Dirty Secrets from Eating Clean: Food Addiction, Part I
A quick disclaimer before we get into the (lean) meat and (sweet) potatoes of today’s post: I have nothing against Tosca Reno or Kennedy Publishing or the fitness industry in general. In fact, I think the Eat Clean Diet books are incredibly helpful in taking many unhealthy individuals through the painful and confusing first steps of rejecting processed foods and healing their bodies. I think that often, however, the message is muted (or mutated) when “eating clean” becomes “Cooler 1,” and unprocessed foods become meal replacement. There is a fine, fine line between counting calories for awareness versus counting calories for restriction, and, all too often, that line gets crossed. Obviously, it’s easy for an individual living with ED to take any diet recommendations too far–as I did and still struggle not to do; therefore, please keep in mind that I’m not singling out Tosca and friends–I’m just writing about my experience and the particular avenue through which I found new ways to restrict myself.
Also, for full disclosure, I still read & subscribe to Oxygen Magazine. I think it’s one of the better fitness magazines for women available today–I just take everything I read with a grain of (pink Himalayan sea) salt.
Let me just start by saying that I was really not interested in starting another “diet.” I obliged my mom by doing the Whole30, but I was, by this point, sick of fads, trends, challenges, and set “end dates.” I was finally starting to open my eyes to the fact that ED’s restrictions were…well, restricting.
But, that being said, I had NO idea how to break free from that system. I had spent too long following my bodybuilding diet, spent too many years structuring my life into low-calorie meal-sized chunks, spent too little time thinking about anything but the advent of my next meal.
When I first met ED, he didn’t bother explaining the hows and whys behind my manipulation of food and exercise; he only demanded that I limit the former and overdo the latter. I understood (or thought I understood*) that controlling my body involved a relationship between calories in and calories out, but I didn’t dare waste the extra energy trying to dig deeper when ED had already shown me the method that required the least amount of energy for digging my own grave.
So when I started on my “Eat-Clean” journey, the journey that began when I picked up my first Oxygen Magazine and learned about the carefully controlled food-world of the figure competitor, I didn’t see ED’s simple “calories in-calories out” formula lurking behind Oxygen’s glossy pages.
If you’re not familiar with the Eat Clean Diet, as devised by Tosca Reno and her late husband Robert Kennedy, it’s a series of rules (and books) devoted to giving men and women control over their diets. The basic premise is perfect: eat unprocessed foods (as close to natural as you can). Avoid packaged goods and ingredients you can’t pronounce. Eat fruits and vegetables and healthy proteins. And those, if anything, are perfect recommendations from which to begin building a healthy diet.
There are also rules. Eat six small meals a day. Eat every 3 hours. Eat meals high in lean protein and complex carbohydrates, limiting fats (although they do recommend eating some healthy fats like avocado and olive oil). Limit “cheat” meals.
Again, not terrible recommendations. And for individuals who have been struggling with weight or eating processed foods their whole lives, these recommendations and rules can incite huge changes in habits, body composition, health, and lifestyle. The problem is that they were written (and promoted) by individuals whose background is in the restrictive and disordered world of fitness–and when restricted and disordered individuals (such as myself) pick up the same book of rules, we see validation for our disorders and a challenge to restrict even more.**
Let me explain:
First and foremost, eating clean for fitness involves more than a simple calories in or out equation. It involves knowing how many calories you’re eating, the calorie-per-gram breakdown of the macronutrients, the ratios of your macronutrient intake per meal and per day, and the correct times to eat said macronutrients. If protein and carbohydrates are 4 calories per gram and fats are 9 calories per gram (and alcohol is 7 calories per gram, but you aren’t drinking it anyway because it was made of empty calories that would get you fat and eff all those studies about resveratrol in wine, take a capsule and stop whining about being the designated driver…), then obviously there are two macronutrients that can “fill you up” for fewer calories (i.e. protein and carbs–and don’t get me started on complex versus refined carbohydrates…), meaning fat-will-make-you-fat-so-eat-oatmeal-instead.
The idea behind the six small meals, the high protein, the diet itself, is to trick you into thinking you’re eating a lot. And, technically, you are. I probably went through enough extra-lean turkey breast and chicken breast and egg whites in a week to feed a family of four. But that being said, there aren’t that many calories in any of the lean proteins (120 calories per 4 oz give or take according to my online calorie-counting program). And there aren’t that many calories in the non-starchy vegetables I was carefully measuring and steaming. I filled the void with oatmeal, oatmeal, more oatmeal, and some sweet potatoes, until I got on the “leaning out” kick.
Sure, I was “encouraged” to eat more healthy fats, but there was also those 5 extra calories per gram lurking in every improperly measured tablespoon of olive oil, so it felt safer to use a canola oil spray for cooking and to leave my salads dry.
While the suggested meal plans in the magazines boasted daily calorie counts of anywhere from 1600-2100 calories, I thrilled in being able overachieve by taking my counts lower. 1200 calories, the amount the female body needs just to exist on a daily basis, was my daily goal (although my nightly peanut butter or cereal binges usually put me over to about 1400-1600 until I went cold turkey).
Moreover, for all the preaching about ditching the packaged goods and eating “real food,” there was a lot of processed junk that made its way into the sample recipes and suggested snacks. Whey and casein protein powders, soy and almond milk in cardboard boxes, packaged yogurts and protein bars…I even ate my egg whites from a carton (no need to buy the whole egg since the fat in the yolk was offensive to me).
And while the foods themselves were barely enough to keep me sated, the routine and the counting and the measuring fed my obsession. And obsession, if you remember, is one of ED’s favorite foods.
Because what I was doing had been encouraged as part of a “healthy” lifestyle, I ate my protein-powder-and-egg-white microwave muffins from beneath my health halo.
And my food routine–100-300 calories meals eaten every 3 hours–led me into a cycle of starvation and reward, of intense hunger followed by the brief, beautiful moment of indulgence followed by regret and sadness (for having eaten so much, for having finished the meal, for still wanting more) that became intense hunger once again as the hours passed.
And the cleaner I tried to eat, the healthier I tried to become, the faster I fell toward a mental and emotional rock-bottom:
I was a food addict.
*I’ll discuss the implications of this statement in another post soon…
**And I suppose I’m technically just able to speak for myself, but go take a look at some fitness models’ twitter feeds or read their blog posts, and then tell me that I’m the only one who thought (or thinks) this way. Anyone who can wax poetic about egg whites sweetened with stevia needs to seriously reconsider her relationship with and understanding of food. Again, personal opinion, but…