I will never be good enough until I achieve that [cover model] body,’ I would say.
Am I a failure, or is there something greater going on?
Having found recovery from addiction, I realized that my disordered relationship with food is as much a feature of my disease as my use of alcohol and drugs – they both had the same effect of avoiding myself. It was not my fault that I couldn’t eat a 100% ‘clean’ diet and I certainly wasn’t a failure. What was happening is that I was seeking to escape life with food, and I was being triggered by these unhealthy ideals advertised in magazines and social media. I was never going to achieve that body because I can’t eat a perfect diet; that body just isn’t attainable for me, because I am not shaped that way and few people can eat in such a prescribed way (unless you’re an athlete!).
The Importance of Physical Recovery
It is a fact that many people in early recovery gain weight. After years of abuse and neglect, our bodies recover and we begin to eat for real sustenance – even for pleasure – rather than something we have to do, so that we could use more drugs and alcohol. Often we find ourselves overeating. This frequently results in weight gain, and some pretty uncomfortable feelings as to why our clothes no longer fit and why we can’t stop eating.
We fail to make the connection about what is happening with our physical recovery, because we are so focused on our psychological recovery. Typically, traditional recovery modalities do not look at recovery holistically. This can mean that we transfer our addiction from drugs to food – that was the case with me. I replaced alcohol and pills with highly palatable foods (high fat, high sugar and high carbohydrate). I felt terrible, until I began to deal with my physical recovery.
I uncovered a long history of a disordered relationship with food – you could even classify it as an eating disorder. I binged, and purged, and starved myself for twenty years. I am not alone; many people in recovery come to that same realization that either they use food as a drug, or have issues/disorders surrounding it. Personally, I see it as a feature of my disease.
Why Terms Like Clean Eating and Good Nutrition Are Unhelpful
These terms are unhelpful – even triggering – for those who have a disordered relationship with food (many people in recovery). They signify attaining a level of perfectionism that is simply not possible for most people trying to lead a balanced life – precisely what we are trying to achieve in recovery. It is too difficult for me to eat weighed and measured diets that exclude certain food groups. Further, those terms perpetuate an unrealistic expectation of what being healthy looks and feels like: thin, or muscly, tanned, with glowing skin, eating a bowl of kale. People in everyday life do not look like that; we have lumps and bumps, we are not a size zero and we fill our jeans. We are all different and there is no one ‘model body’; you have to find what works for you, your physical makeup, and your needs.
With that philosophy in mind, here is how I approached my physical recovery:
- Balance: I wanted to make my life easier, to feel well, and have the energy to support that lifestyle. I also wanted to appreciate the pleasure of food; having dinner parties, creating interesting recipes, and going to lunch or dinner. I try to choose foods that make me feel good, but if I really want a cake – and I can’t find a healthier version – I occasionally have it; I just try and exercise before or after it.
- Food isn’t good or bad: I stopped labelling it that way and changed my perspective toward it. I instead looked at foods that have physical benefits, such as helping to combat stress, soothing depression, and creating energy. I started to harness the power of these foods to enhance my recovery. I was motivated to create colorful meals that I actually wanted to eat because not only they tasted delicious, but they had loads of health benefits for my body. I ate kale, but I mixed it with a delicious tahini dressing and roasted salmon, for example. Now I want to eat whole foods that are not filled with artificial substances out of choice rather than them being a catalyst to achieve a model-sized body.
- Exercise: I realized the power of exercise which made me both feel good physically and mentally, improving my relationship with my body, reducing my appetite, creating more energy, helping me to process stress and alleviate difficult feelings. Exercise is an essential component of my recovery program today. I don’t exercise at 5am and obsess about getting to the gym, I just try and exercise for a minimum of half an hour a day and that includes walking to a coffee shop, and cycling as a mode of transport. I try to go to the gym, but exercise to me is about fitting it into my everyday life, as a means to support my lifestyle goals.
- Size isn’t an indicator of health: Even though I am outside of the normal BMI range, and acknowledge that I would like to lose some more weight (in time, in a healthy way), I am physically fit and very strong – I can squat 160 pounds! My blood pressure is excellent, my cholesterol is within normal limit and my doctor is content with my approach to my health and wellness. My choice to lose weight is no longer based on wanting to look like a model, rather how I feel in my skin and clothes – even though I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my body.
- Acceptance: I learned to accept and love all of my body (as corny as that sounds). In appreciating my body, I tend to make wiser choices with food and self-care. I learned to listen to what it was asking me for: often when I want to eat bread, and ask myself what I really want, I find that I am tired and need rest. Tuning into my body and appreciating it, has been vital in overcoming the desire to use food as a substance.
A Journey That’s Worth It
As a result of this approach, I have achieved a sense of well-being. Sure I have insecurities, but I now appreciate my body’s strength and resilience and I am reminded of what it has carried me through. Health-wise, I have lost nearly 60 pounds, I suffer with less illness, have more mental resilience, have more energy, and sleep better.
Finally, the choice to stop harming myself with substances, and live a happy life, is congruent with the desire to care for my body. I realized that there is never a destination, just a journey, and that is the path I walk every day. It hasn’t been an easy journey – recovery isn’t – but it has been wholeheartedly worth it.
Images Courtesy of iStock