“Your body is your tool.”
It was the phrase that sparked it all. I was a Sophomore dance major on track to earn my Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts. The phrase made A LOT of sense: as a dancer, my body is my tool and the foods I put into it would have a direct result on my performance… right? So, after a few Google searches and a meeting with a so-called “nutrition expert,” I embarked on a lifestyle known as “clean eating.”
There was so much to learn and even more to detangle. “Processed” foods quickly became off-limits. “Saturated fat,” “added sugar,” and “high fructose corn syrup” were soon added to that list. I experimented with recipes, discovered “healthy” swaps, and set forth to make all of my meals nutrient-dense, “whole,” and “clean.” To be honest, it felt good: I was in full control. In hindsight, however, I realize that this was a false sense of comfort tied directly to a fear of weight again… something I’ve worked to overcome while healing from a fat-phobic culture and repairing my relationship with food (read more about it here).
But then things started to go, well… downhill.
It became increasingly difficult to keep up with the clean eating lifestyle. Dinner plans turned into time-consuming research projects as I searched for an “allowed” menu option or nagged the waiter with every substition under the sun. Quick trips to the supermarket became hour-long events as I nervously tried to detangle back-of-the-package nutrition facts. I was anxious, obsessed, and on the verge of burnout. I was so determined to “figure it out” that I even decided to swap my pursuit of a BFA in dance for a professional career as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.
What I didn’t know at the time, was that my pursuit to “eat clean” was actually a guise for disordered eating. Fast forward and the concept of “figuring it out” looks way different than I could have ever imagined.
But Rachel, the research says…
How could eating ample amounts of “whole” foods not be healthy? My days were filled with colorful fruits, fibrous veggies, a variety of unsaturated fats, and antioxidant-rich dark chocolate. Though it sounded “perfect” on paper, my “clean eating” lifestyle was far from healthy. What I didn’t understand at the time though, was how to decipher the research. In my mind (classic Type A perfectionist here!), understanding the evidence around the benefits of “whole” foods meant that in order to “be healthy,” I needed to ONLY eat those foods and subsequently eliminate anything deemed “unhealthy.”
I was wrong.
Sure, when we examine the research, studies have found that in large amounts, any and all of these ingredients (for example, added sugar, saturated fat, and high fructose corn syrup) might be associated with some adverse health outcomes, most notably diabetes, heart disease, and chronic inflammation. But fellow anti-diet dietitian Christy Harrison says it best that, “the key phrases here: some studies, in large amounts, and associated with” need to be seriously examined.
Nutrition research: what you need to consider
Nutrition research plays an integral role in how we understand the impacts of various foods and/or behaviors on our health. But there are some major limitations with nutrition research that you should know about. To learn more about how to understand nutrition research and why nutrition research gets messy at times, read this article.
Now, since the definition of “disordered eating” is so grey in a culture that normalizes food restrictions and praises over-exercising, it’s hard to define what “normal eating” even means. It took me years before I knew that my “clean eating lifestyle” was actually disordered!
Interestingly, disordered eating behaviors and weight cycling (a common result of restrictive dieting) have been associated with negative health outcomes, including Type 2 Diabetes. Since we know that disordered eating can impact study results, it’s nearly impossible to draw conclusions between “eating foods high in X” and specific health outcomes. Let’s take the associations between Type 2 Diabetes and excessive intakes of sugar as an example. Could the negative health outcomes (Type 2 Diabetes) be related to an excessive intake of added sugar during a “binge” cycle? Perhaps. If that’s the case, then it’s safe to say that repairing one’s relationship with food might be a better takeaway than “avoiding added sugar.”
Okay, so then what even is “healthy?”
For starters, pointing the finger at food and/or weight, as being the sole contributors to what defines “health,” doesn’t account for other determinants of disease risk. In fact, diet and lifestyle make up only 10% of health outcomes with one’s access to clinical care and one’s physical environment being much more impactful. Also, we cannot ignore the negative health outcomes of internalized weight stigma, one of which is heart disease.
In regards to weight, emerging research indicates that a HAES (Health At Every Size) approach (in comparison to a weight-centric intervention) is “associated with statistically and clinically relevant improvements in physiological measures (e.g. blood pressure, blood lipids), health behaviors (e.g. physical activity, eating disorder pathology) and psychosocial outcomes (e.g, mood, self-esteem, body image).”
Does this mean I have to give up dark chocolate?
No! Well, not if you enjoy eating it! Instead of choosing a “clean eating” lifestyle, consider gentle nutrition. You can learn more about gentle nutrition here, but in general, when it’s practical and economically feasible, incorporating a variety of foods is encouraged. This includes produce (like fruits and veggies), grains, proteins, and sources of fat. This also includes fun foods like dessert and even candy. Remember: our health and performance are products of our behaviors over time. Here are a few articles to learn more about these various components to a balanced and non-restrictive lifestyle:
So, is it time to drop the idea of “clean eating?”
Yup. And I’d like you to also reassess the intent behind why you’re choosing this type of lifestyle. The “healthiest” diet for a dancer is one that supports all realms of their being: their physical health, mental health, and emotional health. If you’re stressing over what the “healthiest” option on the menu is (like I did!) then you might be putting society’s (practically unattainable) view of “health” before your true needs, desires, and personal preferences.
What’s another reason to drop clean eating? Limited accessibility for most populations. Constraints like time, money, and even a lack of physical ability to obtain what society deems to be “healthy” induce a ton of guilt and shame around food. This is especially true since we know that weight discrimination leads to higher levels of stress and may even be associated with more unhealthy eating behaviors.
When it comes to “healthy eating,” seek advice from a licensed and credentialed source (learn more about this here). Deciphering truth from trend will always be an important aspect to truly redefining what it means to be The Healthy Dancer®.
P.S. Christy Harrison is an incredible resource if you’re wanting to learn more about the dangers of “wellness culture” and how to detangle nutrition research. I’ve learned a lot from her book, Anti-Diet, and you will too!