Don’t get me wrong, I love to eat “healthy” food. If given the choice between a bowl of chocolate ice-cream or a bowl of yoghurt, nuts and fruit, 90% of the time I would gladly accept the latter. Not always, but most of the time. This choice doesn’t make me better than anyone else. It doesn’t make me more superior in the lifestyle that I live or more healthy, physically or mentally. It doesn’t mean I have a greater sense of control around food or that I enjoy it any less. It’s simply a choice that I make because of what my taste buds tell me they want, because of what my body craves. Of course, it’s also a choice that is informed by what I know about nutrition and the like and how this has changed my eating habits. I’m aware of the fact that this is a consequence of my shaky (obsessive) history with “clean eating” and is something that will probably never go away. Nonetheless, I do really prefer yoghurt and fruit and nuts over ice-cream, and that’s ok.
At the end of high-school, I developed an eating disorder that was the result of “clean eating” taken to the extreme. I didn’t ever intend to become anorexic. I didn’t ever intend to starve my body to the point of damaging it. I simply wanted to “get healthy” (whatever that means) and “tone up”. So I did what the media tells us all to do – I ate less, exercised more, cut out this, avoided that. I abstained from cupcakes and deprived myself of party food. I began to exert control over family meals and obsessed over the amount of oil in the fry pan. I was miserable, but still, it was for my own good… right? Wrongo. After finally realising that what I was doing was not in fact as healthy as I had let myself believe, I chose to recover. (Who am I kidding? I still have to make that choice every single day!)
You see, there are times when ice-cream is just a healthy as a bowl of yoghurt will ever be. Health isn’t just about eating organic super-foods, obscure vegetables loaded with nutrients or rice crackers devoid of calories. Food is also meant to be enjoyed. It’s meant to bring you pleasure, to nourish both body and soul. It’s easy for me to say all this, but to put it into practice is another story altogether. I still panic when I’m faced with foods that I know are not considered “healthy”. I’m certainly getting better, but I don’t know that I’ll ever be as carefree around food as I was before I jumped on the “clean eating” bandwagon. And with that, we come to the purpose of this post/rant.
Today I was scrolling through Lorna Jane’s Move Nourish Believe website when I came across an article, “The 7 Commandments of Clean Eating”, and it made me a wee bit… uncomfortable. Clean eating is EVERYWHERE. It dominates the covers of magazines, it floods our Instagram feeds, it’s plastered all over our Facebook walls whether we want it there or not, but now there are commandments? Sorry, what?
In the article we’re told to “banish junk foods”, “avoid the inside aisles of the supermarket” and “say goodbye to low-fat fad foods”, to name a few. We are also told not to “eat highly processed foods like white flour, sugar, lollies and instant noodles”, not to “eat any meat products more manipulated than cut or ground”, not to “consume chemical and sugar loaded fizzy drinks”, not to “include preservatives or additives in any of your food choices” and not to “use any artificial colours, flavours or sweeteners in your cooking”… Now is it just me or does there seem to be some unspoken rule that if you do any of these things eternal damnation will surely be the result. Breaking any of these “commandments” will surely imply that you have no sense of self-control, that you are are unhealthy and that you have failed yourself and society’s expectations of you. Breaking these “commandments” obviously makes you a bad person, or at least, less worthy than the person who does manage to live off a diet of organic kale and coconut water. I wonder, is this why we often feel the need to qualify our food choices?
So herein lies the problem: if we continue to exclusively associate “clean eating” with “health”, as I did, then it follows that anything that’s not considered “clean” is inherently “unhealthy” – and we all know that “unhealthy” = bad, right? Well, that’s the thing. Food is not good or bad, it’s food. Food is not a moral issue. Eating something cannot make you an unworthy person, nor can it make you any better than someone else. It’s obvious that clean eating is seen as something trendy to do. It’s seen as something that shows you have self-control; that you respect your body and want to “nourish” it, all of which are great things! But as soon as you create “commandments” surrounding food, and thereby imply that anyone who breaks these “commandments” has failed in some way – that they’ve done something wrong – then the trouble starts. Articles like this one attach negative connotations to certain foods and ingredients, insisting that they be avoided at all costs, and that’s when obsessions and eating disorders start to rear their ugly heads. Trust me, I know.
Like I said, I’m still trying to practise what I preach, so I wrote this for myself as much as I did for others. Because, to be completely honest, I’m a bit over food rules. I’m a bit sick of feeling guilty about the choices I make. (Besides, I seem to possess the innate ability to make myself feel guilty anyway, I don’t need “commandments” to make me feel worse). Now I am not suggesting that people who eat healthily should stop and immediately gorge themselves on cake – I won’t be doing that. Nor am I suggesting that we should all eat McDonald’s every day of the week. I do, however, think that we should remove all restrictions and feelings of guilt that we’ve attached to food. Let’s give ourselves some credit; having an unrestrictive relationship with food doesn’t mean we’ll all start smashing down ten blocks of Cadbury a day.
So… from someone who used to have a ”clean eating” account on Instagram with more than 8000 followers, I now say this: If, one day, you happen to eat something that has artificial sweeteners in it, it does not mean that you are unhealthy. If you eat a piece of cake made with refined flour and sugar you are not unhealthy. If you like the occasional glass of coke or piece of chicken schnitzel you will not die. You should not have to explain yourself or your decisions, nor are you a bad person. The same goes for if you would rather eat an apple or a handful of goji berries. Because food is food. And the only commandment is that there are no commandments.