The Dirty Side of Clean Eating

Written by Ryley Schlachter

Our country is being hit with another media induced epidemic, one that is so sneaky, that most people don’t even know it has hit them until they are so far down it feels impossible to climb up. This epidemic is called clean eating.

For me, it started out as a desire to be a little healthier. I started to limit carbs, replace the 2% milk for almond, and eat more vegetables. The first book I had read on the significance of food and nutrition was entitled “You Are What You Eat.” After that, I was sold into believing, that every single thing I put into my body will have a huge effect on my well-being. If I chose to put solely healthful and whole foods into my body I would in turn be a happy, strong, and fit woman. Before I knew it I had completely bought into every single claim the media has made about the food we have eaten for decades. Sugar causes diabetes, consuming meat is cancerous, dairy makes you bloated, gluten inflames your digestive system. This was the food my parents and grandparents survived on, and even the food that helped me grow into the young woman I was. Yet this was the beginning of my war against food.

I truly believed that restricting all the foods that I had labeled bad and only allowing myself to have only the most whole and “healthy” foods I would feel better about my body and in turn feel better about myself, and in the beginning I did. It started with eliminating hamburger, fries, ice cream, bagels, pizza, sourdough bread, white rice. I felt accomplished, energetic, and strong. But I couldn’t stop there. There were too many other foods I could label as evil. I soon cut out all meats and dairy, added sugars, and limited my grains to quinoa and brown rice. My friends praised me for how healthy I was and I even praised myself.

My diet and diligent exercise routine started to take a toll on my body. I was constantly tired, had chronic stomach aches, lost my period for over a year, and my hair even started to pull out. My mind soon declined just as fast as my body. Food became the only thing I could think about. My entire Instagram account was vegan and clean eating bloggers, who had an answer to every food craving I had. “Craving ice cream, have a frozen banana. Want pizza? Don’t worry. Here’s how to make the crust out of cauliflower.” I started to dread going out to eat with my friends, obsessively checking the menu making sure there would be at least a vegetable platter that I could order. My world was quickly shrinking solely revolving around holding myself to a perfectionistic standard of clean eating and healthy living. These standards I held myself to, started to get to me. I had to remain perfect. No matter how much my body craved taking just a bite of a hamburger, a slice of cheese with my wine, or a piece of my own birthday cake, not one bite came without a whirlwind of consequences. 

Social media became my evidence that by dedicating myself to what seemed to be this attainably seamless image of health, this lifestyle of beautifully displayed quinoa and veggie bowls, green juices, and yoga my life would be as perfect and whole as theirs seemed to be. But somehow spending $40 and over an hour to make my own Ancient Hemp Seed and Superfood Smoothie Bowl, my toppings always seemed to sink to the bottom. These recipes, these beautiful dishes never ended up looking the same on my plate, and in truth, I never felt as transformed, as healthy as they made me believe I would.

I think its hard not to believe our favorite Instagrammer’s and bloggers are just a double tap away from being our best friends which makes their projected ways of life seem so attainable. They seem so close, so relatable, like they are popping up on our own phones to share with us a personal photo. They seem to have it perfectly figured out with their wholesome diets, exercise routines, and beautiful food. But they are just as much of a business as a company like Whole Foods, being funded by health food brands to market their products and their exercise routines. But behind their own facade, they are only human too. Humans being paid to sell this image of clean eating that they are maybe struggling to attain perfectly themselves. We see only a small window into their lives that becomes displayed in a way that seems all encompassing of what their day to day actually is filled with. Maybe they are struggling just as much as we are to fit within this clean-eating mentality, the magic lifestyle that they are so heavily selling to the outside world.  

There is a whole society following this same idea around eating, filled with not only preferences, but restrictions, eliminations, and very strong values. From paleo, to gluten-intolerance, veganism, and sugar fears, eating has not just become a way to fuel our bodies, but a judgement in how we view ourselves and even the ones around us. When did food in our culture become a morality issue? A way to measure how good or bad we are based on what we do and don’t consume.

In reality, the closer I found myself attaining this perfect idea of health, the farther I felt from a contentedness of my body, my self, and my relationships. I chose staying on track with my daily exercise over picnics in the park and weekend camping trips with my friends. I chose cooking and eating for one, over a fun dinner date with my partner, or happy hour with co-workers. Family and friend gatherings such as holidays, birthdays, and BBQs became something I dreaded and feared, knowing that I would either end up starving myself by only being able to put a few pieces of vegetables on my plate or leave in a state of self loathing after deciding to give up for the evening and eat whatever was being served. It became an event that I was only able to focus on the food rather than the love and company that surrounded me.

Food was isolating me from the people and experiences that filled my life with love, joy, and adventure. As I began to put the value of the food I put into my body over the company I shared it with, I began to feel more and more empty, rather than whole.

We are a society where this ideal image is thrown into our faces on a daily basis, contributing to our tireless attempt to shrink, shape, and stretch our bodies to fit within this look of so-called universal beauty and acceptance. We place so much of our worth and value on this external projection that most of our bodies cannot even naturally fit within, yet we continue to beat ourselves down with the thoughts that we are not good enough until we do. But when is the last time we spoke words of gratitude to our body? To our eyes for allowing us to see the beautiful sun come up, our hands for allowing us to hold the ones we love close, our legs for taking us on nice walks through our cities. Our heart, our breath for intuitively carrying us through each day. Rather we speak words of dissatisfaction and frustration of what our bodies are not, what our bodies cannot do. Constantly overworking and depriving ourselves, distrusting the natural signals they continue to send.

In experiencing life, with our interests, passions, and values, the pendulum continues to swing from one end to the other. It is not until we find that middle ground, the beautifiul balance that life can have, that we start to really experience life fully for what it is. Once I was able to put my clean eating, exercising dependent, gluten, dairy, and refined sugar free, and vegetarian diet aside I was able to experience life again. To share a delicious Rueben sandwich and fries with new friends, Taco Tuesday and non-skinny margaritas with old ones, my Dad’s famous spaghetti and meatballs and not as treats or cheats that I would compensate for the next day, but as just food and good company. I shared good conversation, laughter, love, and made tons of new memories. I found balance within the food I ate, and started to choose my relationships and experiences over my diet.

It is not my intention to critique the health food industry, or say there isn’t validity and importance in trying to eat nutritious foods. It is my intention instead, for you to ask yourself with compassionate curiosity, if you are consistently valuing your worth on your body, food, or exercise. Our body is our vessel in experiencing love, pain, friendship, laughter, hardship, beauty, adventure, and everything else life brings to us. By placing this rigidity on ourselves with food and exercise in order to attain this ideal body, we are actually missing out on life itself. By placing our diets and workouts above experiencing the little intricacies of life with our friends and family we begin to deprive our soul of the fuel it needs to be happy, whole, and healthy, which was the main end-goal with our diets in the first place, right? 

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Ryley Schlachter

Designer. Gardener. Photographer. Mind Wanderer. Adventurer. Seeker. Gemini.

6 thoughts on “The Dirty Side of Clean Eating

  1. As you know I did a bit of a 180 and went from really not caring at all what I ate and eating whatever, to becoming vegetarian and that being a vessel for overall more healthy eating because all of a sudden I had to make a more deliberate effort over what I ate. 2 years later I’m happy with my decision and make a conscious although not always perfect effort to not shame anyone else (hell even bring it up) for what they do or don’t eat. I think being stricter about diets is a challenge for many but really it’s about finding a routine of foods that do make you happy within your set parameters, and having them as a backbone for your diet. I look forward to further discussions and explorations of this topic, as I feel like this is only the beginning!

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  2. Very good read! We are always stuck between a hard place and a rock when it comes to food and “health.” It sounds like you’ve actually accomplished the peak of the struggle by making the sacrifices. Most of us have a hard time building up the momentum to reach that stage, and sometimes it becomes a nasty cycle of maybe clean eating for a week and then eating every sugary, deep fried thing for the next 2 days, then feeling shitty about it but not doing anything to correct it until we can build up the will power to start all over…
    Needless to say, just because a person eats “healthier,” it doesn’t make them happier–as you have shown here, or even healthier overall. Many chronic diseases are genetic and have little to do with lifestyle or environment, of course it might reduce the risk but it can’t really be eliminated.
    Thanks for sharing!

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  3. this is great…I experienced the same type of thing in my vegan diet, the first few years (!) I was obsessing, and spending WAY too much time reading labels and researching products and recipes and nutritional info online. Now, while I still eat a plant based diet, I’ve stopped calling myself vegan, and being free from labels is being free from the judgement of other vegans (level 5 crazy preaching ones) and have freed myself. It is a work in progress, but I’ve relaxed so much about it, that I’m able to go out and go to family parties without even thinking about the food, instead, just the people I’ll be sharing time with…it seemed like a strive for unattainable perfectionism for so long that I never felt good about myself or life. Good for you for freeing yourself and spreading the word!!!

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  4. This is so beautiful Ryley<3
    I remember starting my first "diet," and it simply being about being healthier and losing a bit of weight. And every time I reached my "weight goals," I felt I could do a little bit "better." Eventually, my "diet" had cut out – in addition to carbs – my relationships, my confidence, my free spirt, my passions, and my HAPPINESS.
    My "clean" eating goals had instead turned into a monster and a bully, and I'm working so hard every day to shut off the voice in my head that is keeping me from LIFE!
    I'm so proud of how far you have come! You have truly been an inspiration to me, and you are like the big sister every girl wants. Love you!

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