Clean eating: Is it really healthy?

I could have sung with joy recently when I came across this fabulous BBC 3 documentary all about the dangers of the current clean eating trend. Finally, I had come across other people who share similar concerns to me and were questioning whether this current way of eating is a lifestyle change that we all need or another fad diet in disguise - and one with potentially damaging consequences. 

I’m sure you’re all aware of the clean eating trend; you can hardly miss it after all. There are now thousands and thousands of videos available on the internet on clean eating from the many hundreds of wellness bloggers who are all preaching the best way to live, let alone the many lifestyle coaches now offering their services. And of course social-media is full of food photos and hash-tagging and there is a plentiful supply of clean eating recipe books available on the market too.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all up for clean eating and living, I care deeply about animal welfare, the environment and conscious and wholesome eating. I also believe it is important to understand what’s what about the food you are eating and the conditions under which it has been grown/produced etc. and the resulting impact this has on others, let alone our own health and wellbeing. But these days I can’t help thinking that “clean eating” has taken on a new misguided meaning and provides yet another medium for food shaming.

While I have no doubt that initially it began with good intentions and implied eating a lot of whole and real plant based foods that have been minimally processed and packaged and have rarely seen a factory, these days clean eating seems to be yet another dieting trend and I am absolutely not a fan of dieting. The message is in the word. DIEt. I also have no doubt that for many, the current clean living trend can often be anything but healthy because a whole industry – yes an industry (enough said really) - has developed as a result of it.

You only have to visit your local health food store to realise this; even the major supermarkets are getting on board. It’s crazy really because it’s such a ridiculously expensive, elitist and middle class way of eating. It’s hardly surprising then that so many are jumping on the bandwagon; you don’t get an industry unless there’s money to be made, not only for the wellness bloggers and the many lifestyle coaches, but all the many companies making “healthy” food products to profiteer where they can.

The question is, do all these people and companies who are leading the clean eating/living industry really have your best interests at heart? Are they practicing what they preach? Is it really about being healthy and increasing your sense of wellbeing on all levels, or is it all about the physicality and losing weight and buying into (i.e. spending yet more cash on) the notion of the perfect figure (generally thin, green-juice drinking, chia-shot loving, yoga/Pilates practicing, perfect images of health) and continuously reinforcing the message that you’re not ok unless you too look like this?

As a society, does it really help us to put other people (many of whom we have never met) onto pedestals because they’ve sold us the idea that they have found the way to good health (and have the business/body to prove it)? Furthermore, is it really helping us to continuously give our power away to those who give the impression that they know more about our very own bodies than we know, as if we are all the same?  And finally is it healthy that those with very few nutritional qualifications or experience encourage others to make major changes to their way of eating and give up major food groups without truly knowing how that’s going to affect their health and indeed wellbeing in the future?

Now I’ll be honest, there are certain food groups that don’t agree with me, but I’ve learned this for myself over the years under the guidance of professional nutritionists and doctors, and through my own personal study. For example, dairy makes my fingers swell and makes me feel yucky inside, my body’s way of saying no, but this is just me, others couldn’t live without it.  I avoid sugar where I can because I know it plays havoc with my blood sugar levels, hormonal levels and resulting moods, and can make me feel depressed. But that said I absolutely adore dark chocolate and am rather partial to fresh seeded bread covered with my Mum’s homemade loganberry jam, yum yum!

I choose not to eat meat, although there have been times when I’ve needed it.  I refused a blood transfusion following the birth of my son and decided to heal myself nutritionally instead so I ate a whole heap of iron-rich foods including organic beef over the course of a few months and it worked, my iron levels eventually restored themselves to a normal level. I eat a whole heap of vegetables and fruit, nuts, pulses (I am a humus fiend!), fish and organic eggs and I like to drink black tea first thing in the morning. There are times when I eat things, which don’t make me feel brilliant so I try to avoid them next time; it’s an ongoing process of discovery, which changes over time!

Yet these days, people are making huge changes to their diets without having any idea of the impact, at least long term that it is going to have on them.  And the trouble is a lot of these wellness bloggers and lifestyle coaches who are handing out the advice are not professionally qualified.  You can obtain a diploma in nutrition in under 20 hours, and for £29 you can become a raw food nutritionist with a certificate to prove it.  But do these quick courses (such a reflection of our quick society) really provide you with the experience, knowledge and indeed wisdom to help others beyond merely losing a few pounds?

It makes me laugh really. There are wellness bloggers promoting the potato only diet and the banana diet and those recovering from eating disorders promoting the raw food vegan diet.  I mean come on.  Aren’t we stepping into dangerous territory here?  Well it seems that I am not alone in questioning this. Certainly concern has been expressed amongst nutritionists and eating disorder specialists who are witnessing an increase in orthorexia (the need to control one’s eating) and the role that the current clean eating trend is playing in this.

I know only too well how easy it is to try and mask an eating disorder behind current trends in dieting. I developed an eating disorder when I was 17 years old.  I starved myself to lose weight because I wanted greater control in my life and because I believed I was not good enough as I was, a perfectionist who was not perfect enough as it seemed (to me). My periods stopped and my parents grew increasingly concerned as I spent my days counting calories and finding ways to avoid eating, while also trying to exercise excessively.  There were a number of trips to the doctor and an appointment with a psychologist, but the damage had been done.

That same year I went away to University and lost control of starving myself and started a ridiculous binge and starve cycle instead, which went on for many years and was utterly exhausting.  I was constantly consumed with what I was eating and would exercise as much as I could, and went to ridiculous and dangerous steps to control my weight.  It was inevitably a form of self-harm now I think back, I absolutely did not like myself and the media simply served to re-inforce this with its emphasis on “skinniness equals perfection equals happiness”.

My negative relationship with food went on for far too many depressing years.  If I was seemingly in control (ha!) then I was relatively happy (or so I thought) but inevitably I would lapse and then I would be filled with utter self loathing and absolutely hate myself.  It was perhaps no surprise that I ended up with bad PMS (what with the disruption to my hormones with all the up and down blood sugar levels and the loss of connection to my natural cycle and my body’s wisdom), cysts on my ovaries (as something ate away at me from that trigger point at age 17) and depression (a complete loss of spirit).

It wasn’t until my mid twenties that I knew something had to change.  I had found my way, thankfully, out of a destructive relationship, and whilst those days were particularly dark, they helped to ease me slowly into the light.  I started running, I guess I was processing and trying to run my life forwards at the time, and it worked because I ended up running the London Marathon, which was life changing in more ways than one.

As a result of running the marathon my body was a bit of a mess, and someone suggested I try yoga.  I already knew that yoga was recommended for PMS and depression, but I just hadn’t manged to find my way to a class.  This was the prompt I needed and one evening my brother and I attended a class here in Guernsey and the rest, as they say, is history because I was hooked immediately. There was just something about yoga that made me feel better somehow and I wanted more of it.

It was through the yoga classes that I met my Reiki Master who brought Reiki into my life, which was truly life changing for me too, and gave me the courage to start addressing the issues I had been carrying around for years. I was still in denial about the eating disorder but I knew I needed to do something nutritionally, if not only to help initially with the PMS and depression. So I started seeing a local qualified and experienced nutritionist who was brilliant, I cannot recommend her enough.  She was very no nonsense and prescribed an eating plan and supplements, which made an incredible difference to how I felt, I couldn’t believe it!

Until that point, despite being a competitive sportswoman and being fed well by my Mum (when I’d eat it!), I had no idea about good nutrition. I ate what I ate depending on what I felt it would do to my weight, as opposed to what I felt it would do for my health. It was incredible really, to finally understand that much of my PMS symptoms were due to my restricted diet, and I came to realise that we are truly what we eat, and with that there was a huge shift in my relationship with food.

However, an eating disorder doesn’t just go away over night and I was still very much in denial that I even had one, or at least the degree to which I had one.  It levelled out a lot with the discovery of good nutrition, Reiki and yoga, and for the first time in many, many years my weight stabilised and I was eating well and feeling better because of it. But of course there were still trigger points and the yoga world is full of students with eating disorders – the focus on the body in Western yoga inevitably attracts those who have body issues.

A year after discovering yoga I gave up my job, sold my house, left my boyfriend and took myself off to Byron Bay in Australia to immerse myself in yoga.  I had visited Byron on a whim a few years earlier and there was something about that beautiful healing town that was calling me back.  It was one of those trips that was absolutely meant to be and within the course of 3 months I learned an awful lot about yoga and healing and knew with absolute certainty that I wanted to further my training as a teacher and share my passion of yoga and healing with others.

However, there was a downside.  I was surrounded by skinny yoginis, Byron was full of them, and I wanted to be a proper yoga practitioner which in my perfectionist head meant that I needed to be light and lean and ever so bendy and stretchy on my mat like those around me. I started practicing 6 hours of yoga a day and eating a very minimal vegan diet like so many others were eating out there.  Inevitably I lost weight and I loved the feeling of being light and the fact my clothes were hanging off me – it’s a control thing, and I got a kick out of the control, even though it was counter productive because the moment I lost control I loathed myself all over again. It is a very vicious cycle.

Back home in Guernsey it was challenging to sustain my new weight; it was winter for a start and I was back in the office working to save money to go off on my travels again so I could not indulge in 6 hours of yoga or all the exercising I had been doing with cycling around Byron and swimming in the sea.  It wasn’t easy and I began to loathe myself again as I re-developed the whole binge-starve thing. I now associated Byron and yoga with being skinny.

So it was with some joy that I returned to Byron for my 7-week teacher training course, followed by a few months of training with the same yoga school I had trained previously. I started off eating my normal diet during the training, it was incredibly demanding and intense and I was cycling backwards and forwards to the centre every day, but it didn’t take me long to be influenced by other people’s diets. One of the ladies involved in the training (who was very skinny) was a raw food expert and she was keen for us to explore this diet.

So I gave it a go. There are many benefits to a raw food diet in terms of the vibrancy of the food, but I wasn’t necessarily following it for that, I just wanted an excuse to eat less and lose weight in the process. The perfectionist in me was always looking for new ways of challenging myself to be perfect and here was one – see whether I could exist on raw food alone.  It was another trigger, another thing to obsess about.  It didn’t help that I was living with a couple who were vegans, so I had that pressure too.

The lady who introduced me to raw food was also very much into juicing and at the end of the training I joined her on a 5-day juice fast.  Well actually while I undertook a 5-day juice fast she undertook a 10-day water fast, she was very much into all this fasting for healing – it was only later I discovered that she suffered with bulimia. This was a major trigger point for me – the challenge of actually not eating. Wow, you can just imagine how great I felt about myself when I achieved this!  And actually I did feel great, you get this incredible energy if you juice beyond 3 days, but it wasn’t healthy for me, because it led to months of me not eating properly.

Following the juicing I decided to give a fruit-only diet a go and existed for a good two months or so just on a few bowls of fruit a day and an awful lot of soya chai!  I felt great, well so I thought.  Great because I was full on in the grips of controlling myself, I was the skinniest I’d ever been, I could leap around my mat really easily and I looked the part of the yoga teacher (or how I thought a yoga teacher should look, it’s nonsense by the way, a yoga teacher should look like they look, there is absolutely no requisite to be skinny!!).

The truth was, I couldn’t sleep at night and was running on some pretty crazy energy.  My adrenals were probably pushed to their limits what with all the caffeine, and then the yoga, cycling around town and swimming I was doing.  Further, my mind was utterly consumed with my weight.  It wasn’t healthy in the slightest.  Again, I was in total denial that I had an issue, I was really in the depths of it, I mean deep down I knew I had a problem, but I was a few years away from really addressing it and doing something about it.

I returned home to Guernsey after 5 months significantly depleted, totally ungrounded, and the skinniest I’d been for an awfully long time.  With this weight loss and all the rather yang yoga my periods stopped – I blamed the yoga rather than the diet, I really didn’t want to accept that I was harming myself again through a combination of the two!   I thought I was just doing what I felt other yoga teachers did – eating a simple (ha, very simple) Sattvic (pure) diet to enhance my spirituality. Silly when I reflect back, but that’s the nature of the mind, it’s tricky!

I set about trying to balance my hormones again and it was through this that I came to meet my Ayurvedic doctor, a lovely Sri Lankan lady, whose down to earth approach has always resonated with me. Ayurveda uses elemental medicine which means that they balance out earth, fire, water, air and ether in the body.  These are divided into three doshas; Vata, Pitta and Kapha, which are the basis of a person’s constitution and also the factors that can create imbalances.  Ayurveda places great emphasis on nutrition, lifestyle, yoga, meditation, massage and herbal medicines to bring a person back to health and keep them there.

The Ayurvedic doctor prescribed a nourishing and nutritionally balanced way of eating that would suit my natural constitution, which, on the whole, I still follow today. She also gave me some herbal medicine to take and I attended the clinic for some treatments, all of which were aimed at healing the root cause of the imbalance. I complemented this treatment with an awful lot of healing work and digging deep to get to the root cause of the problem, which I did.

I actually did a Brandon Bays, “The Journey” session, which took me back to age 17 and I was amazed, and yet not surprised, to discover the reason the eating disorder had taken root in the first place. This helped enormously and over time the combination of treatments certainly shifted how I felt, my periods started again, my PMS eased, my depression lifted, my cysts healed, my lifestyle changed, my heart lightened and gradually I came back to feeling whole again (I was kind and positive to myself finally), albeit mindful – as I shall no doubt always be - of trigger points.

And I can’t help thinking that this new clean eating is a trigger point for so many, a way to exert yet more false control over their busy and seemingly out of control lives, and buy into the need to be “slim to be happy” energy that pervades our culture, while masking it as “healthy”. I don’t know that there’s anything particularly healthy about eliminating main food groups from your diet unless there is a medical reason to do so.  I’m also not sure it’s particularly healthy to buy into yet another industry that promises you health and wellbeing and yet doesn’t appreciate, or make allowances, for the fact that we are all different.

The Deliciously Ella craze is a classic example of this.  It fascinated me how everyone went Deliciously-Ella-mad so I bought her book, not least because there are some interesting recipes in it, but because I was intrigued to see how it would make me feel. Well aside from it costing a small fortune to buy all the rather expensive ingredients required to eat a clean diet, after a few weeks I noticed that I wasn’t feeling very good. Not at all.

In fact, I felt sluggish and damp and my moods changed and it was perhaps not surprising that I then ended up with thrush and a general feeling of irritation. So I took myself back to my Ayurvedic doctor for some magic herbs to help to raise my digestive fire and I got stuck back into the Ayurvedic way of eating to help my body get well again. I can safely say that while the Ella diet clearly works for Ella, it is absolutely not for my body, nor for my bank balance for that matter either!

At the end of the day, I can’t help thinking that it’s all about balance and eating real foods that support your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, you know foods that have been grown in the sunshine, with water and good soil and make you feel good. I don’t believe you should eat something just because some wellness blogger or lifestyle coach has told you it’s good for you – only you will be able to tell if it has a positive effect, and you need to be truly honest with yourself here and drop right into your body’s wisdom – it’s a potentially empowering process.

I also don’t know that it is healthy to substitute one ingredient for a perceived “healthier” alternative. These days the health food shops and supermarkets are full of “free from” options, and they say that 1 in 3 are now buying these products.  But are they actually any good for your health and wellbeing or do they just make you feel like you’re eating the supposed “right” things? It’s all very well replacing refined sugar with a supposed healthier sugar substitute, but shouldn’t you just be reducing your sugar intake full stop, rather than buying expensive alternatives that have little nutritional benefit?

I mean everyone’s gone coconut oil mad but we probably shouldn’t forget that it’s still a saturated fat and then there’s cold pressed juice and the whole juicing thing, but again let us not forget that this is still a concentrated (and not very nutritious) source of sugar.  Let alone all the protein bars and fruit bars now for sale and don’t even get me started on those aimed at children. Why don’t we just eat some fruit and nuts, you know, real food that hasn’t been processed in some factory and thus contains very little life force.

But please don’t do that just because I’ve written it here.  I can assure you that I don’t know the way, I only know now what works best for me and even that changes depending on where I am at in my menstrual cycle, or whether I am pregnant or breastfeeding, busy or travelling or its summer or winter, or whatever other else is going on in my life at any given time and influences my health and wellbeing. It’s been some journey to get to this point, but it’s helped me to learn a lot in the process and I would encourage you to do your own learning from your own body for your own body.

It’s not easy I know, media constantly bombards us with images of how society thinks we should look to feel a certain way, but ultimately it’s all rubbish, it’s what’s on the inside that matters and developing a healthy relationship with yourself and your body.  That’s why body based practices like yoga can be so helpful. Over time and with practice they can help us to connect with our body on a deeper level and realise that our wellbeing is not only dependant on the physical. At the end of the day, we’re all perfect manifestations of the Divine, we just need to realise this, and eat what we need to eat to support our own health and wellbeing.