I was introduced to clean eating through a writing professor of mine during my freshman year of college. The class was focused on food and nutrition writing, so we watched a slew of health documentaries, and as an eighteen-year-old intent on avoiding the dreaded “freshman fifteen,” I was totally hooked. I kept a copy of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules next to my bed, did my best to eliminate all processed ingredients from my diet, and focused all of my efforts on eating clean.
I remember standing in the frozen food aisle of Whole Foods after class one day, staring through the foggy glass at a box of buttermilk waffles — my favorite childhood breakfast. Everything else in my shopping basket was unprocessed and locally-sourced. I wasn’t hesitating about the waffles because I was on a diet, I told myself, I simply knew the difference between clean foods and non-clean foods. But I also knew that if I slipped up, I would end up feeling guilty. I nixed the waffles.
We talk a lot about the anxiety and stress surrounding work productivity and relationships, but sometimes the most debilitating stressors stem from our relationship with food. The restrictive mindset attached to dieting can cause significant distress and negatively affect our mental health. Add to that the fact that traditional diets simply don’t work. A recent Vox documentary, Explained: Why Diets Fail, delved into the science behind problematic eating fads. According to the documentary, which aired on Netflix, the $66 billion diet industry marketing machine is based on a collection of myths and misconceptions surrounding food. And yet, people are (literally) buying everything the diet industry has been selling, including diet-adjacent “wellness eating” fads like clean eating and detoxes.
While I kept telling myself I wasn’t on a diet, the rules that came with the clean eating lifestyle felt just as restrictive, and it was exhausting. The shame that came from eating anything “non-clean” was stressful. “The whole wellness movement prides itself on being a lifestyle instead of a diet,” explains Pixie Turner, ANutr, MSc, nutritionist and author of “The No Need To Diet Book,” which comes out next March. “But it has the same kinds of rules and restrictions.”
For many, those restrictions bring negative mental health consequences. “There are profound psychological effects around the idea of breaking a rule,” says Jennifer Wildes, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago. “A lot of people have this idea that the clean eating movement is just a lifestyle, but its practices and implications can be damaging.”
Turner says that for some people, this damage can lead to orthorexia, an eating disorder in which individuals become fixated on eating healthy. “When taken to that level, it becomes psychologically and socially inhibiting,” says Turner. She notes that she often sees patients who do not have a diagnosable eating disorder engaged in disordered eating patterns. “If you’ve been immersed in diet culture your whole life, you’re likely to have feelings of anxiety around certain foods,” Turner notes, “That’s where the guilt comes in.”
One proposed antidote to the cult of diet culture? The “anti-diet” movement, which has gained momentum in recent years and encourages people to eat according to their bodily intuition. The only guidelines of anti-dieting? “Do what feels good, eat what satisfies you, and try not to go crazy,” explains Kelsey Miller, the voice behind Refinery29’s body-positive “Anti-Diet Project.” Miller’s personal experience speaks to the diet burnout that so many face: “I’d been a lifelong dieter, like so many women,” she told me. “I’d hit rock bottom after dealing with years of disordered eating, and finally decided to make a change.”
While Dr. Wildes agrees that the stress of dieting, as well as restrictive trends like clean eating, can cause psychological harm, she points out that telling the general population to eat whatever they want can be dangerous. “In an ideal world, [anti-dieting] would make sense and work for everyone,” she says, “But for a lot of people, the idea that they’re going to be able to know intuitively what their body wants may be a high bar to hit. There’s a healthy middle ground between following restrictive diets and just following what you intuitively feel like eating,” she explains.
“Dietary advice is really simple,” says nutritionist and author Marion Nestle, Ph.D., in the Vox documentary. “You eat fruits and vegetables, you don’t eat too much junk food, and you balance caloric intake with the kind of activity you have,” she says. “It really isn’t anymore complicated than that.”
Also key: finding a method you can stick to without stress, according to the film. Dieting didn’t work for me. “Wellness eating” didn’t either. But my introduction to anti-dieting felt like a breath of fresh air. For some people, perhaps that movement would feel stressful, while sticking to a Paleo meal plan wouldn’t — and that’s the point. One thing every expert will tell you is that you have to find what works for you.
Once I learned that it’s okay to make your own rules, just like it’s okay to buy the frozen waffles, or to celebrate that you’re human and always learning, my eating habits clicked into place. “If you can’t love your body today, then decide to accept it,” Miller says. “Life is simply too short to wait.”