This post is an excerpt from Nourish: How to Heal Your Relationship with Food, Body, and Self, by Heidi Schauster, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S. https://www.anourishingword.com/the-book/
Today everyone is talking a lot about “Clean Eating.” I’m all for a let’s-get-back-to-recognizing-our-food way of life. I appreciate shorter ingredients lists—ones where I can find whole foods listed and not chemicals. I like shopping at farmers’ markets, eating seasonally and locally. I believe in all of this, and I believe that our bodies and the planet benefit when we eat more whole food and more plants. But as a nutrition therapist and eating- disorders specialist, I worry about us taking clean eating too far.
Now, you might say, isn’t it clear that some foods are really more healthful than others? Remember, I’m not talking about unconscious eating here. I truly believe that when we make conscious choices, thinking about our own innate preferences as well as what foods feel best in our bodies (this sometimes takes trial and error), we end up eating in a balanced, healthy way most of the time. So many of my clients have “shoulds” that get in the way of actually tuning in to what feels best in their bodies. Sometimes the foods they say they “shouldn’t” eat become more attractive just because they are forbidden.
That’s why I am consistently bothered by the flurry of con-flicting nutritional advice on the internet. How can someone who doesn’t know my body and lifestyle tell me how to eat? Personally, I learned over many years the kinds of meals and snacks that “work” for me. And, in the process, I have maintained enough flexibility so that I can enjoy so many different kinds of foods in different settings. Every once in a while, I discover something that doesn’t feel great in my body. I had some hot peppered oil recently that didn’t sit well with me (though my go-to ginger remedy helped my stomach feel better). I now know that if I go to that particular restaurant again, I’ll go lighter on the hot pepper oil. I learned from my body’s experience.
If I trust the latest advice from a nutritional guru on the internet, I might bypass the wisdom that my own body affords me every time I pay attention when I eat. If I set up a “should eat” situation (that the rebellious part of me might want to undo), then I decide what to eat away from my own values and preferences regarding food. The eating experience is bound to be less satisfying when I apply “shoulds” than if I am making choices from my own body wisdom, learning, and self-care.
My client Elizabeth has been working hard on finding gray areas in her life. She has operated from all-or-nothing, black-or-white decisions in many ways. She recently talked about an instance where she found the gray regarding housecleaning. Bear with me, as it’s a strange example, but it works. Long ago, Elizabeth read in a housekeeping magazine that she was supposed to wash her bathroom floors weekly. She has had that task on her (extensive) to-do list for a long time but realized that it was often not getting done. And she was really beating herself up about it, particularly when time would go by and she really didn’t like the way the floors looked. It was black-or-white thinking that kept her stuck. She either cleaned the bathroom entirely, moving all the furnishings and making the floors gleam—or she let it go and had to live with floors that were messier than she liked. It never occurred to her—until recently—that she could spot-clean the floors in between. Instead of thorough weekly cleaning, she could clean the floors really well monthly and then spot-clean in between (picking up the hair and other things that collect on the bathroom floor without the whole procedure).
So, what does this have to do with food? I think it parallels some of her struggles with eating. Elizabeth also goes back and forth between eating “perfectly” and “cleanly”—following all of the rules of the blogs and websites that she follows—or she rebels and starts eating, in her words, “… like crap.” She knows that neither feels good, although the “cleaner” eating has the illusion of feeling great at first; it’s just never been sustainable.
So, we had a good laugh together when we considered that she could “spot-clean” her eating, too. Just like the spot-cleaning of her bathroom made her squirm at first (imagining all those germs and gross things under her furnishings), eating in this more middle way is hard to get used to. But, just like the spot-cleaning of her house gave her more freedom and rest to pursue other passions, the spot-clean eating (versus the perfect and unsustainable clean eating) set her free and shifted her challenging relationship with food. Instead of eating a large plate of just vegetables or a whole box of plain buttered pasta (one virtuous, in her mind, and one not), she started combining the vegetables and noodles and make a middle-of-the-extremes dish that was satisfying and felt good in her body.
So, the next time you are out and about and you don’t know if the yummy meal your friends are serving you is as “clean” as the version that you eat at home … Please don’t panic, don’t starve, don’t ruminate over the ingredients! Make an informed choice whether to eat it or not, based on your own knowledge of what feels good in your body and your own values. When you find yourself frustrated with eating “good” and “bad” interchangeably, try to give up the struggle and stop judging yourself and your eating. I propose Spot-Clean eating versus Clean Eating, which allows flexibility, pleasure, ease, and space for the rest of the joys of living.
If you enjoyed this excerpt from Nourish: How to Heal Your Relationship with Food, Body, and Self, by Heidi Schauster, you can obtain the entire book at https://www.anourishingword.com/the-book/.
Heidi Schauster, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S is a nutrition therapist, writer, and the founder of Nourishing Words Nutrition Therapy in the Greater Boston area. Heidi facilitates the No Diet Book Clubs, supervises other nutrition therapists who treat disordered eating, and encourages embodied eating and living for all.