Is eating clean your New Year's resolution? Now that the festive season is coming to a close, you're probably feeling a little sluggish and need some fresh fruit in your life - excluding that fruit cake! Well, you're in luck; 2015 was unquestionably the year of 'eating clean', with plant-based recipes flooding the Internet, 'Buddha bowls' popping up all over Instagram, and the UK organic market rising to £1.86 billion according to the Soil Association.
Put simply, to eat clean is to stick to a diet of healthy foods, usually those that are raw, fresh, and minimally processed. And while I love a breakfast smoothie, organic veg box, and the odd green juice now and then, I don't think enough has been done to scrutinise this relatively new diet trend. Even as a supporter of the clean eating trend, I'm aware that the polished pictures of food and leaders of the trend's lean bodies are ironically acting in just the same way that glossy magazines do, only now they're on our news feeds rather than on news stands.
Eating clean has become in some ways another pressure point surrounding body image and self esteem, only this time it has manifested itself in the food we put in our mouths rather than what our bodies look like. It might not be a widely-recognised problem, but there is even a term coined for an 'unhealthy obsession' with healthy food: orthorexia nervosa. It may start out as an innocent attempt to eat healthy food, but develops into an obsession with food quality, purity, and its nutritional value. Along with this is a psychological tying of self-esteem with eating habits, rising above others when eating 'better' than them, punishing oneself for 'slip ups', and ends up as such a strict habit that this method of eating becomes ironically unhealthy. Less is it to do with what you put in your body or how you look after it; more, social anxiety, obsessiveness, and a fear of unhealthy foods. In extreme cases, it is linked to anorexia nervosa and bulimia.
Orthorexia is a term I stumbled across relatively recently, but it definitely struck a chord. There was a point in the past where I felt guilty for not having a smoothie when I woke up, avocado salad for lunch, and some form of spiralised vegetable for dinner. I was making healthy changes day-to-day, but I remembered how far the fitness bloggers I followed ran, and how Ella Woodward of Deliciously Ella said after going full-on plant-based she didn't crave sweets, chocolate, crisps... everything I adored alongside my typical healthy diet and regular home-grown yoga sessions. I felt like I wasn't committed enough and I would never be my happiest, healthiest self without launching a totalitarian regime on my fridge and my stomach.
Now though, I believe I've found a balance that comes down to a change in mental attitude rather than a change in recipe books. While I still prepare and showcase my plant-based, vegan, and vegetarian exploits online, I do it while encouraging mindful eating. This where I make conscious healthy choices every day and learn to reward myself mentally for doing so, rather than scolding myself for 'slip ups'. I think this part of eating clean is crucial, but is obviously impossible to frame in a photo, and for that reason is so often forgotten.
The other necessary step was learning to let go of my perfectionist ways; nobody is perfect, and while I used to wish I was, I know that I actually feel a lot happier now listening and understanding where I can get better.
In my opinion, we need this big dose of realism to balance out the subconscious pressures that eating clean unintentionally portrays. Whether it comes from within, from taking heed of rare outbursts such as that of Essena O'Neill in understanding that social media is not real life, or finding support systems through friends, family, or the online healthy living community, the main thing is to learn to appreciate your willingness to be healthy - that's the first and hardest step!
So in wishing you the best with your clean eating plans and healthy living outlook, I'd like to pass on this message of positivity: well done for making an effort. Appreciate your food, learn to enjoy the way it looks on your plate - hell, Instagram it to your heart's desire - but above all, take up mindfulness and self acceptance along the way.
I also want to add here that self-diagnosis is always a tricky business, so if you do feel like you're falling victim to orthorexia nervosa, please seek assistance from a doctor, or speak to someone you trust about how you really feel. For me, it was a minor blip before really finding my feet in the healthy living world, but everyone is different. Let's make 2016 the year to eat mindfully!