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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
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.