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

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.