Like many human beings socialized in an environment that equates weight and worth, I struggled with my self-esteem from a young age. As a child, I carried more fat than my peers — although still within a healthy range — and found myself in the uncomfortable territory of otherness, where no pre-pubescent person should ever wish to find themselves.
Over the course of my adolescence and young adulthood, this feeling of otherness led to more weight gain and, eventually, the formation of a deeply held conviction that something was physiologically and psychologically 'different' about me. I felt like I was fated to live within the bounds of a body that was deemed medically "unhealthy." So entrenched was my belief that I would always be unhealthy, that when anyone asked me to imagine how my life would be when I grew up, the only image I could muster with any certainty was that I would be overweight. This, inevitably, had a damaging impact on my self-confidence, which manifested itself in a range of mental health problems, including anxiety, panic attacks, and eventually obsessive compulsive disorder.
It wasn’t until I started working with a therapist who specializes in eating disorders that I was able to come to terms with the fact that my own disordered eating was the product of a lack of self-esteem, rather than the cause. This allowed me to slowly unpick these beliefs and replace them with more helpful and empowering ones. With newly acquired techniques learned from cognitive behavioral therapy, I was finally able to embark on a balanced diet and exercise plan, which took me from "extremely obese" in NHS terms in January 2016, to the lower margins of "overweight" by December the same year.
After what was quite a dramatic transformation, my body and its different appearance became the subject of much commentary from friends, family members, colleagues, and strangers, the majority of which was positive and supportive. One thing I came to notice, though, was the emotions that it produced in people with a whole range of body shapes and sizes. People who I had considered owners of "flawless" and "enviable" bodies, which had helped fuel my self-hatred, were queuing up to confess their own struggles with diet, self-image, body dysmorphia, and yo-yo dieting, and the impact that this had had on their friendships, relationships, and even careers.
The conclusion that I drew was that, when it comes to our bodies and how we feel about them, almost no one escapes unscathed from the trap of consumerist culture, which creates an insatiable desire to be what you are not. By way of this method, industries large and small capture the money of vulnerable people who have been conditioned to believe that the way they look or the way they are is intrinsically wrong. Good for them, not so good for us.
Having spent the majority of my life desiring change but never feeling empowered enough to implement it, I was perfect prey for the diet industry. Since the age of 11, when I first attempted to lose weight, I spent an innumerable amount of money striving to make my body more "normal." I tried (more than once in each case) Slimming World, the GI diet, SlimFast, Atkins, Herbalife, MyFitnessPal, Weight Watchers, hypnotherapy, prescribed medication, clean eating, and even no eating. With each new attempt, I bought into a new nutritional theory or concept that promised to solve all my problems. But as my brain struggled to make sense of all these contradictory ideas, I was left profoundly confused about how the human digestive system actually works.
Renee McGregor, a dietitian, nutritionist, and author of Orthorexia: When Healthy Eating Goes Bad, tells me I am not alone. She says that the saturation of information in the modern age when it comes to diet and "healthy" eating means that "nobody knows what to believe about nutrition."
This feeling of confusion was exactly where I found myself when the #eatclean movement crept into our collective consciousness via social media. Like many, I delighted in the suggestion that there was, at last, a solution to my years of disordered eating, and that by following a simple set of instructions, I would finally reach the promised land of good health and wellbeing. I bought the books; I bought the NutriBullet; I bought the spiralizer and the coconut oil. I bought the matcha powder; I ate the kale; I ate the avocados and the agave syrup. I drank the smoothies and the teas; I ate the nut butters, the protein balls, and the spinach-and-God-knows-what-else juices. I did the cleanses. I ate nothing but whole foods, and I cut out carbs. And do you know what happened? I didn’t lose weight. In fact, I gained it, and I fell into a pit of despair and negative self-comparison worse than where I had begun, because now I was a "failure," too.
I am not here to pooh-pooh the value of eating natural, unprocessed food and being conscious about what you’re putting in your mouth. What I object to, however, in the case of the "clean eating" movement, is what I believe to be a misappropriation of the word "healthy." For many, the word "healthy" means "will lead me to lose weight" or "will be good for my overall health," but for others it means "is better than processed alternatives" or "will solve my health problem," and it is precisely this gap between intended and received meaning that has allowed the clean eating industry to thrive. In a post-truth era, in which the distinction between fact and opinion has become increasingly murky, a deliberate ambiguity around this word has allowed many to unwittingly implement eating habits that are not just bad for them but are, in extreme cases, dangerous.
The most worrying aspect of the #eatclean trend is that it has given people who are susceptible to disordered eating a socially acceptable disguise for an obsessive and often unhealthy relationship with food. As McGregor describes, it creates the illusion that, "If you don’t eat clean, then you’re somehow eating dirty, which obviously makes you feel uncomfortable," and potentially more restrictive with your diet. In her book, she draws parallels between a rise in orthorexia nervosa — which is defined as an unhealthy obsession with otherwise healthy eating — and the explosion of clean eating. The difficulty is that many of the so-called "experts" on clean eating, who have sprouted up on Instagram and written some of the bestselling books on food and diet of the past few years, are giving out advice that is not based on nutrition, or even basic science. "It’s made a farce of nutrition," McGregor says, which contravenes the hard work of qualified dietitians, who (unlike many of Instagram’s leading wellness bloggers) "provide evidence to substantiate their recommendations."
I am almost 100% certain that none of these people started out on their journeys intending to cause any malice or harm, but as they say, with great power comes great responsibility. With such a breathtaking reach and influence over such a broad range of people, the proliferation of clean eating advocates has made it harder for those suffering from eating disorders to receive the help they need. This is because, as McGregor says, the "perfect" images and stories that they have seen on social media, claiming to prove the benefits of different fads or diets, undermine the advice of medical professionals. Describing her work for a national eating disorder charity, McGregor says, "We get constant phone calls from both children and adults who are really stuck because there’s so much information out there about how you should eat, [which makes] trying to give them advice about how to have a balanced diet an impossible task."
I’m not here to body shame anyone. I truly believe that you can be healthy and beautiful at any size, weight, or shape. I do not believe that you have to be thin to be fit, happy, or loved. But for those of us who are susceptible to the promise of one day looking as beautiful (and therefore being as happy) as the people we see on #eatclean posts, understanding our bodies and how to look after them can often feel hopeless.
So, for anyone looking for a quick fix, a magical pill to swallow, or a food group to cut out to finally "crack" your health and wellbeing, I’m sorry to tell you that there isn’t one. There isn’t a panacea or a sexy set of instructions that guarantees results; there’s no one size that fits all. The key, in my experience, is balance. No single thing should be the sole focus of your attention, and it is impossible to control your life through what you eat, so any attempt to do so is futile. There is so much support available for anyone struggling to find this balance, so don’t despair, and absolutely seek help before buying into anything that promises to change your life by changing your diet.
I improved my health and wellbeing tremendously, not through juice cleanses, medjool dates, or detox teas, but by simply eating a balanced diet and exercising more. By being patient. By being compassionate with myself.
Your power comes from understanding, and then accepting, how you and your body differ from those around you, and adjusting your expectations and limits accordingly. By understanding how my own digestive system tends to respond in different situations, I was finally able to identify and enact a routine that delivered me to a place where I felt more confident, happier, and in greater control of myself. But my solution is different from yours... and hers... and theirs. By arming yourself with information that is rooted in nutrition, biology, and science, you will make yourself much less vulnerable to industries that seek to profit from your bafflement. Beware, be wary, and please don’t believe anyone who say the primary ingredient of your happiness is avocado.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.