Clean eating, going clean, Part I: why I did it

If I possessed the superhuman attribute I most desire – being able to eat whatever I want whilst maintaining an Olympian’s fitness and physique – we would not be having this conversation. As it happens, I have not been thus endowed, and maybe that is quite fortunate, because I think this is a worthwhile conversation to have.

I discovered the concept of ‘clean eating’ in October last year, and it was January 2017 when I decided to try the kick start cleanse in earnest. My reasons for doing so were simple: I was desperate to try something which would help me lose weight, and I had realised that I was addicted to sugar, and was finally committed to doing something about it.

Getting to the point where I was ready and willing to go ‘clean’ was not easy or quick. My relationship with my body was as complicated as my attitude towards doing any sort of programme as it is designed, whether it be a diet, a training course, even following a recipe. In the background was the constant, self-imposed pressure to be a certain weight and size – as light and small as possible – juxtaposed with the desire – my right! – to eat all the things I loved and was used to. I wanted to taste everything and never miss out, and somehow, things worked out so I was able to do both for most of my adulthood: I ate what I wanted to, and fit into clothes I loved. For this reason, I thought my diet and lifestyle was fine.

However, over the past two years I had put on weight which refused to shift, and although I was not clinically overweight, the extra kilos plunged me from being OK with myself to miserable. I was used to leaving my weight and size to circumstance: I genuinely believed that what I did and ate made little difference, my body seemed to have a mind of its own. This time I thought again my weight would sort itself out, but it didn’t. I half heartedly tried some diets – calorie-counting (with the help of the well-known My Fitness Pal), juice fasts, plain old starvation (usually a successful method for me) – but my stubborn resistance to regulated dieting gave me a perfect excuse to sabotage any efforts; my governing thought was ‘there’s no point, my body does what it wants to, so why bother?’. On top of that I was screaming inside, ‘why should I have to do this?!’

The weight stayed put. I was the heaviest I had been in 15 years, yet I deeply resented any suggestion that I needed to control what I ate and stop eating things I loved, after so many years of eating what I wanted. I literally wanted to have my cake and eat it.

The additional weight made the difference between wearing anything in my (much loved, carefully purchased) wardrobe to relegating about 75% of it to ‘too fat to wear’ because I no longer felt good in the clothes; between dressing to look good and be seen to cloaking myself in looser, dark garments to appear inconspicuous; between confidence and embarrassment. And because I refused to accept that my appearance meant so much to me – that I could be so superficial as to let it be so significant – I masked up my misery with feigned indifference. I covered it all up with ‘f*** it’.

I wasn’t conscious of it, but I was fiercely protecting eating habits I had developed as a teenager. My diet was largely governed by one golden rule, gleened from a teenage magazine when I was 16: the ‘carb’ calorie is harmless; the ‘fat’ calorie is my foe. I still remember the touted wisdom to support this claim: carb calories are ready to be converted straight into energy and are therefore easily burned and rarely stored; fat, on the other hand, was sent straight to storage on my hips and bum and took more effort to break down. I was convinced and converted in an instant, and happily cultivated a love of bread, sweets, and low-fat dairy, and got to have my cakes and biscuits at the expense of proper meals. I also loved fruit, avoided mystery meat kebabs from takeaways, preferred better quality, natural ingredients to processed ones (because they tasted better, and I wasn’t religious about this), and rarely ate crisps and savoury fried snacks, so I thought that overall I was doing well. My eating habits were comforting, tasty, seemed to work for me, and so I refused to challenge them.

What this allowed me to hide from myself was my addiction to sugar. I had always been smug that I was addiction-free – I don’t drink, smoke, do drugs, I don’t even care for caffeine – but I was so used to having sugar laced throughout my diet that I didn’t even see the dependency I had created. My sweet tooth was synecdochal with who I was: I would happily give up a main meal for a sweet snack; casually starve myself so I could gorge on a big sweet meal to make up for the resulting drop in energy; it was an automatic assumption that I would have something sweet with my meal, and these could be achingly rich. If I passed on my sweet treat, I felt as if I had made a significant sacrifice by depriving myself, and I told myself I definitely ‘deserved’ my sweet at the next meal. My friends would laugh at how I could down endless cups of hot chocolate at afternoon tea; they would point out new bakeries, gelaterias, and cafes for me to try; once, my best friend’s family shrieked in mock horror as I bit into a solid cube of fondant icing (it was done in error – I still swallowed). I loved and craved sugar, and the realisation dawned on me as I knew my health was not at its best, my skin prone to angry red blemishes, my complexion a little jaded, my energy levels dragging even though I ate plenty: there was something wrong with me craving sugar as much as I did. It was in that moment that I decided that I had to address this properly.

I had only heard about ‘clean eating’ in passing, and was sceptical of this tidal wave of fashionable fads banning entire food groups from wheat to dairy to sugar to grains to meat. I thought it was quite dramatic and unnecessary, and had secretly laughed at a friend who said that she was trying to go sugar-free: who would be so silly as to give up something which made food taste so good and probably didn’t matter that much? I thought the idea of going sugar-free was extreme and pointless, but acknowledging my addiction to sugar made me more open to looking at different approaches to reducing my intake and whether it would make any difference.

I read James Duigan’s Clean & Lean Diet to understand the principles of ‘clean’ eating. He is apparently the founder of ‘clean and lean’; his definition of ‘clean’ is: ‘a body that can deal effectively with toxins…and flush them out successfully’. He adds: ‘“]C]clean” also refers to the foods that we eat: fresh and in their natural state, not processed…’.

I need to point out that I probably would not have considered trying clean eating or even picked up the book if it had not been for the hope that I could still eat cakes in any effective eating plan. What made a massive difference was seeing a table which set out ‘worst’ foods, ‘better’ variations of that food, and the ‘best’ version. For example, the ‘worst’ cakes were supermarket-bought cakes wrapped in cellophane and with long sell-by dates (stuffed with additives and preservatives); ‘better’ was freshly made cake with pure, quality ingredients; ‘best’ was home-made cake made with fruit juice and ‘clean’ oils. This made sense to me, and I thought if this approach allows for cake somewhere, then it’s realistic and worth a go.

The principles at a high level made sense: cut out refined sugars, processed foods, alcohol, caffeine and refined sugar, all of which produce toxins in the body and make it function less effectively. It also recommends cutting out wheat and dairy on the grounds that people were typically intolerant to one or both, and wheat converts into sugar quickly and therefore could make you fat. I wasn’t convinced by either of these, but I was going to give it a try for the 14-day Kickstart Cleanse.

On researching James Duigan’s credentials further, I noted that he was a qualified personal trainer but not a clinical nutritionist, although he has taken courses in nutrition. Therefore, any dietary advice he gives is not necessarily grounded in proven science but most likely based on his theory for a healthy, ‘lean’ body. I thought that it was worth a go for 14 days, and, in a departure from my usual approach, I was going to do this programme properly, as it was designed, so I could really see if made any difference.

I met my girlfriends for afternoon tea on Sunday – a final indulgence – and started the cleanse on Monday…

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