Spot-Clean Eating

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People are talking a lot lately about “Clean Eating.” Now, 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 from eating this way. But as a nutrition therapist and eating disorders specialist, I worry about taking even clean eating too far.

One of my clients this morning described a dilemma she felt while eating in an airport. She prefers to eat free-range organic chicken, but the only option on the airport menu that looked remotely appealing and nourishing enough for how hungry she felt was a wrap sandwich that contained chicken. She knew it was highly unlikely that it was organic, free-range chicken at this restaurant, and she wanted to know what she “should” have done? I told her that only she could answer that question.

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We defined my client’s conflict and erased the “should” from the equation. (One of my favorite exercises lately.) The conflict occurred in her own mind. On the one side, she valued eating a certain way and preferred to choose sources of meat that were humanely raised. This stemmed from her desire to take care of her body and what she put into it, as well as her concern for the planet. On the other side, she has learned, after many years of failed diets, that she benefits on many levels when she eats in a balanced, health-sustaining way. This means balanced meals with solid protein in them, choosing foods that she really likes. She desires to care for her body and soul by doing so.

She was in a dilemma. A conflict. She had two opposing desires and she needed to eat. She could have chosen the sandwich or something else. That ultimately doesn’t matter.  Really.  What matters is that she was able to notice the conflict and resolve it somehow. She didn't give her food choice too much power to make her feel virtuous or bad, wrong or right. She made a decision and was able to live with it. The fact that she needed to check in with me about whether it was “ok” or not, though, speaks to the work that she still wants to do in learning to trust herself. My client actually does know how to feed herself well, but she wanted to make sure that she hadn’t made a bad choice. Again, there are no bad or good choices. Only choices, made either consciously or unconsciously. There was no question that my client had made a conscious food choice, taking her own values, needs, and desires into account. What food she actually chose didn’t ultimately matter! She would either feel good in her body and mind and move on, or not feel so good and learn from it for next time. No judgement; just noticing...

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Now, Heidi, you might say, isn’t it clear that some foods are really more healthful than others…? But, remember, I’m not talking about unconscious eating here. I truly believe that when we make conscious choices, thinking about or 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 really tuning into what feels best in their bodies. Sometimes the foods that they say they “shouldn’t” eat become more attractive just by virtue of them being forbidden.  

That’s why I am consistently bothered by the flurry of conflicting 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 maintained enough flexibility so that I could enjoy so many different kinds of foods in different settings. Every once in awhile, I discover something that doesn’t feel good in my body. I had some hot peppered oil recently that didn’t sit well with me (though my go-to ginger remedy made my stomach feel better). I now know that if I go to that restaurant again, I’ll go lighter on the hot pepper. I learned from my body experience, albeit a dramatic example. If I trust the latest advice from a nutritional-guru on the internet, I bypass the wisdom that my own body affords me every time I eat and pay attention. I set up a “should eat” situation (that the rebellious part of me might want to rebel against) and take the decision about 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 wisdom and self-care.

Another long-term client I saw today has been working hard on finding gray areas in her life. She has operated from all-or-nothing, black-or-white in so many ways. Today she talked about an instance where she found the gray in regards to house-cleaning. Bear with me, as it’s a strange example, but it really works. I promise.

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Long ago, my client read in a housekeeping magazine that she was supposed to wash her bathroom floors weekly. She has had that task on her (immense) 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 had to clean the floors perfectly, moving all the furnishings and making them gleam — or she let it go and had to live with floors that were messier than she liked. It never occurred to her — until last week — that she could spot-clean the floors in between. Instead of weekly thorough cleaning, she could clean the floors really well monthly, and then spot-clean (picking up the hair and other things that collect on the bathroom floor without the whole furnishing-moving procedure) in between.

So what does this have to do with food? I think it parallels some of her (and many of our) struggles with food. My client 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 against the “shoulds” and starts eating, in her words, like crap. She knew that neither really felt good, although the “cleaner” eating had the illusion of feeling great at first; it was just not sustainable. So, we had a good laugh today 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 appliances), 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) really sets her free and shifts her challenging relationship with food. Instead of eating a large plate of just vegetables or a box of plain buttered pasta (one virtuous, in her mind, and one not), she can combine the vegetables and noodles and make a middle-of-the-extremes dish that feels good in her body.

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So, the next time you are out and about and you don’t know if the yummy dish your friends are serving you is as “clean” as the version that you eat at home… 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 being “good” and “bad” interchangeably with food, 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.