Truth alert. I was wrapped up in Diet Culture more recently than I’d care to admit.
In my most recent (and last) stint with dieting I would have classified what I did as “Clean Eating.” I mostly ate foods I viewed as healthful and was covertly restrictive when it came to foods that I deemed too “processed” or full of (gasp) sugar (aka the devil – insert eye roll here). When I ate foods that I didn’t deem “clean,” it was always with this air of naughtiness. Sure, I “gave myself permission” to have them (I was “balanced” after all), but if I was honest about it (as I can now be), my permission was calculated and wildly restrictive. Read: you can have this _______ (fill in the blank processed or “treat” food), but you better keep the rest of your day “clean” or you better have done a really hard workout to “earn it.”
Really read: treat foods must be earned compensatory dietary mentality.
It wasn’t until I delved deeper into the world of Intuitive Eating with my training to be a Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor that I really saw “Clean Eating” for what it actually is. A diet by another name.
How did I finally see it for what it was? A diet…
A diet is defined as “a special course of food to which one restricts oneself, either to lose weight or for medical reasons.” In my case I was still restricting, though not overtly for weight loss at this point, but for “health” reasons.
As I explored Intuitive Eating on a much deeper level than ever before through my training, I began to see the nuances of Diet Mentality that I had yet to give up.
Firstly I noticed that I was giving myself permission to eat, but it wasn’t unconditional. It was wildly conditional. I could have the treat foods, but only if I’d exercised that day, or if the rest of my day was “on point.”
I also noticed my resistant ties with eating and morality. My food choices were mostly guided by my hunger, fullness, cravings, daily life fluctuations, circumstances, or personal food preferences (which is great). But I still had a lingering internalized list of checks and balances that categorized foods to make sure I was “balanced.” And my definition of balanced wasn’t guided by my internal cues, but rather a throwback to my macro-counting days. If I wasn’t “in balance” there was an undercurrent of guilt and some days even shame.
Hello hot mess.
Once I saw it for what it was, I felt this overwhelming relief and also frustration, maybe even anger that once again the wool had been pulled over my eyes! Or rather, that the wool was still pulled over my eyes, and I had yet more work to do to fully release my Diet Mentality and Make Peace with Food.
In this blog I want to explore “Clean Eating” and other forms of what we refer to as Psuedo-dieting within the framework of Intuitive Eating. Because seeing these forms of dieting for what they are, namely dieting, was instrumental in helping me find another level of food freedom – and it’s kind of magical. I want you to feel that magic too!
Why are you picking on Clean Eating?
I’m starting there because it’s pervasive. It’s been woven into our cultural consciousness around what it means to “be healthy.” You know, just “eat clean and move your body more” and you too will be healthy! There are so many forms of Pseudo-dieting and I’ll be exploring those too, but first, let’s talk “Clean Eating.”
Clean Eating: a diet short story.
Most claims bring the term back to Canadian fitness model and author Tosca Reno. She has published multiple books around the topic and has personal claims of losing 75lbs and reclaiming better health with the approach. So of course, in the weight obsessed culture we live in, we were collectively hooked.
In it’s first evolution “clean eating” referred to avoiding all over-refined and “processed foods”, particularly white flour and sugar. But as the trend grew it evolved (or perhaps devolved) into a much more strict diet including exclusion of caffeine, alcohol, dairy and eggs, sugar, and among other foods. The list changed, but mostly grew based on the doctrine you followed (and which celebrity endorsed it, I’m looking at you Gwyneth).
What started as a move towards more “unprocessed” foods and home cooking quickly escalated into this form of dieting that made it near impossible to actually eat. But wow did it ever become popularized. “It’s a lifestyle” you know.
And it was (and is). It’s not just a way of eating, it’s a way of living for those who do. And it’s not all bad (more on that in a sec).
But marketers ate it up! You can see the phrasing on packages (ironically, since the original version a la Tosca Reno was actually about cooking more), and so it became wildly popularized. So much so that it became woven into the fabric of “healthy.” You know, just “eat clean and move more” and all your health problems will disappear and of course you’ll get the body you’ve always wanted!
But it’s not that simple. Because health is not that simple. Bodies are not that simple.
And restriction. It just doesn’t work! Not long term.
Note: If you really want to dig into the history and story of Clean Eating you can check out this article.
Is eating more veggies, lean proteins, whole grains bad?
NO! Of course not. Nor is reducing the amount of sugar, caffeine and alcohol (especially if you’re consuming the latter to the deficit of more nutrient dense foods). But here’s the thing. Adopting any eating style to the detriment of quality of life, food flexibility and joy can potentially be harmful to your health.
It’s not the way we eat, but our obsessive focus on the way we eat that is tripping us up (and ironically stealing our health by amping up our stress!). More on that in a minute, but for now, let’s talk about what “Clean Eating” really is.
Hence, “Clean Eating” is just a diet by another name.
As I said earlier, within the framework of Intuitive Eating we call it Psuedo-dieting. And it’s not the only form. Let’s get into what Psuedo-dieting is, and explore some examples so you can really see it for what it is.
Warning: once you see this, you can’t un-see it and it might just make you shake your fist. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
What is Pseudo-dieting?
Pseudo-dieting often occurs when someone has “given up dieting” but is still having trouble giving up their Diet Mentality. So they’ll technically offer themselves more “food freedom” and make peace with food, but still have food-restrictive thoughts. And of course these food-restrictive thoughts translate into diet-type behaviours.
Here are some more “it’s a lifestyle” examples of Pseudo-dieting:
The Limiting Carbohydrates Diet
Oh carbohydrates. They’re really on the out at the moment with the Keto trend. In case you missed it this is the most severe form of Carbohydrate restriction whereby you restrict carbohydrates into the range of 50g of carbohydrate per day. Just for reference, thats the number of carbs in one and a half bananas. So if you had a banana, and say a salad for lunch you’d be done your carb quota for the day. Ummm, what about breakfast? Dinner? Snacks? Yup. I know.
Here’s the thing about this approach and all carbohydrate restriction – it hinges on the science that while our body favours carbohydrate as a fuel source, it can also use fat for fuel. And by restricting carbohydrate we “transform” our metabolism to favour fat (and thus eat up our fat stores). Which is legit.
Our body is capable of making use of consumed fat and fat stores for energy (it’s a survival thing), and in doing so in the absence of carbohydrates it also produces a waste product called keytones. Ketones are chemicals your liver makes. Your liver produces them when you don’t have enough carbohydrate (or enough insulin to process the carbohydrate if you’re a diabetic). In the absence of adequate carbohydrate, your liver metabolizes fat into ketones (a type of acid) and sends them out to your body to use them for fuel. If you build up too many ketones in your blood (which can happen if you over-restrict carbohydrates or can’t process them (such as if you’re diabetic), it can become life-threatening.*
Here’s the problem with limiting carbs:
Your brains primary fuel is carbohydrate. It needs 130g per day. Your brain is your body’s computer. If it doesn’t get enough fuel, how do you figure things go? Yeah. Not well. This is why people who start keto talk about the brain fog. Um, guys, why again are we doing this? I don’t know about you but not being able to think simply so I can “lose that pesky belly fat” doesn’t add up.
Carbohydrates are not the devil. Your body needs them. Your body needs enough of them. And it will go to significant feats to get them. So much so that many people following carb restriction will find their body propelling them toward these foods with nearly insatiable hunger if they restrict too significantly. They call it a binge, in Intuitive Eating we call this Primal Hunger. You can learn more about Primal Hunger in this blog.
Your body need’s carbohydrates. Significant restriction of them is simply another form of dieting. And has about the same results. Does that mean you need to eat bread at every meal or carbo-load before you sit all day at your job? No. Let’s find some middle ground, shall we? Honour your body with a variety of foods including proteins, fats and carbohydrates! And notice how foods make your (awesome) body feel. Eat the ones that feel good, don’t eat (as much) of the ones that don’t. But don’t also make foods “off limits” unless you have a medical reason to.
*Note: I’m significantly simplifying this process for sake of basic understanding. If you really want to understand the details of fat metabolism let me know and I’ll happily geek out with you.
The Counting Macros Diet.
This is simply the “latest” version of counting carbs. Is there merit to getting a reasonable balance of proteins, fats and carbohydrates? Absolutely. But there is not enough evidence in Nutrition Science to concretely say exactly what that ratio should be for every single body, every single day. For example your carbohydrate needs vary depending on your output. On a day when I go for a 4h hike, my carbohydrate needs are higher than on a day I relax with a book at the beach or hit the spa (ahhh).
Furthermore, when we count anything this meticulously there is always going to result in us moving away from true body attunement (aka the ability to listen, and therefore respond to our body’s innate signals). This is a prime example of an authoritarian view of body. Where someone “out there” is assumed to have better skill in feeding and nourishing your body, than you! But that’s not the case!
You (and only you) know best how to nourish and feed your body. And if you untangle all the morality of diet mentality and truly make peace with food, you can actually hear those signals your body is giving you and find your way to honour them (and your awesome body).
The “Earned It” Diet
Oh fitness industry. How I love/ hate you. This is the notion that you have to earn the food you eat through movement. It likely started as a casual comment by a fitness instructor to “motivate” her participants. And in the Diet Culture world we’re living in it likely worked (hello guilt)!
But the undercurrent of morality in this notion runs deep. It’s the I exercise because I love food” line of thinking, or the notion that you have to “burn off” the turkey after a big family meal or sweat out any other food you consume (insert whatever “bad food” you’ve eaten that doesn’t conform to your “plan”).
This diet approach is grounded in the philosophy that body composition is a simple matter of thermodynamics (aka. energy balance). Whereby energy balance (aka weight maintenance) is as simple as energy in vs. energy out.
Over consume? Just burn a few more calories. But it’s not that simple. It’s a multi-layered, multi-faceted algorithm that frankly we simply don’t even understand. It’s a wildly complicated interplay of neurochemistry, hormones, digestion/ nutrient absorption and genetic set point just to name a few (there are more).
Furthermore, the entire notion that exercise is a compensatory act steals all the joy from movement and transforms it into a chore (aka something you have to do, not something you get to do). And I don’t know about you, but I’m not amped about doing the laundry or cleaning my house, you?
What if you simply moved because moving brought you joy? Because moving your body made your body (and mind) feel good. Ahh, YES! It IS possible!
Important Seasonal Note:
As Halloween approaches, you’re bound to see the “exercise equivalents” of your favourite mini-treats in a meme. Please don’t take these at face value. Instead eat the halloween treats you genuinely enjoy. Savour them. Savour the entire weird pandemic halloween experience we’re having this year, and move on. Move your awesome body before the festivities or the following day because you want to and it feels good. You don’t have to earn those treats.
More examples of Pseudo-dieting:
- Comparative eating (comparing and adjusting what you are eating by merit of what others are eating)
- Drinking water or coffee when you’re hunger because your hunger can’t possibly be hunger could it?! (insert eye roll).
- Performative eating (ie. eating “well” in front of others, and eating differently behind closed doors)
- Eating vegan, vegetarian or gluten free purely for weight loss (not for political/ philosphical/ medical reasons)
- Rigidity around food in the name of “health” or restricting your eating to certain windows of the day (aka intermittent fasting).
Every single one of these approaches has two things in common:
- They take an authoritarian approach to body. Dieting is inherently authoritarian. When you’re following one, you as an individual don’t have autonomy over your body. You favour the adherence to rules and restrictions (authority) as opposed to allowing yourself to respond to your innate body cues, personal preferences, desires and wants (autonomy).
- There is an undercurrent of morality. If and when you don’t adhere to the rules and restrictions you feel guilt (possibly shame). And this is where it gets really tricky. Because when guilt and shame join the party we know self-criticism beat them there. And self-criticism is inversely related with self-efficacy (our belief in our capability to be successful). So it’s a slippery slope to feeling pretty awful about yourself. And all this stress (called allostatic load by researchers) is actually more detrimental to our actual health than simply eating the foods you’re stressing about. So yeah, #cleaneating it’s not really helping us, is it?
So, you want to ditch the diets (for real). What can you do?
Notice. Notice the undercurrents of Diet Mentality that are everywhere – even the sneaky ones. The “it’s a lifestyle” marketing catch-alls and the promotion of diets as “not a diet.” Don’t be fooled…it’s a diet! And it’ll likely lead you the same place all the other diets did. Because 95% of diets fail in the long term (read: within 5 years the majority of participants have regained the weight, often and then some).
But this doesn’t mean you can’t focus on nourishing your body free from diet. With the intention of feeling truly healthy and well. Eating to have the energy and vitality you need and want to do the things you want to do with your (awesome) body. In the framework of Intuitive Eating we call this Gentle Nutrition and it’s all about body-food congruence.
What is body-food congruence?
It’s the mindful act of noticing how foods make your body feel. You know those foods you eat sometimes and think, ugh, I don’t feel very good. Yeah, we all have them. As long as your “ugh, I don’t feel vergy good” isn’t from the pit of guilt and despair from failing on your “diet,” that’s your body giving you relaly important data! This is the data we want to pay attention to (not the arbitarry rules estabilished by deit!
As you explore eating with this lens, ask yourself these questions:
- How does eating this way (or specific food) make my body feel? Is that how I want to feel?
- If I eliminate this specific food (that doesn’t make me feel well), could I eat this way for the rest of my life? What about at celebrations? Or gatherings? Will I feel restricted? What’s the cost/ benefit?
- How can I create healthy boundaries with this food, without it feeling like a restrictive rule (aka diet)?
- Does this approach to food feel good (in my body)?
- Do I feel happy and fulfilled eating this way?
- Do I want to eat this way?
Get curious. Remember that the notion that your body is wrong if it’s larger or “different” than the aesthetic culturally favoured norm is a broken paradigm. A paradigm that is reinforced by a multi-billion dollar industry. An industry you can choose to support or not. It’s only as we enact our right to choose that we can powerfully affect change (for ourselves and the greater good).
The bottom line:
You’re awesome. Ditch the (pseudo) diets and listen, honour and challenge your awesome body. Feel awesome in the skin you’re in by eating foods that feel good and inspire you, moving in ways that work for you and bring you joy and remembering that there is more to your health than that of your physical being. Take care of your mental and spiritual health as well. Take care of you – all of you!