The Clean Eating Trend Isn’t Always as Innocent as It Seems

For me, it led to an unhealthy obsession with food.
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Maggie Niemiec
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For me, it led to an unhealthy obsession with food.

Juice cleanses. Detox diets. Meatless Mondays. All these food trends seem to be ushering in not only pithy magazine cover lines about carbs and abs but also an age when food consciousness has become the focal point of many of our lives. "Clean eating" has become an industry all its own. People are clinging to paleo and gluten-free lifestyles almost like religions.

If that meant we were all adapting healthier, happier lifestyles, maybe these eating fads would be great. And maybe for some people it is a helpful way to eat healthfully. But for many others, and particularly for young women, good health isn't the result. Research shows that 50 percent of teenage girls use unhealthy weight control measures, such as skipping meals, fasting, vomiting, and taking laxatives. And on into young adulthood, 25 percent of college women engage in bingeing and purging, and 91 percent of women surveyed on college campuses try to control their weight through dieting. For many women, an acute food focus becomes downright dangerous. 

I should know. It happened to me. 

For me, the desire to eat healthier was the beginning of what led me to develop a life-threatening eating disorder. As a high school varsity tennis player, I ate whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I was strong and healthy. I was able to clearly listen to my body’s hunger and fullness signals. I ate everything from broccoli to burgers, and my body knew exactly what I needed. I was what you would call an intuitive eater. Taking care of myself was simple.

But things got complicated. Or I should say, I overcomplicated them.

By the end of my senior year of high school, I was no longer playing tennis for three hours a day. I was busy finishing my studies, working part time, and preparing for college. My friends started talking about the dreaded “Freshman 15” weight gain that was sure to hit all of us come fall, and it seemed like every girl around me was dieting in order to look fabulous in her prom dress that spring.

I decided to drink more water and to cut out the two or three Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies from my lunch every day. I figured I wasn’t an athlete anymore and now I needed to watch what I ate.

As an aspiring magazine journalist, I was very tuned in to the media, often reading headlines and articles about health and wellness. Twelve hundred calories a day to get a bikini body? No dairy or gluten to get flat abs? Sixty minutes of cardio a day to stay in shape? I soaked up the information like a sponge, absorbing diet tips, “healthy eating” strategies, and fitness advice.

All my life, I was praised for my body. Genetically tall and thin, I was often told I should be a model and affirmed for the way I looked. “You’re so skinny! I wish I looked like you," people would say. “What’s your secret?”

Subconsciously, I fed on that affirmation. What would happen if I couldn’t maintain this figure? What would I think of myself?

I had developed a sense of pride in my appearance. I had also developed a deep fear of losing it. The fears grew stronger and then the voice in my head changed from me wanting to be “healthy,” to me wanting approval, to me wanting control. 

I was incredibly stressed about starting college at a school where I knew no one and where I would be enrolled in a rigorous program. I was scared I wouldn’t measure up. My long-term friendships were changing—we were drifting apart as the prospect of college loomed closer and closer. I had recently broken things off with a guy I liked, and I was feeling extra-lonely as a result. My life was going through a natural transition. But for me, an 18-year-old perfectionist not used to change or failure, life felt out of control. Nothing felt normal. 

But food? Food I could control. If I could manage my food intake, then I could feel better, I thought.

It was the perfect storm of factors: a desire to eat healthy, fear of failure, stress about my body, longing for affirmation, isolation from my friends, and a great memory for calories/nutritional information/diet tips. Before I knew it, “healthy eating” became restriction and then full-blown anorexia nervosa.

The eating disorder took root and grew during that summer. First I cut out the things I deemed "unhealthy," such as butter, potatoes, and pasta. Then I eliminated full-fat milk, yogurt, and bread, eating only the diet versions whenever possible. Calorie counting became my way of life. My thoughts were consumed by it. I pulled away from my friends so that they wouldn't really know what was going on. My parents took me to see my pediatrician who had known me since I was a toddler. He said that while I had lost weight, it was perfectly normal to do so under stress and that they shouldn't worry. Later my parents drove me to an eating disorder treatment center. The psychiatrist there wanted to admit me immediately. I continued to deny having a problem. And my restricting rapidly worsened.

I still went off to college―but three weeks into my first semester, I had to withdraw for medical reasons. I was no longer stable enough to stay in school. Anorexia was destroying my life, and if I didn’t do something serious (and soon), I was going to die. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. In fact, 5 to 20 percent of those who suffer from anorexia will die. That's upward of one in five.

Thank God this is not where my story ends. I got help and slowly but surely, I got better. I regained my health and my strength. My family carried me through it all, and I was given a second chance at life. I went back to school, graduated on time, and took a full-time job within a few months after graduation.

Today, seven years later, I am fully in recovery. I am happy and healthy. I meet with a counselor and nutritionist on a regular basis. I have an amazing community around me that watches out for me and that I can talk to when things get hard. Because, I have to be honest, sometimes life does get hard. 

I think of anorexia (or any eating disorder) like alcoholism. Both are diseases; both stem from nature and nurture. Genetics, upbringing, and choices. Alcoholics usually call themselves alcoholics for the rest of their lives, even when they have not touched a drink in ten years. Similarly, I will always say I am “in recovery” from my eating disorder, even though my life looks drastically different than it used to. I am grateful for every single day, and I live life to the fullest.

I am also now highly aware of the world of “healthy eating,” diet, and fitness. We are tempted every day by magazines and websites promising happiness if we can just fix ourselves. If we can eat clean, if we can do more strength training, if we can work a bit harder to get those flat abs/strong arms/skinny waist/perky butt, we can achieve fulfillment. We can be happy.

Except those things will never fulfill us. 

It’s taken me years and plenty of struggle to realize that. Everyone’s body, everyone’s health, is completely individual. What might be healthy for one person is totally different for someone else.

Food is for health, for pleasure, for experience—and all of those things together. Food is a gift—a way we can connect with one another. It’s not meant to be overly complicated. My nutritionist often reminds me: Your body is the best indicator of what you need and when you need it. If you’re hungry and your stomach is growling, it’s because your body needs food―regardless of whether you ate two slices of pizza an hour ago or just drank a green juice. The latest diet trends are always changing, but your body is with you for the long haul. Listen to it.

Of course, we should be attuned to our health. And watching what you put in your body—where it's from, if it's organic—are worthy pursuits. But it can't be at the cost of your mental health. Eating is part of living; it shouldn't prevent us from living fully.

If we’re obsessed with eating perfectly or eating better than the person next to us, we are the ones who end up losing. Being so concerned with what’s “healthy” and what’s not means we miss out on the simple joy of food. That’s no way to live.

So eat the kale. Eat the cupcake. Listen to your body, not your fears. And enjoy your life. 

Photo Credit: Belathée Photography