Going Clean, Part III: Staying clean – whatever that means…

I am writing this after some delay since my last post. In between, I have run the gamut of situations and emotions since submerging myself into ‘clean’ eating, so perhaps the time lapse is appropriate.

Doing the Kickstart Cleanse had yielded clear physical benefits, but perhaps more importantly it had shone a light on the relationship I had with my body and what kind of conversation I (literally, sometimes) had with it. I had lost the weight I wanted to, I now fit into my jeans, I could now wear my wardrobe again with confidence, but was it OK that I had linked my happiness and self-esteem with my weight and clothes size? These were one-dimensional, variable criteria susceptible to fluctuation; I felt good about myself now, but what if the weight came back on? How would I feel about myself then? I came out of the Cleanse with two goals: sustaining an eating lifestyle that was healthy and energising; and transforming the conversation I have with my body daily into one that is loving, compassionate and responsible.

I cannot deny that my enthusiasm for wanting to maintain healthy eating was driven primarily by the fact that I had successfully lost weight. It had been easy, satisfying, and I had not counted a single calorie or fat gram, nor controlled my portion sizes. All I had done was changed what I ate to rebalance my diet, and started focusing on the quality of my food rather than quantity or even composition. The best part was that I didn’t feel hard done by, if anything the opposite was true, I’d gained out of it: a new world of different foods had opened up to me, and I had discovered cooking! The ‘won’t cook’ me had turned into a ‘want to’ cook, and I was pouring through recipe books to make new things.

For the first time, I was being responsible for creating the body and health condition I wanted, and I was also making food I could share with others: cooking for family started becoming a joy, sharing with them what I was getting out of changing my diet and inviting them to try it for themselves. Even my (sceptical, committed junk-food-eater) brother was enticed by the delicious smells of the food I had been cooking, and as my energy levels and enthusiasm increased I spread it like an infection amongst my family and suggested they try it. I could see how everybody could benefit from this, and I wanted people to see how healthy could be tasty and satisfying.

As well as the weight loss there was the general improvement in my health: my skin was glowing, my eyes brighter, my tongue pinker. I had no cravings. I wanted this to last, which is why I committed to finding a way to make good eating sustainable and my new normal.

However, maintaining a ‘clean’ diet was something I had doubts about. I was really proud of myself for completing the Cleanse as it was designed, but it was too restrictive to maintain in the long term. I also questioned whether I needed to exclude wheat and dairy from my diet, or just reduce it. I was happy to cut out sugar, as it had such a beneficial impact on my health and energy overall. The next step for me was to experiment with different foods and modifications to see what worked for me.

It was a nervous start. I emerged after the 14 days into a dietary wilderness where I now had to make my own way in a food universe which was not so regimented but still ‘clean’. On the Monday, I found myself a little scared by food: if I ate bread, would all the weight I’d lost suddenly fly back onto to my body? Could I drink milk and be OK? I had been given new food baddies to grapple with, and I didn’t know what the right balance of avoidance was to remain healthy and light. I had replaced one food anxiety for another, and I wondered whether it was easier to have a general food anxiety covering almost everything, or to just concentrate it onto a few food groups. My first foray into ‘bad’ food was a tiny piece of focaccia with red peppers and goat’s cheese. On Day Two post-cleanse, I went for an afternoon tea I had booked a while back, and I weighed myself when I came home out of fear that I had regained everything I had lost. Anxiety was there under any excuse, it seemed.

I tentatively navigated my way through the first week post-cleanse – looking back on my food journal, I see that I had something sweet on four days out of the week, but it was small and a deliberate choice – and when I weighed myself I discovered that I had lost another kilo. I attributed that to my increased physical activity – I had been painting and decorating that week and so it must have been basic food maths, energy out exceeds energy in.

It was only when I started eating other foods again that I realised how eating clean had heightened my sense of taste. My brother’s birthday fell on the following Sunday, marking my first week back to non-regulated eating. I had ordered a decadent chocolate salted caramel cake for him, and I was looking forward to eating it with reckless abandon throughout the day. Eating that cake was a transcendental experience. When I took that first mouthful, it was as if I was tasting cake for the first time; my tastebuds had been scrubbed clean by what I had been eating so everything I tasted was cleaner, fresher, better. And because I was consciously choosing what I ate, I appreciated it more. It was incredible, and I had not tasted or appreciated food like that for a long time. I wanted that to last, to savour everything I ate.

The experimenting continued. A little bit of ice cream here, a small piece of cake there. I noticed that I did not crave these things any more, I just wanted them sometimes, and if I didn’t have them that was OK. And I continued to practise the new-found art of holding a thought before it triggered an automatic reaction and interrogating it, turning it around in my mind so I could really understand where that urge came from. This gave me power, and is helping me to turn around previously unchallenged associations with food. It is an ongoing exercise, just like looking after your health and well being is.

If I’m honest, those first couple of weeks readjusting to a modified version of ‘clean’ – ‘clean light’, if you like – were relieving and stressful. It was good to be able to have some of the things I loved but not need them, but the fear of falling back into bad behaviours and also reversing any of my health achievements was always present. I had initially resented the idea of ‘clean’ eating because I didn’t believe you should vilify entire food groups and increase paranoia in people’s minds. I don’t even like the term ‘clean’, because it implies that some foods like wheat, dairy and even fruit are ‘dirty’, which to me is just swapping out one framework of food morality for another. The caution against fruit is a perfect example, and I have discovered through my post-cleanse experimenting that I am not wheat-intolerant, even though James Duigan and several other advocates of restrictive eating say that many people are intolerant to wheat. I had certainly seen the benefit of reducing wheat, dairy and almost entirely eliminating sugar from my diet – and processed foods had been banished for good – but to imply that they were ‘dirty’ and that I’m likely to be intolerant to them is just nonsense.

It was serendipity that I was browsing cookery books in a shop and came across these words by Nigella Lawson: ‘I am disgusted by the contemporary mantra of “clean eating”…What I hate is the new-age voodoo about eating, that foods are either harmful or healing, that a good diet makes a good person and that that person is necessarily lean, limber, toned and fit…Such a view seems to me in danger of fusing Nazism (with its ideological cult of physical perfection) and Puritanism (with its horror of the flesh and belief in salvation through denial).’ She continues, ‘The Clean-Eating brigade seems an embodiment of all my fears. Food is not dirty, the pleasures of the flesh are essential to life and, however we eat, we are not guaranteed immortality or immunity from loss. We cannot control life by controlling what we eat. But how we cook and, indeed, how we eat does give us – as much as anything can – mastery over ourselves…I have always believed that food you cook for yourself is essentially good for you…the act of cooking for yourself is in itself a supremely positive act, an act of kindness.’

Reading those words gave me clarity on a conflict I was experiencing internally. Eating differently had revolutionised how I wanted to eat on a long-term basis because of the impact I could see almost immediately. However, what had also opened up was a love of cooking and creating my own food, and although I was relishing the opportunity to get creative and find ways to make my favourite foods healthier, I was beginning to struggle with containing all I wanted to cook within the confines of what was ‘clean’. For all that I had recently learned about the value of food as nourishment and energy-giving, it was more than that: food is joy of life. Food is almost inevitably inextricably bound up with love, abundance and sharing: what can beat cooking a hearty lasagna for your family and eating it with them? Or eating sandwiches and pastries as you chat with friends over afternoon tea? Or apportioning out a cake you’ve just baked whose magical aroma has wafted through your home like a sensory spell? Or immersing yourself in the culture of a new place by sampling its local delicacies? That food embodies joy and it should not be contained by being ‘clean’. If joy and clean eating were in a tug-of-war – as they seemed to be in my mind – joy must win every time. Having said that, my definition of joy in food was also being transformed by the day, moving from one grounded in emotional comfort, laziness, and some defiance to one revolving around vitality, well being and real freedom around what I ate – consciously choosing what I wanted without any emotional triggers and enjoying it without anxiety. And underneath all of this, I could see the Puritanical fascist in me when it came to food and moreover my appearance, and I was still engaged in constant battle with it to muffle its voice with something benign, kind and compassionate.

What I was ultimately arriving at was that eating in accordance with certain principles made me feel better and look better, and I wanted to maintain it, but I did not want to be a ‘clean’ eater and reject whole food groups outright. However, when I re-read James Duigan’s Clean and Lean bible a few days ago, his definition of ‘clean’ – which I had skimmed over the first time round – struck me: it is ‘a body that can deal effectively with toxins…and flush them out successfully’, and it also ‘refers to the foods that we eat: fresh and in their natural state, not processed…’. It’s not about foods being ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’, and to be honest, I was discovering first hand how powerful it was to eat foods which were cleansing for my body: when I ate well most of the time, when I did eat heavier, richer, sugar-rich foods my body was able to cope with them with much more ease and speed. In the past 8 weeks since I completed the cleanse, I have not only maintained my weight loss but lost more weight, bringing it to a total of about 3.5 kilos. And that was eating whatever I wanted, including cake and ice cream. The key difference has been that now, I only eat what I really want to; what I really gave up is the average stuff I ate and don’t even miss. The question I ask myself now is ‘will I savour this?’, whether it be porridge, eggs, cake, pizza, coffee, anything. And if I am going to eat something, I want it to be the best version of that thing it can be, and often I want to make it myself.

In the past couple of weeks I have regained some weight, and the bitch voice has started piping up, but I know it’s because I’ve not been responsible about what I’m eating, and I’ve let old internal narratives drive how I eat – ‘you may as go for it today, you’ve already overeaten so a little more won’t hurt’, ‘eat everything bad today, you can start afresh tomorrow’. Like sugar, the voice is contagious and addictive: I have thought I have ruined everything, I’m going to go back to square one and lose my ‘glow’ and put the weight back on, there’s no point, I’m not going to stick to my principles, I have no discipline. My food anxiety is still lurking in my mind, but I have learned that my self-loathing and self-anger has not been directed at how I look but how I have allowed myself to get this way: I tell myself that any weight gain means I have failed due to weakness, laziness, lack of commitment and discipline. Even now, it is present in my mind, and I have identified that it comes from a lack of trust in myself – will I be able to commit to something I say I will do? This uncertainty means I am still struggling to have compassion for myself.

But as I write this, I know I am not the same person who took on this experiment in January. I have transformed the way I eat and have gone largely sugar-free; I am learning to cook and loving it, and not only that but it is a form of self-expression for me as I can get creative and experimental; I have learned that I love sharing what has benefitted me with others, including my cooking; I am exercising more regularly than I ever have in my life, and with that I look in the mirror and see a body that I am creating – I like my legs for the first time in my life because their shape and strength has improved due to me being my word and going for my runs; I have stumbled and slipped in my eating well, and am learning to pick myself up and keep going rather than hate and blame myself and give up; I have more mastery over my behaviour and can identify harmful automatic thoughts often before they convert into an action – and this stretches beyond food and eating to other things. I have learned that the door to self-compassion is opened by turning up and giving something a go, whether it be a run or eating well. The results will be what they are, but at least I have done what I can to do well for myself.

This is an extract from the last entry of my food journal as I stopped monitoring my food and thoughts. The words reflect how I still feel about this experience:

The final day of my journal, and the day of my weekly weigh-in. I have been looking forward to these weigh-ins with curiosity, but today as I stepped on to the scales, for a moment I felt as an uncertain father might on receiving the results of a paternity test for a child he has brought up as his own for years: what difference will it make? Does it matter anyway? For he has forged a relationship with the child independent of the hard data, which almost seems irrelevant. He loves the child anyway. With that thought there too, I stepped on and read: I have gained a pound, and suspected as much from how I have been feeling: heavy.
My view on clean eating has changed somewhat, or rather gone round in a circle but now an informed one. As Hasan [my brother] is halfway through his 14-day cleanse, we hotly exchange views on how we feel, what the benefits are of eating ‘clean’, or healthily, or with more awareness, or whatever you want to call it. Hasan has struggled with the idea of eating a restricted diet, and is adamant that he will return to his normal diet once this is over; he has not experienced what I experienced in terms of the lightness, the equal and sometimes greater satisfaction derived from eating new, different types of food, and the deeper satisfaction I have gained from re-evaluating how I approach more decadent meals. However, he has said that he has enjoyed some things he didn’t think he would enjoy…most interestingly, the whole experience has made him think about food in a different way.
After the 14 days was over, I was a newly evangelised convert, completely won over by the ease with which I could eat satisfying meals and lose weight; that feeling of slipping into my skinny jeans was an euphoric experience. I thought, I am going to go clean for the long term unless I had a reason not to – a special meal, the occasional treat here and there. Where I started to struggle was trying to balance a newly discovered joy for food and especially cooking – the happiness from creating your own food is an ever-expanding one for me, and I am standing at the outer edges of it with much more discovery ahead – with keeping it to certain food groups. It has felt a bit like trying to contain joy, but that can’t be contained. I have seen that there is a wonderful fulfilment in being the shape you want to be, and wear the clothes you want to wear, and feel good about yourself, but there is a different, equally potent, and at times conflicting joy derived from sharing the experience of food with others, and from enjoying all types of food. To cook a hearty lasagne for my family and share it with them; to take a bite of cake and sip hot chocolate with my girlfriends over afternoon tea; to appreciate authentic Italian pizza in my favourite pizzerias; to make a recipe as it is designed and fit all the components together to make a wondrous, luscious whole which you can promptly devour; the waft of home-made cake and scones floating through your home, of which you are the originator…all of this cannot be excluded. There has been a tension, and as I have tried to walk the tightrope between continuing good habits and diving into a new world of cookery and good food (all still healthy, may I add), some weight has come back on, and I have realised that eating clean does not necessarily mean losing weight, but it can mean better health. For me, the latter was an unexpected prize, and worthwhile enough for me to carry on following the principles to reap the benefits. The inconsistency of the former leads me to believe that there is only one way for me to be in good health and to be the shape I want, and that is the long way, requiring hard work and consistency. Regular exercise, eating well, maintaining a low-sugar diet…I have more avenues to explore. But eliminating food groups is not an easy fix.
I have learned that:

– the best meals for feeling lighter are veg and protein.
– I suspect I do not have an intolerance to wheat, as my belly did not get flatter and I have eaten very little of it since I finished the 14 day cleanse, yet my weight has increased, suggesting there is no correlation between the two
– the weight loss was due, I suspect, to the drop in calories consumed, and I remain convinced that controlling this comes down to portion size and quantity of food. In other words, basic maths: less in, more (energy) out through exercise.

– how I feel in my body has been down to the quality of food I have been eating, and this is where the significant reduction of sugar, refined foods, and to an extent grains, comes in.
– my initial instinct of starving myself to get myself ‘back on track’ and feel light is a bad habit I need to work harder to eliminate, for it is nothing but cruelty to my body. Eating clean was not about starvation to control your body – I never went hungry unless I was neglectful of myself, there was no portion control, no calories to count, no instruction to deny myself – but as I have been feeling heavier this week my first instinct has been to starve myself for as long as I can to get back to feeling ‘light’, when it would actually be better to eat earlier in the evening, change the balance of my meals to veg/protein heavy, and sleep better. While I was eating ‘clean’, I was kinder to myself than I have been in a long time; I did not judge myself or what I ate; I did not punish myself through denial to ‘reset’ myself; I just ate when I was hungry and kept my portion size reasonable.
– snacking as a concept has all but disappeared for me. The notion of a ‘half’ meal to keep me going normally resulted in high-sugar, high-carb food which I ate and spiked my energy levels. That has been replaced by a practice of eating something proper and complete when I am hungry i.e., a balanced meal, albeit small, of protein, veg or fruit, and maybe carbs. That has made a big difference and is a habit I will need to work to maintain, as the snacking habit is an easy one to slip back into.’

Would I recommend the Clean and Lean kickstart to shake up your health? Absolutely. I discovered much more than I had ever anticipated through undertaking this, and although I would not say this in its pure form is a way of eating for life, the principles, with some modification, have drastically improved how I look and feel about myself, and are my guidelines for how I eat. Moreover, the behavioural and more psychological aspects of my relationship with food have been eye-opening, and being kinder to myself is an ongoing journey I am committed to now. As I write this, I am reminded of my promise to be compassionate towards myself – it has been missing a little lately as I stress out about food and health and gaining weight. And this will happen again and again, so I remind myself now that I am not a bad person for not eating as well as I could, for not honouring my principles for a few days – it doesn’t mean anything at all, in fact.

I believe an 80/20 rule is ideal here: eating ‘clean’ – or, more accurately, cleansing foods – 80% of the time means that whatever else you eat will be managed by a healthier, stronger, more responsive body. I imagine clean passages in my body rather than clogged ones, and that is my incentive for maintaining this as a way of life. And food isn’t the only aspect to well being and weight loss. Exercise is invaluable for several reasons, as is a good sleeping pattern, so a number of things need to come together for your health to be optimised.

Most importantly, what you eat and how you eat must bring you joy, and be a choice you powerfully make. If you don’t enjoy it, there is no point. Life, and food, just aren’t meant to be experienced that way. And if you – like I have – sometimes find yourself estimating calorie content, or justify what you’re eating, or think of reasons to explain why you’re eating what you’re eating, or think in terms of reward and/or deprivation to ‘make up’ for what you’ve eaten, you’ve missed the point of why you’re doing what you’re doing – it’s not about well being any more, and you’re probably being unkind to yourself. Your ‘why’ [am I doing this] has to be a positive and inspiring one for you to always come back to. Mine is to live well, to wear clothes I love, and to dance.

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