How Clean Eating turned into an Eating Disorder: My Personal Struggle
What follows is my own story and experience with clean eating. It should not be viewed as any sort of medical or clinical advice. If you’re really struggling with an eating disorder, please seek out professional help.
I was always slightly overweight as a teenager. I wouldn’t say I was fat, but I was far from skinny. In my early to mid-twenties, I gained a few extra lbs and a few extra inches on my waist.
Fast forward to the present day and I’d like to think of myself as in better shape than most. Although, looking at the alarming stats on the nations waistline, it doesn’t take much.
How long did it take to get in shape?
I often get asked, how long did it take for me to drop the weight and put on the muscle I have. The truth is, I don’t really know. There was never a specific date I thought, ‘right, from now on I’m going to eat healthy, go to the gym & get fit’. It just sort of happened gradually.
If I had to guess and put some sort of time frame on it, I would say around 2011 was when I made the initial change in my eating & exercise habits. I wasn’t that knowledgeable about nutrition back then. And I could have done things a whole lot better, if only I knew then what I know now.
Don’t get me wrong, I did make some progress. I lost weight and lost inches round my waist. So from an outsiders point of view, I was doing great. However, on the inside, things weren’t as smooth sailing. I was unaware at the time, but I was gradually developing an eating disorder.
Orthorexia nervosa is an obsession with eating healthy foods, or ‘clean eating’, while avoiding unhealthy foods. And it’s probably more common than you think. Maybe not to the extent that it’d be classed as a full on eating disorder, but I’ve seen the potential of one developing in many people that adopt a clean eating plus cheat meal approach. (I’m not saying that everyone that ‘eats clean’ will develop an eating disorder, but the potential is definitely there.)
My approach was to ‘eat clean’ during the week and then have a ‘cheat day’ on Saturday, going back to clean eating on Sunday. Does this sound familiar? I see so many people being ‘good’ during the week, allowing themselves to eat whatever they want at the weekend.
As mentioned before, this approach did get me some initial results. I did lose weight and lose inches from my waist. But my relationship with food was terrible.
Sunday to Friday, I wouldn’t touch anything ‘unhealthy’, eating only ‘good’ or ‘clean’ foods. It got to the point where all I could think about was my next cheat day. I would be planning and obsessing over what I was going to have pretty much all week. Then Saturday would come around and I would eat anything and everything in sight. It wouldn’t be uncommon for me to eat a large pizza & chips, full cheesecake, cookies, sweets, chocolate just as an evening ‘meal’.
I would often eat just for the sake of it, sometimes to the point of feeling physically sick. But I felt I had to make the most of it, because come Sunday, riddled with guilt, I would have to go back to ‘eating clean’.
I remember one Friday night in particular, waking up in the middle of the night, not being able to get back to sleep. Seeing as though it was after midnight, it was actually my cheat day. Upon this realisation, I made my way down to the kitchen to make a start on all my cheat day foods. So there I was, 2am, eating Mr. Kipling Cherry Bakewells. But it was ‘OK’ because it was my cheat day.
Does this sound like the eating habits of a healthy person? Because that’s what everyone saw me as. However, I definitely wouldn’t class myself as healthy during that time. My physical health might have improved by losing weight and the increased activity but it was at the expense of my mental health. When it comes to your overall health & well being, I feel that your relationship with food is just as important as the actual food you eat.
Not that I was tracking calories, but I bet I was easily putting away over 5000kcal on most cheat days, likely much more some weeks. Which more than likely cancelled out any calorie deficit I created Sunday – Friday. Which is the reason I stopped making progress.
This is a pretty common mistake people make when trying to lose weight. They’re ‘good’ during the week then eat whatever they want at the weekend, cancelling out any calorie deficit they may have created by ‘being good’.
When things started to improve
I’m not sure when I started tracking my food intake, or what prompted me to do so, but that was a big turning point for me. I started reading more and more fitness and nutrition articles online and started following the works of people like Alan Aragon, Layne Norton & Lyle McDonald, to name a few.
At first, I went too far the other way. I wouldn’t eat anything unless I could weigh it & log it on My Fitness Pal, (MFP). I was very much reliant on putting everything in MFP and it got quite obsessive. So I went to not eating anything ‘bad’ to only eating things I could track. I don’t think this is an ideal approach either. However, I gradually found a good balance of tracking things most of the time, estimating the things I couldn’t track and not worrying too much about it.
Now, after tracking for so long I can get good results without tracking that often because I’ve the knowledge & experience of estimating the calories & macronutrients different foods have.
As I became more knowledgeable about fitness & nutrition I gradually realised the mistakes I’d been making. I learned that foods weren’t inherently good or bad, just some foods were easier to overeat than others. I learned that calorie intake was the main thing to focus on. Followed by adequate protein intake, with all everything else not really making that much difference.
This knowledge & change in mindset enabled me to continue to make progress and get the leanest I’ve ever been, (and ever desire to be).
Perhaps more significantly, my relationship around food and my mental health in general improved massively.
I’ll keep this post to nutrition, but I also started logging my training and actually started to plan & structure my workouts, which also made a big difference.
I don’t think that everybody should be weighing & logging their food all the time, but doing it for a short period will provide great insight to how much you’re eating. And potentially shed light on why you’re not making progress.
With this new knowledge, I stopped seeing foods as good or bad. I stopped only ‘eating clean’ through the week and binging on junk food on Saturday. Instead of only eating ‘bad’ food on my cheat day, I would include small amounts during the week, fitting them into my calorie allowance.
Granted, it was a gradual thing. It takes time to be able to only have small amounts of ‘junk’ food without it turning into a binge. It became easier after the realisation that I didn’t have to wait a week until I could have it again. I could have it again the next day if I wanted.
When you avoid foods because you think they’re bad, it can mean that when you allow yourself to have some, you feel like you need to make the most of it. Which usually means eating more than you really want or need to. But when you know that you can have a little bit more tomorrow, it gets easier to stop after a small amount.
Overall, I would say with confidence, that I was eating less ‘junk’ food when I started tracking what I was eating. I was eating it more often, but just in much smaller quantities.
Most days I eat some ‘junk’ food, whether it be chocolate, ice cream or whatever. How much I eat depends on my goal at the time.
This approach is commonly referred to as flexible dieting. (Not that I’m a fan of putting names & labels on things). However, as with most things, this approach is taken to the extreme by some people. Maybe they misunderstand the concept. Or maybe they’re just attention seeking idiots. I don’t know.
The point of flexible dieting isn’t to see how much junk food you can fit into your calorie allowance, which some people seem to do. It’s an overarching concept that means you can include small amounts of ‘junk’ food in your diet more regularly, if desired, to prevent massive craving driven binges.
Flexible dieting doesn’t mean you have to weigh & log everything you eat, however. Part of it is that you can be flexible when it comes to making decisions around food. When you go out to eat, for example, you have the capability to make good decisions without the need to track everything.
I still eat mostly ‘clean’ foods. Only now with the knowledge that overall weekly calories play a primary role your body weight. And that it’s possible to eat some ‘junk’ food without it completely ruining my diet.
I no longer feel massive guilt when I wake up on Sunday morning after eating to the point of nausea the day before. I don’t see foods as good or bad and I don’t exclude any foods at all. Granted, when I’m trying to get leaner, the amount of ‘junk’ food in my diet drastically reduces. I just don’t feel it’s worth using my calories up on what’s usually a small amount of food because I’ll still be hungry afterwards.
Why am I telling you this?
Hopefully, it should be obvious…so you don’t make the same mistake I did. Or at least, it might open your eyes and help you change your ways.
I’m not saying that I have the definitive answer. I’m just sharing my own experience in the hope it might make you aware of potential issues. If you’re looking for someone to help you with your diet, improve your eating habits & get in shape, then I can definitely help you. However, if you’re looking for someone to coach you out of an eating disorder, whether it be orthorexia, anorexia or bulimia, then that’s way outside my scope of practise and area of knowledge.
As I say, hopefully my story might open your eyes to the potential issues that can come from the best intentions. It’s so common for people to see foods as good or bad. It seems to amaze people when they see me eating ‘junk’ food at social gatherings. I sometimes get, ‘can you eat that on your diet’ or ‘you can’t eat that, you eat healthy’. They’re stuck with this idea that foods are inherently good or bad. Hopefully you’ll now realise that this isn’t strictly correct. And that it can lead you down a dark path if you’re not careful.
I see so many people glorify their cheat day. They almost wear it like a badge of honor, how much crap they’re eating, which is ridiculous. Fitness models and online fitness ‘celebrities’ posting about their massive cheat day isn’t helping the matter either. Just because they can get away with it doesn’t mean it’s a good message to put out to Joe Public. Most people won’t be able to get away with it, for various reasons.
Don’t get me wrong, I used to be one of those people posting about how much crap I would eat on my cheat day. But we all make mistakes. I cringe when I think back to some of the posts I put on Facebook.
Don’t use a ‘cheat day’ to justify binge eating to the point it becomes an eating disorder. Which effectively was what I was doing. And don’t let the concept of a cheat meal turned into an eating disorder. Because, in my experience, it’s a slippery slope if you’re not mindful about it.
The aim while dieting should be to not feel so deprived & restricted during a diet that you feel the need to binge and have a cheat day every Saturday.
If you want my help to get in shape for your holiday, or to just look & feel better click here to apply for online personal training & nutrition coaching