Okay, let’s have a show of hands. Who among us here has seen a post on our social media feeds about someone at the gym and/or someone’s diet regimen today?
“Beach body” season might be over, but the pressure to have a toned or perhaps even ripped physique is still very much there, hence the various diet and workout trends littered all over social media. And if you’re following certain celebrities on Instagram or Facebook, you’re probably familiar with the term “clean eating.”
It sounds innocent enough. Of course, we all want to “eat clean” to stay healthy and be in good shape, but what does it mean exactly?
Here’s the thing: no one’s come to an agreement as to what clean eating is. The basic concept is aligned with traditional nutritional principles: the elimination of processed foods and refined sugar, favoring whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and the reduction of salt and alcohol. So far, so good. After all, conventional wisdom tells us that a low-fat, fiber-rich diet (coupled with exercise) will not only give us a killer bod, but also a longer, healthier life, and that’s great.
However, the trouble with clean eating is that it can easily be taken to extremes, and that’s never a good thing. Dialed up to eleven, this sort of diet can result in an unhealthy obsession with “righteous eating,” otherwise known as an eating disorder called orthorexia.
Orthorexia symptoms sound like clean eating on steroids: total, obsessive avoidance of fat, sugar, and salt; increased consumption of supplements; complaints of imagined food allergies; and a drastic reduction of food that’s “acceptable” to eat. In some cases, clean eating practitioners even cut out entire food groups such as dairy and carbohydrates from their diet, which is quite dangerous in the long run as our bodies need the nutrients from such in order to function correctly.
Also, labeling certain kinds of food as “dirty” and forbidden usually results in a destructive pattern of binging and restricting. Most nutritionists even say that clean eating is unsustainable at best (come on, all those organic, vegan, sugar-free, and carb-free snacks don’t come cheap) and possibly dangerous to your well-being at worst.
So, instead of going by a very rigid and frankly, rather sad way of life, why not go by these general nutritional guidelines instead?
1. Strike a healthy balance between healthy food and indulgent snacks.
If you eat a pack of chocolate chip cookies every day, you’ll definitely feel and look worse for the wear, but that doesn’t mean you should cut them out entirely.
Instead of swearing off sugar and chocolates for life, why not try the 80-20 rule? Eat healthy 80% of the time, and then give in to your cravings for the other 20%. So, have a quinoa salad or a whole wheat tuna wrap for your weekday lunches and dinners, but enjoy a nice hot fudge sundae after your Saturday dinner with no guilt. Your sanity will thank you for it.
2. Aim for variety.
Our body needs a wide range of nutrients and yes, even fat, to function.
Take a look at what you eat everyday. Is there too much meat or are there too much carbohydrates in your diet? Are you eating enough fiber?
Rather than zeroing in too much on what you need to cut out, think about what you need to add. For instance, if you’re used to eating a burger and fries for lunch, why not swap out the fries for a light salad?
3. Focus on nourishment.
To be clear, nourishment isn’t just physical. The human body wasn’t made to just take in and expunge calories, so consider your mental and emotional state too.
A salad of greens with strips of grilled, skinless chicken breasts and sliced tomatoes might be good for you, but don’t say no to dinner with some good friends just because you aren’t sure it will be on the menu. Sometimes, a plate of nachos and a bottle of beer shared with the people you love can do wonders for your well-being in a way that a kale smoothie never can.
4. Don’t get swept up in dietary fads.
As with most trends, diets come and go. Back when I was in high school, the Atkins diet was all the rage, and carbohydrates were considered verboten. That belief was disproved by some studies a few years later, and everyone started eating carbs again.
Nutritional wisdom is all well and good, but no juice cleanse or clean eating plan should override actually listening to your body and determining what it really needs.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to lead a healthy lifestyle. It’s good, great even, if you can actually commit to eating more fresh and nutritious food, but it should never consume your waking thoughts and rob you of your happiness.