This was originally published on Proud2Bme, an online community created by and for teens. Proud2Bme covers everything from fashion and beauty to news, culture, and entertainment—all with the goal of promoting positive body image and encouraging healthy attitudes about food and weight.
A few years ago, I thought that I had found the solution to the ever-persistent question, “How should I eat?” After stumbling across a few food blogs that advocated a simple, whole foods approach to eating, the answer became clear: there are healthy foods (unaltered, unprocessed and plant-based) and there are unhealthy foods (everything else).
It made sense to me, and I trusted this seemingly healthy and balanced way of eating to lead me to an increased sense of wellness. However, things are rarely this black and white. Linking food so closely to health can make every decision about what to eat agonizing. Gluten causes inflammation; meat consumption is linked to cancer—these warnings are everywhere we look.
Healthy eating has become a national obsession, a counter-attack on a food industry that has been blamed for increasing rates of diabetes, cancer and other health issues. And it goes beyond politics and science. Social media is filled with images of green smoothies and kale salads, alongside messages that tell us this is how to avoid sickness and achieve wellness.
And there’s the catch: this all-or-nothing thinking put forth by the so-called “wellness industry” is creating another type of unhealthy food relationship. In fact, taken to the extreme, it can even lead to orthorexia, characterized by an obsession with healthy eating [Ed note: orthorexia represents many symptoms associated with disordered eating, but it is not a recognized clinical diagnosis]. Of course, we cannot be totally blamed for our preoccupation with clean eats or the belief that these foods will lead to good health.
The food industry and social media are strong and persuasive forces, and it is easy to buy into claims made on a subject as contentious as nutrition. That being said, it is crucial that we begin to recognize and understand what the wellness industry gets wrong:
1. Eating is not a moral activity.
When strict lines are drawn between “healthy” and “not healthy” foods, it becomes easy to assign value to these two camps. A quick scroll through Instagram reveals a flood of #cleaneating posts, and this kind of language implies that there is a right and a wrong way to eat. However, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all diet and how people choose to eat and nourish themselves is entirely up to the individual.
2. Restriction is not self-care.
The preoccupation with “clean” foods stems from the belief that these foods provide the body with essential nutrients, while “other” foods cause a variety of adverse health symptoms. While, yes, it is true that some foods have different health properties than others, kale and chia seeds will not magically grant perfect health, just as pizza and ice cream will not immediately take it away. Rigidity leads to fear and takes away pleasure, which is just as nourishing as nutrients.
3. There is more to life than a solitary pursuit of health.
When we fixate so strongly on health, especially in terms of the foods we eat, we can start to miss out on all of life’s special moments. And I’m not just talking about having a couple of beers with friends or cake on your birthday. Being healthy should be a goal, because good health allows us to engage more fully with the world around us, be it through travel, relationships, academics or any number of activities. Of course, there is nothing wrong with eating healthy or valuing health, but when food and eating take precedence in our lives, we lose space for so much else that there is to experience.
About the blogger: Ariel Beccia majored in neuroscience while at St. Lawrence University and is now researching eating disorder treatments at the National College of Natural Medicine. She loves doing qualitative research because she is passionate about hearing people’s stories. When not studying, she is probably watching really bad TV.
Tags: #bodyboop, Ariel Beccia, clean eating, eating disorder, eating disorder recovery, eating disorder treatment, eating disorders, ED, ED recovery, edrecovery, food, health, healthy food, national eating disorders association, NEDA, orthorexia, Proud2BMe, recovery, wellness, wellness industry