Just like any other trendy diet in the news, clean eating comes under constant scrutiny — with the latest criticism coming from a celebrity chef.
Nigella Lawson — a British chef best known as the host of Nigella Kitchen on Food Network — has made no bones about the fact that she is not a fan of clean eating as a health craze. Her most recent slam against the diet trend — that many people who have been avoiding processed foods for decades would argue is a lifestyle — is that clean eating is just a cutesy way to cover up an eating disorder. As Lawson states, using the term “clean” eating implies that all other eating is dirty or shameful and is a telltale sign of disordered eating.
As someone who struggled with anorexia and bulimia for more than a decade of my life, I could not disagree more. Lawson has been candid about the fact that she watched her mother deal with an eating disorder growing up, which is a terrible thing — but many times, it’s not until you experience the struggle firsthand that you understand what a coping mechanism looks like.
After hitting a rock bottom of less than 90 pounds throughout middle school and high school, with side effects like hair loss, fainting and stained teeth from throwing up, I finally admitted that an eating disorder was controlling my life in my early 20s. Those of us who have been there — an estimated 20 million women and 10 million men in the U.S. at last count — know that a total life overhaul isn’t so easy. For me, it took years of therapy, lots of honesty and an endless commitment to personal development. I also work in the health and nutrition industry, which, as I started to learn more and dive deeper into a “natural” diet, I saw as the perfect outlet for all of my food anxiety.
Lawson’s childhood was horrible, and mine was too, and we both have a different take on the eating disorders that came out of it. I also grew up with a mentally ill parent, and my parents later divorced. Like Lawson, I was raised in an environment with constant chaos and toxicity, leaving me with chronic anxiety that I didn’t know what to do with. Soon enough, it became easier to control what I ate as early as age 12 because then I won — at least I got to control something.
Therapy has helped, but much like an alcoholic, I know that I’m never going to have a perfect relationship with food. Unlike an alcoholic, I don’t have the option to avoid food for the rest of my life. I have to eat multiple times a day, presenting myself with multiple obsessive booby traps that I am sure to fall into. It wasn’t until I discovered the clean eating “fad” that I felt I was actually nourishing my body by meticulously paying attention to what I ate. Funnily enough, I also found that when I went crazy on the nutritional supplements and started incorporating more “clean” probiotic foods, my anxiety and overall outlook improved — with some research supporting that gut bacteria diversity can impact the brain and psychological symptoms of eating disorders.
Now, instead of starving myself, I’m more obsessed with perfect nutrition. I admit that my diet may seem a little crazed to the average person who has never had an eating disorder, but compare me to the exhausted and malnourished person I was 15 years ago, and I know I deserve a pat on the back.
At the end of the day, I am still a recovering anorexic and bulimic, and like so many people who have struggled with an addictive disorder, I know I’m going to have worse days than others. But clean eating is my lifeline. It keeps me on track and away from some of the worse disordered-eating behaviors that I am likely to fall into when my stress levels increase.
That’s not to say that clean eating can’t become disordered. Clean eating taken too far can become a disorder all on its own known as orthorexia. Dr. Alexis Conason — a clinical psychologist who specializes in eating disorders and, like Lawson, prefers not to use the term “clean eating” that implies other food is dirty — breaks down the difference between clean eating habits and obsession.
Dr. Conason says, “I think that clean eating can be integrated into a healthy relationship with food if it is based on choices that you make to feel your best. For example, if you notice that you enjoy the taste of clean foods, and you have the most energy/the least ailments when you eat this way, then you may choose this pattern of eating. However, this style of eating should still be flexible and consist of choices that you make. There may be times that the person decides to eat something that is ‘not clean,’ and it doesn’t induce feelings of guilt or shame.”
On the other hand, eating disorders are different from clean eating, says Dr. Conason, as they preoccupy your time and tend to consume your identity. She describes what it looks like when a person has a clean eating disorder that requires professional help: “They are rigid and inflexible, and people often hold onto the rules of clean eating for dear life. There are no exceptions to the rules, and if a person ‘loses control’ and eats something ‘not clean,’ they often beat themselves up for it. This person may avoid situations when they fear that they will go off plan and chose to stay home to eat clean rather than go out to dinner with friends or to a party where they may go off track. They define who they are, their mood and the quality of their day by what they eat.”
As it goes with any other lifestyle choice, you don’t know why another person is living their life a certain way until you ask them about it. There are plenty of people who enjoy clean eating because they care about the quality of the food they eat, and there are some people who take it too far. And then there are those of us who may be doing it for another reason altogether — because we’re recovering, and it keeps us focused, healthy and safe.