Categories
Dieting Eating Disorders

Naughty But Nice: The Implications of Eating ‘Clean’

In the current pandemic, ‘clean eating’ involves spraying your Tesco delivery with Dettol.

This phrase, however, does not ordinarily mean disinfecting groceries. When I first encountered the concept of clean eating in 2012, it was a nutritional lifestyle that existed predominantly within the fitness community. This diet was comprised of foods that were fresh, whole, unprocessed and unrefined. The mantra of the bodybuilding world was ‘eat clean, train dirty;’ and observing these principles was the standard way to reduce body fat. Day after day, I ate my sad looking turkey and greens from a sweating Tupperware tub, trusting in the magical powers of clean eating to grant me the lean physique of a successful bikini competitor.

‘Clean’ encompasses food that is organic, local, grass-fed, free from diary or gluten, ‘super,’ and raw

Since then, there has been a noticeable shift in diet culture towards ‘wellness.’ Contemporary advocates of clean eating base their meals around foods that provide optimum health. Nowadays, the term ‘clean’ is liberally applied and also encompasses food that is organic, local, grass-fed, free from diary or gluten, ‘super,’ and raw. These eating trends are now mainstream and items such as almond butter and apple cider vinegar have become familiar cupboard staples.

In 2020, plant-based diets are still in vogue, but their offerings are more glamorous than the dry Linda McCartney sausages of my teenage vegetarian phase. Now supermarkets stock exotic products such as sustainable seaweed puffs, coconut flour tortilla chips and spirulina chia pudding.

This eating trend has been perpetuated by a boom of social media bloggers. Despite most of them lacking nutritional qualifications, these foodstagrammers have armies of followers. Their focus is not usually on the health benefits of clean food, however, but rather on its aesthetic appeal. Clean eating has become part of an aspirational lifestyle portrayed by lean, wealthy young adults who swear by their Mason jar rainbow smoothies.

If taken to extremes, clean eating can develop into a condition known as orthorexia nervosa. Orthorexia was first defined in 1977 by Dr Steven Bratman as a pathological obsession with healthy food. While not currently recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, the condition does bear similarities to other clinical eating disorders. Like anorexia nervosa for instance, orthorexia involves strict dietary control and fear-driven ritualistic compulsions.

People with orthorexia fixate on the quality and purity of their food

Unlike anorexics, however, people with orthorexia fixate on the quality and purity of their food. This includes avoiding products that contain artificial preservatives, trans fats and pesticides. Echoing the principles of clean eating, this diet is limited to foods that support physical health. Yet, while clean eating is universally praised, orthorexia is deemed to be harmful and obsessive.

Ironically, such a strict ‘healthy’ eating regime can in fact lead to illness. Since many foods are omitted from an individual’s diet, there is often insufficient intake of the vitamins and minerals required for optimum health.

When part of a more balanced diet, healthy food is good for our physical wellbeing. Yet the language that surrounds our nutritional choices such as ‘organic,’ ‘detox’ and ‘natural’ infers that eating clean will also elevate us to a superior level of virtue. In this way, health food evangelists assert that those who conform to the values of clean eating will not only become physically well, but also morally pure.

This judgment and morality are an everyday part of our eating lexicon. ‘Clean’ food items are even branded with virtuous names. These include Halo Top Ice Cream, Innocent Smoothies, Perfect Snacks and Right Rice. The ‘guilt free’ slogan of these products echoes the idea that we are ‘good’ when we eat clean; and conversely ‘bad’ if we are tempted by ‘dirtier’ foods.

‘Junk’ or ‘cheat’ foods suggest decadence and depravity

Using the language of morality to define our nutritional choices thereby demonizes food items, or whole food groups. Calorie-laden, low nutritional value foods are often described as ‘junk’ or ‘cheat’ foods, terms which suggest decadence and depravity. In the 1980s, Lyons marketed their products by associating ‘forbidden’ types of food with pleasure, coining the ubiquitous phrase ‘naughty but nice.’ Their successful advertising campaign endorsed the concept that highly palatable foods such as cream cakes are bad for the soul.

When we consume foods that have been designated as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ this morality becomes transferred to ourselves. Restricting our diet to good, clean products can therefore provide us with a sense of achievement and virtue. Within modern culture, praise and respect are awarded to those who eat healthily since they are perceived to possess superior levels of willpower and self-control.

This external commendation, however, only serves to reinforce the mind-set that clean is better. As a result, we are left constantly questioning whether our food choices are ‘good enough.’ Eating foods that we have labelled as ‘bad’ can lead to feelings of guilt and shame; and even physically damaging behaviours such as restriction or purging.

Food does not possess intrinsic moral value

The fetishization of clean eating and its more extreme manifestation as orthorexia can therefore challenge our mental wellbeing. Ultimately, using the phrase ‘clean’ to describe certain types of food grants power to these items and their promise of health and self-worth. In order to disable this power, we need to remind ourselves that the moral lexicon surrounding food is merely a linguistic construct that is culturally promoted and self-imposed.

We may feel virtuous if we eat cauliflower instead of bread, but this is just an idea: food does not possess intrinsic moral value. Health is about balance: eat the kale AND the cake.

Categories
Dieting Eating Disorders Fitness Competitions

How Dieting Leads To Eating Disorders

Fitness Competitions and The Minnesota Starvation Experiment

CW: details of eating disordered behaviours.

Restricting food intake is the number one cause of eating disorders. NEDA reports that ‘35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting and that 20-25% of those individuals develop eating disorders.1

But why is this the case?

In 1944, a study was conducted that documented the effects of following a restrictive diet. This was the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. Led by Dr Ancel Keys, a team of researchers set out to find the most effective methods of rehabilitation for the millions of people who experienced starvation during the Second World War.

They did this by restricting the diets of 36 young, healthy, male volunteers for a period of 6 months.

The study found that externally induced starvation led to various psychological and physiological changes. These changes are typical of what might occur when we engage in extreme or chronic dieting.

As a former Pro Bikini Competitor, I experienced similar effects when severely reducing my calorie intake in preparation for the stage. This eventually led to a full blown relapse into anorexia nervosa.

The Minnesota Starvation Experiment was in three parts:

  1. 3 month control phase, during which the men ate normally
  2. 6 months of semi-starvation
  3. 3 months of re-feeding

During the first stage, the daily calorie intake was approximately 3500kcal. This was then halved to 1570kcal in the second, semi-starvation phase.

Likewise, achieving the lean competition physique involves being in a calorie deficit for a long period of time. For the average woman, the recommended daily intake is 2000kcal.2 When preparing for a competition, however, this can drop almost to 1000kcal. This is the figure established by The World Health Organization as ‘the border of semi-starvation.’3

The Minnesota Experiment’s protocol required participants to lose 25% of their body weight during the process (an average of 37lbs.)4 This meant sustaining a weekly weight loss of approximately 2.5lb.

Aside from obvious external indicators such as sunken faces and protruding ribs, the men experienced:

  • decreases in body temperature
  • low blood pressure
  • anaemia
  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • decreased heart rate
  • decreased metabolic functioning.

The lean stage physique is essentially in a state of chronic malnutrition

These symptoms can also arise when preparing for a fitness competition. Striving to attain the extreme aesthetic requirements causes various physical afflictions. These closely resemble the symptoms of starvation since the lean stage physique is essentially in a state of chronic malnutrition.

This produces dysfunctions that affect multiple organs within the cardiovascular, gastro intestinal, endocrine, skeletal, and central nervous systems.5

As well as causing physical illness, reduced caloric intake also leads to psychological depletion. The Minnesota men experienced various neurological deficits: lack of concentration anxiety, irritability and depression. Depressive episodes are both a physiological result of reduced dietary energy intake, and a psychological response to constantly fighting hunger.

Participants were also fanatically preoccupied with food: it was the principal topic of conversation and the subject of their dreams. They collected menus and cookery books; and some even expressed a desire to become chefs after the experiment had ended.

This obsession is also true of competitors. My fellow bikini models and I constantly talked of and thought about food: comparing our meals, watching food channels, and compulsively starring at ‘forbidden’ food items in the supermarket.

A common symptom of calorie restriction is heightened cravings


A common symptom of calorie restriction experienced by both study participants and competitors is heightened cravings. As with food obsession, cravings are survival mechanisms that ensure that the starving individual seeks out nutrition. In the fitness world, cravings are typically for carbohydrates such as doughnuts, chips and ice cream.

Following the semi-starvation phase, the men underwent 3 months of restricted rehabilitation where their daily rations were incrementally increased to 3200kcal. Their extreme hunger did not abate, however. According to Dr Keys, this was because the calorie increase was still not sufficient ‘to allow tissues destroyed during starvation to be rebuilt.’6

Finally, there was an eight-week period during which there were no limits on food intake, during which the men would often binge on 8000-10,000kcal a day. As a result, they frequently vomited after meals and one was admitted to hospital to have his stomach pumped.

Extreme hunger, known as hyperphagia, is typical of anorexia recovery


This extreme huger, known as hyperphagia, is also typical of anorexia recovery. It is the result of the body’s attempt not only to restore weight, but also to repair the physical damage that has occurred during starvation. Throughout my own recovery, I had frequent binges where I could easily consume a frightening 10,000kcal in one sitting and still not be satisfied. You can find a detailed account of my own experiences in Hanging Up The Bikini: Why I Quit Fitness Competitions.

Despite having no previous history of eating disorders, participants continued to be preoccupied with food, binge eating or restricting their calorie intake long after the study had ended.

Like the starvation imposed upon the men in this study, the extreme diet required for a competition can lead to obsessive and destructive food-related behaviours for women who have no previous histories of disorderly eating.

Eating disorders can be created just by dieting

The experiment revealed that malnutrition itself causes these symptoms: eating disorders can be created just by depriving the body of food through dieting.

This means that many, including myself, have hung up their sequinned bikinis. Like the Minnesota men, we have found starvation too damaging to our psychological and physical well-being.


  1. http://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/treatment-for-eating-disorders/special-issues/dieting
  2. http://www.nhs.uk/chq/pages/1126.aspx?categoryid=51
  3. Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders, ed. by Patricia Fallon, Melanie A. Katzman, Susan C. Wooley (The Guilford Press: London, 1994), p.8 ‘From Too “Close to the Bone”: The Historical Context for Women’s Obsession with Slenderness’, Roberta P. Seid
  4. http://www.seven-health.com/2013/08/controlling-weight-part-2/
  5. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/89260-overview#a0101
  6. https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/135/6/1347/4663828

Categories
Body Image Eating Disorders History

Keeping Up With The Body Ideal

Throughout history, women have been compelled to alter their bodies in order to meet variable standards of physical perfection.

With its tight mid-section and muscular curves, the ‘bikini body’ is the ideal to which we are currently told to aspire. A lean physique, however, has only become fashionable during the last century.

The ideal body was big and matriarchal, symbolising fertility and female power

Prior to this, voluptuousness was idolised and fleshy figures were prized in cultures all over the world. Evidence of this dates back to 21,000 BC, as portrayed by the Palaeolithic chalk statue, the Willendorf Venus. The ideal body was big and matriarchal, its swollen form symbolising fertility and female power.

This notion of beauty persisted until the 1800s when there was a marked shift in the female body ideal. It was during this period that slenderness first came into fashion: the ascetic model that graces our modern runways originated in the wasp-waisted silhouette of the Victorian lady.

The corset’s lacing and whalebone reinforcement caused gradual shifting of the internal organs

In 1893, one beauty journal claimed that ‘a slender, well-proportioned figure is the desire of most women.’ Replicating this aesthetic that was both slim and curvaceous required the use of a corset. The corset’s lacing and whalebone reinforcement caused gradual shifting of the internal organs to create the coveted hourglass figure with exaggerated bust and hips, offset by a narrow waist. Vogue magazine even featured a tightly-laced model on the cover of its first ever publication in 1892.

This move towards slenderness was the result of a change in women’s socio-political status. During the latter half of the nineteenth century the balance of power between the sexes began to change when suffragettes campaigned for the right to vote.

In the 1920s, dieting became a serious female preoccupation

During this period, the alteration in women’s appearance reflected their political aspirations for freedom and power. In the 1920s, female emancipation coincided with a new svelte ideal when the epitome of beauty became the boyish ‘flapper.’ As a consequence, dieting became a serious female preoccupation. This resulted in a marked increase in the number of women diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.

The following decades saw the return of the cinched waist, yet the ideal body retained the slenderness of the narrow-hipped, small-chested flapper. It was not until the 1950s that the hourglass figure returned in full force.

Glamorous celebrities such as Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe contributed to a voluptuous ideal that had echoes of Victorianism with its petite waistline. This was achieved by wearing a girdle, however, rather than a tightly-laced corset.

This beauty ideal was reflected in the immensely popular Barbie doll, which was introduced in 1959 and boasted a large bust, long legs and an impossibly small waist.

Since the 1960s, the figure possessed by models, playboy centrefolds and beauty contestants has become increasingly slim. This trend began with British model Leslie Hornby, nicknamed Twiggy, who stormed the fashion scene when she appeared in Vogue in 1965.

Twiggy quickly became a cultural icon of femininity with millions of women across Britain and America engaging in self-starvation in order to emulate her waif-like fragility. As the ideal body reduced in size, definitions of ‘overweight’ subsequently began to include ‘normal-sized’ women.

By the early 1980s, the fashion for delicate femininity was replaced by a more ‘toned’ physique. This was reinforced by an emerging culture of health and fitness. For the first time, the ideal female body had muscle.

Shortly afterwards, however, health gave way to self-destruction and dissolution since the 90s’ aesthetic was based around ‘heroin chic’. The look, characterized by pale, emaciated features and unkempt hair was propounded by fashion models such as Kate Moss, who found fame in 1993 after featuring in an advertisement for Calvin Klein.

In 2020, those androgynous angles and unsmiling faces have now been replaced with toned, feminine curves as magazine covers and Victoria’s Secret runways are graced with happy, healthy looking models. Fitness culture has returned, bringing with it a trend for bodies that are curvaceous, yet also lean.

The hourglass figure of the nineteenth century is back. Without a corset, however, women must work even harder to achieve the contradictory aspects of a tight waist and ample curves.

Throughout the centuries, self-comparison with the ideal female form has contributed to bodily dissatisfaction and disorderly eating. From organ-shifting corsets, to extremely restrictive diets, women have engaged in physically damaging practices for hundreds of years in an attempt to replicate a perpetually shifting ideal.

If we are to achieve freedom from this, we must remember that the concept of the ideal body is merely a concept. It is an idea, invented by culture and continually subject to change.

Striving to achieve the ideal body will inevitably lead to failure

Consequently, striving to achieve the ‘perfect’ physique will inevitably lead to failure. Today, we are told that we must aspire to have a curvaceous bikini body. Tomorrow, the fashion may change to a more androgynous figure and the hard work must begin all over again….

Categories
Body Image Dieting Eating Disorders Exercise Fitness Competitions

Not-So-Fit-Spiration

CW: details of disordered eating behaviours.

Throughout the noughties, young women appealed to ‘thinspiration’ for advice on how they should look. Instagram was their Bible and the thigh-gap their ultimate goal. Recently however, this disturbingly slender model has developed muscle.

In 2021, the fitness body has become the ideal to which women are told they must aspire.

It is now becoming increasingly difficult to avoid the ever expanding world of ‘fitspiration.’ Via their motivational online content, sculpted gym bunnies and yoga pant clad ‘wellness’ gurus offer us an attractive alternative to being ‘thin.’

While thinspiration placed emphasis upon mental willpower, ‘be strong and get skinny’, modern fitness culture requires resilience of both mind and body. This is indicated by the slogan: ‘strong is the new skinny.’

Moving away from the comparatively simple starvation method, fitspiration encourages weight loss through ‘clean’ eating and exercise. On social media, women in neon sports bras inform their followers that today is ‘leg day’; and ‘meal 3’ was salmon with sweet potato.

Instagram feeds function as online food diaries where fitness enthusiasts post images of Tupperware-bound protein and greens. These are accompanied by their macronutrient values and the ubiquitous hashtag #absaremadeinthekitchen.


According to this trend, dieting must be supplemented by regular workouts in order to achieve the new ideal body that is not only lean, but also strong. The concave stomach of the thinspiration era now boasts a six pack; and the thigh gap has been replaced by muscular legs. A model’s rounded glutes are frequently the subject of fitspirational images where women are posed in the squat rack, dripping with sweat.

There are positive aspects to fitness culture. It can be encouraging in its (ostensible) quest for health, and is capable of promoting body confidence. Unlike the followers of its predecessor, advocates of fitspiration assert

I work out not because I hate my body but because I love it

The women who refused food, or spent their days slumped over a toilet bowl are now positive and strong.

Nevertheless, despite their outward appearance of health, the women who represent this lifestyle maintain an extremely low level of body fat. According to Muscle and Body Magazine, fitness models usually have 8.5-14% body fat, which is far lower than the 25-31% female average. For women, this can be particularly dangerous since a certain amount of body fat is necessary for their physiological health.

Compared to the anorexic girls of the thinspiration era, fitness models have a large amount of muscle mass, which means that they do not look ill and emaciated. Marketed as fitness, the new ideal body makes ‘thin’ socially palatable by its transition from the darker, self-harming world of anorexia towards a promise of health and happiness.

The danger of fitspiration lies in the fact that it is masquerading as health

With its confounding combination of muscular curves and low body fat, the fitness figure is even more unattainable than its ultra-thin predecessor. As was the case with the diminutive form of the Kate Moss ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ era, striving to attain the fitness model look causes serious damage to mental and physical health.

The thought patterns and behaviours of fitspiration are potentially as destructive and compulsive as self-starvation.


Attaining such a lean physique involves strict eating regimes and obsessive exercise, yet these activities are disguised by rhetoric of willpower and dedication. Like advocates of thinspiration, members of the fitness movement view their choices not as a dangerous obsession, but as part of a dedicated lifestyle.

This is reinforced by their mantra: ‘obsessed is a word the lazy use to describe the dedicated.’ In addition, the compulsive nature of these behaviours is confirmed by the claim that, ‘once you see results, it becomes an addiction.’

While today’s culture asserts that ‘strong is the new skinny’, this statement is undermined by its replication of many thinspiration conventions. Its followers photograph their meals, share weight loss tips, and post countless selfies; yet with a tighter, more muscular physique as their idol.

Fitspiration offers an even more impossible ideal


As well as promoting the same obsessions as its predecessor, fitspiration offers an even more impossible ideal. Looking like a fitness model requires heavy weight lifting, an impeccably rigid diet, and round the clock commitment; a truth overlooked by some of the young women who become swept up by this culture. You can read about my personal experiences of being a fitness model here.

Far from promoting a healthier attitude towards eating and body image, the fitness physique is merely a rebranding of anorexia-glorifying thinspiration. Despite fitspiration’s claim that, ‘strong is the new skinny’, strong remains resolutely lean.

Categories
Body Image Dieting

Paying To Be Perfect

Throughout history, society has been preoccupied with the concept of the ‘ideal’ female body. The modern definition of this ideal, slender and toned, yet also curvaceous, is so unattainable that women who try to reproduce it often develop problems with body image and disorderly eating.

But where does this ideal originate? And why do so many of us want to achieve it?

The answer lies in the current global market, which reflects a $166 billion health and weight management industry; a $532 billion beauty industry; and a $51 billion cosmetic surgery industry. The flawless female body is economically exploited by multinational corporations: it is ‘an icon created by capitalism for the sake of profit.’1

Beauty, fitness and diet industries target our insecurities

Beauty, fitness and diet industries generate their income by presenting us with a vision of the perfect body that targets our own insecurities. We are vulnerable to the power of this image since, in comparison, we are made to feel overweight and ugly.

The same companies then sell us products so that we can ‘correct’ our many physical deficiencies. These products promise to make us appear younger, slimmer and more attractive.

Under the guise of counselling women on ways they can attain physical perfection, companies increase their profit margins by nurturing bodily anxiety. They create a problem; then offer the solution. As long as bodily dissatisfaction is maintained, women are controllable and profitable.

These industries profit from selling bodily insecurity

Since these industries profit from selling bodily insecurity, they make us believe that we can improve ourselves by purchasing their products.

Women’s magazines and websites are packed with articles and adverts that provide solutions for sculpting the perfect glutes; reducing body fat; and getting rid of wrinkles. They tell us that transformation is easy, as long as we are willing to spend.

Companies not only advertise products to improve our physical exteriors; they also offer consumable items that promise to reduce our weight and size. Within modern culture, women and dieting are almost synonymous.

This weight preoccupation is created by the diet industry that is worth over £2bn in the UK alone. Diet companies profit by offering weight loss solutions that are unsustainable in the long term, thereby ensuring that women return to buy their products.

Low carbohydrate diets, for instance, can cause rapid weight loss, yet the rate of this loss decreases as the body adapts and metabolism lowers in order to compensate for lack of nutritional energy. Most diets offer a quick and easy solution, yet fail to counsel women on the long term effects, or their possible health risks.

More than 1 in 5 women claim they would consider weight loss surgery

In addition to investing in diet plans and products, an increasing number of women have resorted to surgery to shed the pounds. Weight loss surgery is on the rise, with a market worth of almost $6 billion in the USA. More than one in five women claim that they would consider surgical procedures to combat their weight.2

There is also a growing market for surgical and non-surgical cosmetic treatments. This is owing to the current body ideal that is both curvaceous and lean. Since this is almost impossible for most women to achieve naturally, surgery is often required.

According to The British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, the top 3 cosmetic surgeries of 2019 include breast augmentation, with 7727 surgeries carried out during this year.3

Owing to the somewhat unnatural body ideal and the over-commercialisation of surgery, going under the knife has become a social norm. Since it is now possible to drastically change our bodies through diet, exercise and surgical procedures, however, the ideal has become increasingly unrealistic.

We are led to believe that we are perfectible

In these ways, capitalist industries perpetuate the myth that the physical form is a blank canvas to be constructed, improved and enhanced. We are led to believe that we are perfectible: that the body can be shaped according to our volition.

Feminist critic Susan Bordo points out that the body is no longer understood as ‘a biological “given” …but as a plastic potentiality to be pressed into the service of the image-to be arranged, re-arranged, constructed and deconstructed as we choose.’4

Being told that we have the power for self-improvement creates the illusion that we are in control of our own transformations. In reality, however, we are victims of commercial enterprise. 

Not only is the concept of the ideal body created for capitalist gain, it also serves to maintain patriarchal power. In a culture obsessed with bodies, we are made to feel ashamed of our own figures and engage in damaging behaviours in order to ‘fix’ them.

Accepting this ideal and believing that we can alter our bodies to achieve it has, according to Susie Orbach, ‘contributed to…a progressively unstable body, a body which to an alarming degree is becoming a site of serious suffering and disorder.’5

Subscribing to the demands of the cultural ideal, we become agents of our own oppression by engaging in self-regulatory practices as we starve, purge, nip, tuck and beautify our bodies.

By directing our energies towards meeting an impossible body ideal, this means that we do not have the time, energy, or confidence to challenge our position in society. In this way, our bodies have become mediums of cultural control that ensure we remain attractive, silent and obedient.

Society leads to believe that the problem lies with us: that if we mould ourselves to fit their ideal, our problems will be solved. Instead of trying to squeeze our bodies into a single cookie-cutter shape and size, however, we should celebrate the beautiful variety of female bodies. Instead of striving for individual change, we should aim for social revolution.


  1. Hesse-Biber, Sharlene, Am I Thin Enough Yet?: The Cult of Thinness and the Commercialization of Identity, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996)
  2. https://comparethetreatment.com/the-uks-top-cosmetic-surgery-trends-for-2015/
  3. https://baaps.org.uk/media/press_releases/1708/cosmetic_surgery_stats_number_of_surgeries_remains_stable_amid_calls_for_greater_regulation_of_quick_fix_solutions
  4. Bordo, Susan Feminisms
  5. Orbach, Susie Bodies, (Profile Books, London, 2009)
Categories
Dieting

Why Diets Don’t Work

Diets don’t work. Restricting food intake may initially lead to weight loss, yet 95% of people who lose weight gain it back within 3-5 years.

Most of us would blame our lack of willpower, but dieting is not a matter of self-discipline.

Consider: how many different diets have you followed? How many times have you reduced your calories; fasted; or avoided whole food groups such as the currently demonised carbohydrates? If any of these diets worked, we would only need one.

Dieting becomes increasingly ineffective every time we embark upon a new nutrition plan. The irony is that intentional weight loss methods actually teach our bodies how to gain weight.

REASON WHY DIETS DON’T WORK #1: PHYSICAL RESTRICTION

Restricting calories or excluding food groups essentially puts our bodies into a state of starvation or malnutrition. Our bodies therefore respond as if there is a famine and make physiological adaptations to keep us alive.

These adaptations include increasing hunger and cravings which lead us to seek out and eat more food, especially those high in carbohydrates. This is owing to hormonal changes brought about by the period of starvation: when it is energy deprived, the brain increases production of the chemical Neuropeptide Y which drives us to consume energy dense carbohydrates.

In addition, reducing body fat through dieting leads to decreased levels of the hormone leptin, which helps us to feel full. Under normal circumstances fat stores release leptin into the bloodstream which informs the body that energy stores are available and signals us to eat less. As we lose body fat, however, leptin levels fall. This leads to increased appetite, particularly for sweet, high energy foods.

Restriction of calorie intake by dieting lowers our metabolism

Constant restriction of calorie intake by dieting also lowers our metabolism: this is a physical adaptation that ensures we will be able to survive on a smaller amount of food. The more body weight we lose, the fewer calories we need to consume, therefore we need to restrict more and more as weight loss continues.

Our bodies also increase our set point weight as insurance against future famine. This set point is a genetically determined range of 10-15lbs where our bodies are most comfortable. If we drop under our set point weight by restricting food, the body responds and works like a thermostat to adjust metabolism and hormone levels until our weight returns to this stable point.

If we repeatedly engage in dieting, we can actually push our set point weight up. This is because the body’s metabolic condition changes when we restrict our food intake. We cannot lower your set point weight, but it is possible to raise it…by dieting.

REASON WHY DIETS DON’T WORK #2: MENTAL RESTRICTION

Mental restriction such as implementing food rules, categorising foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and forbidding foods that we enjoy such as pizza or chocolate also leads to weight gain.

This is because depriving ourselves of these foods drives up cravings and therefore we end up overeating the very foods we are trying to avoid. Likewise, if we resolve to start a new diet tomorrow, then today we will probably go into ‘last supper mode’ and frantically eat everything in sight because this is our last chance before the food restrictions are in place.

Only permitting ourselves a certain amount of daily calories may also cause the number on the scale to creep up. This is because when we restrict our food intake, we are telling our brains that there is no more food.

This causes the brain to panic and consequently increase our urge to overeat or binge. In this way, we up eating more calories overall than if we hadn’t restricted our daily intake in the first place.

After a binge, we experience guilt or shame and resolve to diet even harder

Our body’s responses to physical and mental restriction are survival mechanisms that lead us to eat, and eat a lot. Afterwards, we may experience guilt or shame and resolve to diet even harder. This only serves to perpetuate the binge / restrict cycle, and each time we go through it the restriction becomes tighter and the binges become more extreme.

This constant cycling (or yo yo dieting) places the body in a chronic state of stress. The body reacts to this stress in several ways, one of which is that the adrenal glands produce the hormone cortisol. Cortisol increases appetite and causes cravings for sugary foods, which are then stored as fat.

Restriction is therefore the fastest way to gain weight and permanently increase our set point weight

The fundamental message is that we cannot control our weight long term. It is impossible to sustainably fight against our biological instincts. It’s just like breathing: we can hold our breath for a little while, but at some point, we are going to have to breathe.

We need to reject the diet mentality and throw away our meal plans. If we truly allow ourselves to eat without deprivation or restriction, the drive to seek out excessive amounts of food subsides as our bodies and brains learn that the famine is finally over.

We need to embrace food freedom, allow ourselves all foods, and trust that our bodies know what to do.

Categories
Body Image Dieting Eating Disorders Exercise Fitness Competitions Recovery

Hanging Up The Bikini: Why I Quit Competing

CW: details of eating disordered behaviours.

In October 2014, at age 31 I achieved the award that marked the pinnacle of my fitness competition career: the coveted Bikini Athlete Pro Card. Standing onstage in a Hertfordshire theatre, smiling for the winner’s photographs, I appeared the epitome of health and fitness. But, in reality, I was suffering from serious physical and mental damage.

Entering the world of fitness competitions triggered a major relapse

I have had a disordered relationship with food since I developed anorexia at the age of 11. Over the years, I have also suffered from body dysmorphia and bulimia. When I was in my late 20s, entering the world of fitness competitions triggered a major relapse into these destructive patterns of eating.

I am second from the left

Fitness competitions are a misnomer. The irony of these events lies in the very title itself: fitness is not necessarily synonymous with health. I was a fitness model, yet I was far from fit. I ignored my body’s appeals for food and rest, and instead rigidly adhered to punishing diet and training regimes in the hope that they would make me muscular and lean.

In the fitness world, disordered eating is extremely common

These types of strict routines mean that most competitors become disconnected from their bodies and what they truly need. Unsurprisingly, therefore, in the fitness world disordered eating is extremely common. Female athletes have the same risk factors as women in the general population, supplemented by the additional risk of reducing their body fat to dangerously low levels.

Body fat is decreased during the final stage of competition preparation, which is masochistically known as ‘cutting’. This typically begins eight to twelve weeks prior to a show, depending on the amount of fat that must be lost in order to create a winning physique.

This process increases the female competitor’s susceptibility to three inter-related disorders, known as the Female Athlete Triad. The components of the triad are osteoporosis, amenorrhea and disordered eating.

Osteoporosis occurs because limiting calorie intake leads to a decreased production of the hormone oestrogen. Since oestrogen plays a crucial role in calcium resorption and bone growth, reduced levels can lead to brittle bones.

Even though I was following an extremely restrictive diet, I naively thought that any damage would be offset by my strength training which typically increases bone density. After competing, however, I had a bone density (DEXA) scan, which revealed that my bone density was borderline abnormal.

This was the last time I lost my period before I learned that I was infertile


Not only does a low level of oestrogen lead to brittle bones, it also causes menstrual dysfunction where the cycle can be delayed, or can stop altogether (known as amenorrhea). Owing to my restrictive eating habit, I have lost my period on numerous occasions over the past two decades.

When I experienced amenorrhea during competition preparation, however, this was the last occasion before I learned that I was infertile. Three very costly and emotionally traumatic in vitro fertilization (IVF) cycles later, and I am still waiting for my miracle baby.


While osteoporosis and amenorrhea are widely experienced by female athletes, the most common aspect of the triad is disordered eating. This includes extreme calorie restriction, binge eating, and purging via excessive exercise or self-induced vomiting. These abnormal patterns of behaviour are caused by the strict nutritional regime required during competition prep.

My own insubstantial food plan exacerbated my pre-existing patterns of disorderly eating. I was so hungry that I couldn’t keep any ‘forbidden’ food items in the house since I had moments of ‘weakness’, where I would ‘give in’ and binge. A teaspoon of peanut butter could easily become a whole jar.

I unsuccessfully attempted to alleviate my troublesome appetite by drinking litres of cherry Pepsi max and chewing sugar free gum. The Pepsi, however, gave me headaches and heart palpitations; and I chewed so much gum that I eventually wore away my teeth and had to have most of them filled.

Hunger increases during the final weeks of preparation, when carbohydrates are drastically decreased in order to boost fat loss. Reducing carbohydrates to less than 20g per day releases ketones which the body can then use as fuel. This process produces various side effects, however, including nausea, headaches and fatigue.

This established a pattern of eating which would later turn into a vicious cycle of restriction and binging

In order to avoid these undesirable symptoms, competitors typically cycle carbohydrates. This involves enduring several consecutive low carbohydrate days, followed by a high carbohydrate ‘refeed’ day to aid metabolism and ensure continual fat loss. I didn’t know at the time, but this established a pattern of eating which would later turn into a vicious cycle of restriction and binging.

In the end, all my hard work paid off. I won. And I was awarded my Pro Card. But was it worth it? On show day, the audience admire and applaud your physique. But they don’t see behind the curtain. They don’t see what it takes to be that woman holding the trophy. And they don’t see what happens afterwards.


Stepping off stage was the beginning of a relapse into my most serious and dangerous anorexic phase to date.


Terrified of losing my stage physique, I continued to restrict my calorie intake over the next couple of years. I lost body fat, and I also lost the muscle that I worked so hard to gain. My body literally ate itself. My glutes, the prize aspect of every bikini competitor, became saggy and deflated. My coccyx was so bony that I had to sit on a cushion. I was constantly cold from the inside out and handfuls of my hair fell out in the shower. I couldn’t go to the gym; I couldn’t even walk 10 minutes to the shop without feeling faint.

Eventually, my internal organs began to shut down and my hormones stopped functioning. I developed bradycardia because the muscles in my heart had shrunk.

I lost over 2 stone (12.7kg) before I was admitted into an eating disorders hospital, where I spent 18 months as an outpatient. I was emaciated and mentally broken, a shadow of the woman who triumphantly raised the winning trophy.

In my experience, having your dream body does not make your life better. For me, it did exactly the opposite.

Whether you are preparing for a fitness competition, or just trying to manipulate your body through diet and exercise, I hope this has brought attention to the physical and emotional damage that can be caused by valuing aesthetics over mental health.

I am now working towards food freedom and body acceptance. I still have my competition bikini as a memento, but its time in the spotlight is over and it is resolutely HUNG UP.

Categories
Body Image Dieting Exercise Fitness Competitions

The Perfect Body Illusion

CW: details of disordered eating behaviours.

Do you wish you look like the girl in the magazine? I will let you in on a secret…the girl in the magazine doesn’t even look like that.


I know: I have been that girl.


Representations of the ‘perfect’ female body are pervasive throughout modern society, consolidated and perpetuated by an omnipresent mass media. Online, this ideal can be found on a variety of platforms ranging from YouTube workout videos, to the image-laden Instagram. We are constantly bombarded with these ‘inspirational’ bodies which, thanks to our smartphones, can be viewed any time, anywhere.

Frequent exposure to these ideals places women at risk of developing a negative body image

In today’s hyper-saturated image culture, this aesthetic ideal is extremely powerful; and its prolific distribution serves to reinforce our obsession with physical appearance. Studies suggest that frequent exposure to these ideals places women, particularly adolescent females, at risk of developing a negative body image. Comparing ourselves to these blemish-free, sculpted physiques can cause dissatisfaction and contribute to low self-esteem.

In a study carried out in 2019, over 45 per cent of adolescents were found to be moderately or strongly influenced by media images of idealised bodies. Comparison with these images often encourages weight preoccupation, and ultimately leads to disordered eating as we attempt to replicate the ‘ideal’ body.


This body, however, is far from real.


In 2013, I entered the aesthetics-driven world of fitness competitions. I would like to say that I was motivated to compete by my love of weight lifting, or that it was because of my competitive personality. In reality, I was seduced by the glamour. For me, fitness competitors were beauty queens with muscle. They shone (literally in their diamante stage bikinis), emanating strength and confidence. Whatever they had, I wanted to have it; whatever they were, I wanted to be it.


So I signed up for my first show, and in doing so, was awarded membership to that elite group of dazzling women. Like them, I stood onstage under the spotlights while photographers immortalised my lean, muscular, and somewhat orange physique in a flurry of shots.


Afterwards, when I shared the images online, my friends and family remarked how different I looked onstage. In particular, they commented on how tall I appeared (in real life, I measure a petite 5 feet 2 inches). Creating the appearance of height, however, is only one of countless illusions that can be produced using the art of photography.


With technological methods such as digital enhancement and airbrushing, it is possible to mask imperfections and homogenize skin tone. Abdominal muscles can be made to appear more defined by increasing contrast and deepening shadows; and the body’s silhouette can be adjusted by tightening the waist and enlarging ‘desirable’ curves such as a woman’s bust and glutes.

Models often go to extreme lengths to ensure that their bodies are photo perfect


This photographic illusion is also reinforced by the models themselves, who will often go to extreme lengths to ensure that their bodies are photo perfect. I always book a photoshoot for the week leading up to a competition, beginning gruelling preparations two months in advance.

This is when I exchange body building for sculpting; stripping away soft flesh to uncover the goddess-like form that waits beneath in all its defined, curvaceous glory.

This preparation requires meticulous planning. Calories are decreased, carbohydrates are cycled, and macronutrients are precisely calculated. I have a freezer full of turkey and tilapia; and cupboards stocked with pink salt and calorie-free condiments in order to survive the weeks of no sugar and no sauce. Food is green or white.


I prepare my meals in advance and, being too hungry to wait 5 minutes while they reheat, eat them cold straight from their Tupperware tub. I scrape pans and lick spoons, desperate to devour every last morsel of food. Attempting to alleviate hunger pangs, I incessantly chew gum, go to bed at 9pm and chain drink black Americanos until my hands are shaking.

This type of severe diet and the constant hunger makes me highly irritable, dizzy and exhausted, all of which are exacerbated by my intensive weight lifting regime.

Yet it is all worth it when my obliques begin to emerge, and my muscles become separated. At this stage I am vascular and incredibly lean, and my body is ready to be photographed.


On the morning of the shoot, I then spend hours spraying dark tan, applying heavy make up, and vigorously backcombing my hair. After squeezing into a pair of tiny hot pants and a luminous sports bra, I pump up my muscles to create optimum definition.

Once the lighting and backdrop has been ideally positioned, all that remains is to painfully angle my body to its best advantage, suck in my stomach, and smile.

After the photographer has captured sufficient material, I am free to slump over the wash basin, where I attempt to rid myself of both her stage make up, and the blinding headache brought on by lack of food and water.

Photoshop masks and blends imperfections

As my face and body are returned to normal at the sink, my image is becoming increasingly abnormal as the photographer works on digitally enhancing the raw shots. Photoshop masks and blends imperfections and homogenizes skin tone. Abdominal muscles become more defined as contrast is increased and shadows are deepened. Morphing alters the body’s silhouette by tightening the waist and enlarging desirable bikini body features, such as the chest and glutes.

The potential harm of this kind of image manipulation, however, lies not in the enhancement itself, but in the photograph’s final presentation. Despite being overly styled and digitally altered, such bodies are frequently portrayed as ‘normal’ in the mass media. The constant stream of these images on Facebook, Instagram and elsewhere can therefore distort our perception of what is normal and attainable.

Most ‘perfect’ pictures on social media are often staged, well lit, strategically posed, and digitally manipulated


It is common practice for us to add a flattering filter, display our best angles, or even change our faces into cats before posting a photograph of ourselves online. This can be fun, or even reassuring if we are not feeling confident about our appearance on a particular day. The danger, however, lies in forgetting that most ‘perfect’ pictures on social media are not candid: they are often staged, well lit, strategically posed, and digitally manipulated.


When I find myself scrolling through old fitness photographs feeling envious of my leaner, more muscular physique, I try to remind myself that the body in the pictures was never truly real. On the day, I was starving, uncomfortable, and had a splitting headache brought on by lack of food and water.


If, like me, you sometimes brood over pictures when you thought you looked ‘better’; or compare yourself to the seemingly flawless models on Instagram, please remember that this perfect body does not exist…it is merely an ILLUSION.


Note: all images in this article are of myself during my competition and fitness modelling career