Dirty Secrets from Eating Clean: Food Addiction, Part I

A quick disclaimer before we get into the (lean) meat and (sweet) potatoes of today’s post: I have nothing against Tosca Reno or Kennedy Publishing or the fitness industry in general. In fact, I think the Eat Clean Diet books are incredibly helpful in taking many unhealthy individuals through the painful and confusing first steps of rejecting processed foods and healing their bodies. I think that often, however, the message is muted (or mutated) when “eating clean” becomes “Cooler 1,” and unprocessed foods become meal replacement. There is a fine, fine line between counting calories for awareness versus counting calories for restriction, and, all too often, that line gets crossed. Obviously, it’s easy for an individual living with ED to take any diet recommendations too far–as I did and still struggle not to do; therefore, please keep in mind that I’m not singling out Tosca and friends–I’m just writing about my experience and the particular avenue through which I found new ways to restrict myself. 

Also, for full disclosure, I still read & subscribe to Oxygen Magazine. I think it’s one of the better fitness magazines for women available today–I just take everything I read with a grain of (pink Himalayan sea) salt. 

Let me just start by saying that I was really not interested in starting another “diet.” I obliged my mom by doing the Whole30, but I was, by this point, sick of fads, trends, challenges, and set “end dates.” I was finally starting to open my eyes to the fact that ED’s restrictions were…well, restricting. 

But, that being said, I had NO idea how to break free from that system. I had spent too long following my bodybuilding diet, spent too many years structuring my life into low-calorie meal-sized chunks, spent too little time thinking about anything but the advent of my next meal.

When I first met ED, he didn’t bother explaining the hows and whys behind my manipulation of food and exercise; he only demanded that I limit the former and overdo the latter. I understood (or thought I understood*) that controlling my body involved a relationship between calories in and calories out, but I didn’t dare waste the extra energy trying to dig deeper when ED had already shown me the method that required the least amount of energy for digging my own grave.

So when I started on my “Eat-Clean” journey, the journey that began when I picked up my first Oxygen Magazine and learned about the carefully controlled food-world of the figure competitor, I didn’t see ED’s simple “calories in-calories out” formula lurking behind Oxygen’s glossy pages.

If you’re not familiar with the Eat Clean Diet, as devised by Tosca Reno and her late husband Robert Kennedy, it’s a series of rules (and books) devoted to giving men and women control over their diets. The basic premise is perfect: eat unprocessed foods (as close to natural as you can). Avoid packaged goods and ingredients you can’t pronounce. Eat fruits and vegetables and healthy proteins. And those, if anything, are perfect recommendations from which to begin building a healthy diet.


Tosca Reno's Eat Clean Diet Just the Rules Book

There are also rules. Eat six small meals a day. Eat every 3 hours. Eat meals high in lean protein and complex carbohydrates, limiting fats (although they do recommend eating some healthy fats like avocado and olive oil). Limit “cheat” meals.

Again, not terrible recommendations. And for individuals who have been struggling with weight or eating processed foods their whole lives, these recommendations and rules can incite huge changes in habits, body composition, health, and lifestyle. The problem is that they were written (and promoted) by individuals whose background is in the restrictive and disordered world of fitness–and when restricted and disordered individuals (such as myself) pick up the same book of rules, we see validation for our disorders and a challenge to restrict even more.**

Let me explain:

First and foremost, eating clean for fitness involves more than a simple calories in or out equation. It involves knowing how many calories you’re eating, the calorie-per-gram breakdown of the macronutrients, the ratios of your macronutrient intake per meal and per day, and the correct times to eat said macronutrients. If protein and carbohydrates are 4 calories per gram and fats are 9 calories per gram (and alcohol is 7 calories per gram, but you aren’t drinking it anyway because it was made of empty calories that would get you fat and eff all those studies about resveratrol in wine, take a capsule and stop whining about being the designated driver…), then obviously there are two macronutrients that can “fill you up” for fewer calories (i.e. protein and carbs–and don’t get me started on complex versus refined carbohydrates…), meaning fat-will-make-you-fat-so-eat-oatmeal-instead.

The idea behind the six small meals, the high protein, the diet itself, is to trick you into thinking you’re eating a lot. And, technically, you are. I probably went through enough extra-lean turkey breast and chicken breast and egg whites in a week to feed a family of four. But that being said, there aren’t that many calories in any of the lean proteins (120 calories per 4 oz give or take according to my online calorie-counting program). And there aren’t that many calories in the non-starchy vegetables I was carefully measuring and steaming. I filled the void with oatmeal, oatmeal, more oatmeal, and some sweet potatoes, until I got on the “leaning out” kick.

Fitness Model Prep Too Thin

Sure, I could do a pull up, but you could probably snap my arm just by looking at it funny.

Sure, I was “encouraged” to eat more healthy fats, but there was also those 5 extra calories per gram lurking in every improperly measured tablespoon of olive oil, so it felt safer to use a canola oil spray for cooking and to leave my salads dry.

While the suggested meal plans in the magazines boasted daily calorie counts of anywhere from 1600-2100 calories, I thrilled in being able overachieve by taking my counts lower. 1200 calories, the amount the female body needs just to exist on a daily basis, was my daily goal (although my nightly peanut butter or cereal binges usually put me over to about 1400-1600 until I went cold turkey).

Moreover, for all the preaching about ditching the packaged goods and eating “real food,” there was a lot of processed junk that made its way into the sample recipes and suggested snacks. Whey and casein protein powders, soy and almond milk in cardboard boxes, packaged yogurts and protein bars…I even ate my egg whites from a carton (no need to buy the whole egg since the fat in the yolk was offensive to me).

And while the foods themselves were barely enough to keep me sated, the routine and the counting and the measuring fed my obsession. And obsession, if you remember, is one of ED’s favorite foods.

Because what I was doing had been encouraged as part of a “healthy” lifestyle, I ate my protein-powder-and-egg-white microwave muffins from beneath my health halo.

Protein Powder Egg White Muffin Microwave Mug Cake

Doesn’t this look appetizing? (Protein Powder Egg White Microwave Mug Cake from The Nondairy Queen)

And my food routine–100-300 calories meals eaten every 3 hours–led me into a cycle of starvation and reward, of intense hunger followed by the brief, beautiful moment of indulgence followed by regret and sadness (for having eaten so much, for having finished the meal, for still wanting more) that became intense hunger once again as the hours passed.

And the cleaner I tried to eat, the healthier I tried to become, the faster I fell toward a mental and emotional rock-bottom:

I was a food addict.

– K.

Dirty Secrets From Eating Clean, Part II

Dirty Secrets From Eating Clean, Part III

*I’ll discuss the implications of this statement in another post soon…

**And I suppose I’m technically just able to speak for myself, but go take a look at some fitness models’ twitter feeds or read their blog posts, and then tell me that I’m the only one who thought (or thinks) this way. Anyone who can wax poetic about egg whites sweetened with stevia needs to seriously reconsider her relationship with and understanding of food. Again, personal opinion, but…

16 thoughts on “Dirty Secrets from Eating Clean: Food Addiction, Part I

  1. Pingback: Top Good Reads Weekly Breakdown: Oct 7 – Oct 13 | LaVack Fitness

  2. Just found your blog and am really enjoying it. I took out a few Eat-Clean Diet books a few weeks ago. I’ve not had what I would consider a ED and never went to quite the extreme that it sounds like you did, but I have struggled with my weight all my life and my relationship to food and exercise. Because I’ve been reading a lot of body-positive blogs lately, it’s been easy to cut through much of the bullshit that Tosca spouts.

    There were so many things in her books that screamed “this woman has disordered thinking/body image issues.” She spends way too much time focusing on appearance, cellulite, saggy breasts, loose skin rather than health. She associates extreme leanness with ultimate health and makes it sound like anyone with 10 pounds of fat on their body is probably short of breath after a flight of stairs and will definitely die of a heart attack, have joint problems, fertility issues and so on. She states that weight loss is 80% diet, then recommends a SEVEN day a week exercise plan in her lose the last 10 pounds book.

    She also says that the eat clean diet isn’t about counting calories, because you can apparently lose weigh eating 2100 “clean” calories but gain eating only 1600 “anti-food” calories but her vegan meal plans (I am vegan for ethical reasons) barely add up to 1350 calories! And since when is two sticks of celery with almond butter a meal? I did give the diet a bit of a go as an experiment minus the 7 day/week exercise plan (3 days a week is what I’ve found manageable for the last year). In 1 week, I am down 3 pounds which I consider too rapid and I would guess that it’s probably mostly water weight. I tried one day of the 6 meals every 3 hours before it was obvious there was no way that it would work for anyone who lives a life that doesn’t revolve around fitness competitions. My digestive system has been doing…unpleasant things. Also, 6 hours between breakfast and a proper lunch left me starving. An apple and some almonds keeps me full for half an hour then makes my stomach go “well where the hell is the rest of your lunch?!” I can easily see how following this diet strictly would quickly turn into an ED.

    • It really is scary how thin (pun intended) the line is between “healthy” and “disordered,” isn’t it? I’m so glad that you were able to hear the disordered messages for what they are–you are one of the few people I’ve heard of who actually understood the body image red flags. I wish I had your insight when I found the Eat Clean Diet three years ago.

      I hope that you’re able to find a lifestyle that works for you–one that gives you piece of mind while treating your body well. Please stay in touch and let me know what you’re learning! I think that’s one of the best parts about blogging…The more I share my story, the more I learn from people like you who want to share their stories too!

  3. I also have a very hard time reading fitness magazines. There are some good articles in some but the bad far outweigh the good…and all the advertisements for supplements! And the ‘i was a loser before i became obsessed with my body, exercise and food’ mentality they encourage would make me crazy.
    I gained my recovery through Geneen Roth’s books and Intuitive Eating- and recently I tried to *restrict* through intermittent fasting because that seems to be the diet of choice among the few fitness trainers I follow on the net. I like these trainers because they are real and one even suffered from ED in the past from counting calories and has been successful with IF (success means living free from the obsession not weight loss). In the beginning it was nice to feel in control again. To tell my body ‘i don’t have to eat’….because i had fallen into the ‘i must eat now so i don’t feel deprived’ mentality and this seemed to free me again-put me back in charge. But then when i didn’t follow the guidelines i had *loosely* placed on myself I felt the guilt try to creep in. And when I did eat- i stuffed myself. Then when the expectations (which I didn’t know I had) did not turn out like I thought the obsessive side started to grow. It was time to stop. It was turning into another ED. I hate when i cycle like this but then i feel powerful that I know how to stop ED before it grows.

    • It’s crazy how hard it can be to keep from falling back into the same patterns of disordered thinking–somehow, ED has a way of shape-shifting. It’s hard when the mechanism of the disorder changes in order to challenge our new lifestyle–but I am so glad that you were able to identify the wolf in sheep’s clothing (as it were) when you tried IF. I’ve been hearing about IF a lot in the Paleo world–especially since the Paleo Angel’s post on the Civilized Caveman site (http://civilizedcavemancooking.com/reviews/how-intermittent-fasting-saved-mewhile-slowly-killing-me/).

      I hope that things do get easier for you as you continue to invest in your recovery. Just know that you’re not alone–and that if you ever need to reach out, I’m here!

  4. This post rings so true to me; I am just starting to realize that I do have an eating disorder/food addiction, because I too deal with the desire to eat perfectly clean and restrictive: I eat the perfect breakfast, and maybe even lunch; but the second I grab what I think will be a small, clean snack, I can’t stop. I have told myself that I am so close to eating perfectly, other than my snacking. Now I am starting to see that the problem is not the snacking; its the mental roller coaster I have going on in my head throughout the day concerning food. I have always told myself that I am setting myself apart from others in a positive way by committing to such a holistic lifestyle, which is why I ignored the people hinting that I was obsessed. I have lost a good 20 pounds in the last few months, by continuing to eat clean with less binges. But because it came off so quickly, I am fighting every single day to keep it off. When I gain a pound or two, I feel like such a failure. Even when I reached my goal of 125, I created a new goal of 120. Now that I see your post I realize..I’m addicted to trying to lose weight. I don’t know how to just live without trying to lose weight, as that has been the goal all my life. Now that I’ve lost it, the anxiety has switched to maintaining it and hopefully losing more. How do I wean myself away from this mindset while still maintaining a weight that I am finally confident with? I know this is a lot, but Ive never read something that hit so close to home, so I figure I should ask now. Thanks for what you said.

    • Hi Jada–Thank you so much for your comment! It can be so hard to accept an addiction, and even harder to work toward healing it, but I promise you that there is nothing more rewarding than embarking on the process of recovery!

      I wish I knew how to completely stop the weight anxiety–but I think that the best first steps you can take are to wean yourself off of any magazines, blogs, tweets, pins, tv shows–whatever–that promote the weight loss mentality. The more you’re around triggers, the easier it is to keep trying to “stay accountable.” Another good (scary) thing to do is to throw away or at least hide your scale. Take a breather. For me, that was a huge turning point (I did a post on that here, if you want to check it out: http://blog.wegohealth.com/2013/01/21/healthy-weight-week-guest-post-0-0/). I used to weigh myself every single day at the same time, and a single fluctuation felt like the end of the world. I also stopped counting calories, which was equally as scary, because I was afraid that I wouldn’t know how to eat without a constant running tally of my intake and my exercise.

      But despite the fact that it’s scary and difficult, and sometimes exactly opposite from what the ED in my head tells me I want, I’ve been working toward building a healthy body and a healthy mind that isn’t dependent entirely on how I perceive my reflection in the mirror.

      Just know that you are worth so much more than the number on the scale. And if you ever need reassurance or a virtual shoulder to lean on, please reach out!

      Stay hungry,


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