Social media sites are plastered with ‘clean eating’ instructions, but what does this trend mean? There is no definite definition though it focuses on eating minimally-processed foods, especially vegetables and unrefined grains.
Experts are worried because the fad can unknowingly lead to more harm than good. Since there is no way to define “clean eating” it becomes easy for people to come up with their own definitions likely to lead to problematic eating habits.
Jenn Patterson was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa when she was in the eighth grade.
“My insecurity started when I was in the fourth grade. I decided I would lose weight and feel better about myself. I was a bit overweight, but it was just puberty. If I had just let my body do its thing it would have been fine. At first, people were complimenting me.”
Patterson’s mother caught on and took action quick getting Jenn into counselling.
“I was skipping meals. I wasn’t eating lunch at school. I lost a lot of weight. There were a lot of warning signs. The big red flag was the concerning amount of weight I lost in a short amount of time.”
From grade 8 to 12 she was in and out of day treatment, where she would visit the hospital every morning and have all meals monitored and given to her, attend therapy groups, do schooling and meet with a dietician, therapist, doctor. Then, after dinner she would return home to sleep. Eventually Patterson had to be hospitalized. She spent 6 months in Utah in residential treatment to focus on recovering.
“Until you’ve experienced it yourself, or you know someone who has, you don’t think about it. Even when I was in seventh grade—not even a year before I developed my eating disorder—I was sitting in class saying things like, how could people have eating disorders? I could never do that…then it ended up happening to me. It’s so simple to accidentally fall into.”
‘Clean eating’ began with encouraging others to eat nutritiously but has spiralled into a movement around restricting diets. It points fingers at which foods are “good” and “bad”. Patterson’s story is not to conclude that ‘clean eating’ directly perpetuates eating disorders, but it does lead to an obsession over eating healthy which causes food shaming that can have psychological effects.
The trend implies that many foods are dirty and automatically bad for us, which the creates anxiety about what one is digesting.
“It’s the mentality behind it all. Going out for dinner and not being able to order a normal meal because you’re worried about the calorie content and if it’s going to affect your body. It’s hard because I still have thoughts like that. It doesn’t just go away. I can rationalize them but it’s hard to especially because when you have an eating disorder there is no rationalization it’s just very irrational thoughts, but they feel real. I’m always going to know how many calories are in a banana, when I look at it it’s there because it’s so ingrained in me now. So, it’s things like that and you have to learn to push them back and not make them the focus of your life.”
The trend needs to shift to focus on the scientific evidence behind different food choices, so everyone can find what works for them.
“It’s a matter of learning different strategies to want to live your life. For me, it’s my mom. If I’m having thoughts that I know are wrong, but I need someone to tell me I’m wrong then I’ll call or text her. She’s there to reassure me that it is going to be fine if I eat a slice of pizza and I know that, but I just need to hear it. So, having someone to reassure me and rationalize things is the most helpful.”
The unnoticed signs and symptoms
Eating disorders do not always entail being underweight. According to a survey by Beat—an eating disorder charity in the U.K.— where 2,000 adults were surveyed, 79 per cent of respondents could not list any psychological symptoms, in fact 34 per cent could not name any signs or symptoms at all, and 62 per cent believed the signs and symptoms are only weight loss or being thin.
Each situation is unique to the individual, but these are some warning signs that often go unnoticed:
- Stress and irritability about meals
- Excessive exercise
- Constantly categorizing food as being “good” or “bad”
- Wanting to eat alone
- Disappearing for a period of time after a meal
- Isolating oneself from friends and family
“As much as it is about control you can get to a point where you lose all your control.”
Patterson has found strength and a healthy balanced lifestyle by becoming an avid gym goer. She also has a blog that focuses on sharing her journey to encourage the importance of mental and physical fitness.