(too) clean eating

Last week for a few days I’ve been noticing a pattern. I’d eat regularly as I always do, but then at the end of the day, I find myself just wanting to have something sweet. Now that pretty much sounds normal, to end of the day with something sweet. But this was different. I didn’t just want it. I needed it. Badly. A craving for sugar would come and I’d ignore it for a while, but then give it and allow myself something sweet. Usually I go for chocolate or Ben and Jerry’s because that’s the only sweet thing available in the house. However the thing was even though I had already let myself have that something sweet, I needed more. Like more of it. And I couldn’t stop thinking about just wanting to have all the ice cream in the world and just continued sitting in the kitchen and having that ice cream and the next thing I know, I had finished half almost half the carton of ice cream. 

Bugger.

This happened again on another 2 separate occasions. I’d eat as per usual, but by the time I’ve showered after my evening run I find myself battling this strange craving for something sweet. I’d fight it for a while, but then I gave it and go back to the kitchen for the same carton of ice cream and smother my tastebuds with that sweet relief until I’d say only a few spoonfuls of that milky goodness was left pooling at the bottom. 

And I just didn’t know what was going on. I was so confused. I was eating normally and running as per normal so why was it that I started battling the urge to eat more at night. It was only when I lay in bed at night and reviewing what I ate and did during those couple of days that I realized something. All throughout day, I had been doing nothing but clean eating. No sweets, no sugar, no cookies, no ice cream, no nothing. I had almost completely cut off sugar from my eating during these 3 days and eating, as much and best as I can”, whole unprocessed foods – wholemeal bread, tuna, chicken, fish, peanut butter, broccoli etc, though with the exception of rice as its a staple in the Asian diet. I’ve been eating very clean without eating a single cookie or chocolate during these 3 days. 

I suspect that in my zealous pursuit to become healthy and get my eating habits back on track, I might have taken it a little bit too far, focusing only on clean eating and cutting out sugar in its entirety without realizing that doing so might have led my body to become deprived of energy. These 3 days I became so dedicated to healthy eating that I forgot that doing the exact same thing in the past had contributed to my obsessive behavior with rigid dieting, cutting out food groups and punishing myself every single time I had a slip up. 

First of all, I really do need to take a step back and congratulate myself on actually not punishing myself for eating all that ice-cream because I know that 3 years ago, I would probably hastily made my outside and run for 2 hours for even start a torturous round of fasting the next day to balance out the calories. Well OF COURSE I felt guilty for eating all that ice cream and OF COURSE I started panicking a little and questioning where and why I went wrong. But it was only after I reassessed what I had eaten during the day that I realized that okay maybe I had been too strict and obsessive with eating clean because I wanted to eat right and not eat junk food the way I did when I was struggling loads with my ED. I couldn’t really do anything about that ice cream anymore could I? So I just went for a long walk round the block, came home, read Harry Potter and went to bed determined to start afresh the next day. 

And it was better. I allowed myself sugar during the day, ate when I was hungry and stopped when I was full and also allowed myself Ferrero Rocher at night. Never once during the day did I obsess about sugar and cravings. 

I’m sure some of you going through recovery have been through this. In your quest to relinquish your bad habits of overeating junk food or for those not going through an ED/recovery and simply wanting to clean up your diet and reduce sugar from your diet, there’d be times when you pushed it just a tad too far – eating nice and clean the entire day, feeling extremely pleased with yourself and going “Yeah this isn’t so bad I can do this healthy clean eating thing for days” and the next thing you know, you’re scoffing down cheese fries and a bacon cheeseburger and wondering where in the world you went wrong before vowing to start over the next day, only to find yourself making the same mistake again in the week.  

I’m no nutritionist and I’ve no clue how body cells work in response to the food we eat, but I suppose this is what happens when we start a phase of eating “too clean” and not allowing ourselves a little sugar in our diets. We become rigid in our thinking and are determined to only eat certain foods that are whole and unprocessed: brown bread and rice, lean chicken and fish, low fat milk, salads and hold the sauce please but I’ll just have one piece of crouton thanks. No cookies, no chocolates, no muffins, no ice cream, no dessert. Nada. You become so conscious of the food you way that you reject foods that don’t fit into what constitutes clean and healthy eating. As humans we’re programmed to enjoy the taste of sweet foods and sugar cravings are a natural thing to experience and so when we ignore our cravings for far too long, we end up binging on the sweet stuff that we’ve been ignoring. 

And that’s what happened to me. A fair number of times I should say before I realized how my restrictive eating was contributing to this problem. I didn’t allow myself a treat when my body craved it. If you’re a Harry Potter junkie like I am, think of it as a Howler – if you don’t open it soon, it explodes. Similar principle: the more you try to control the craving and your body, your body will rebel. 

Such experiences always bring me back to the one important principle my online ED support group told me: always listen to your body because it knows what it needsThere is nothing wrong with having ice cream and chocolate but to cut it out completely from your diet and remaining determined to eat only certain types of foods instead of eating flexibly can be harmful, both physically and mentally. In the long run and if taken to the limit, your body might start breaking down due to its receiving nutrients from a restricted set of foods,  you start developing rigid and obsessive thinking patterns (e.g. I can’t eat this, I can only eat that) and it might also impinge upon your lifestyle (e.g. unable to eat out without worrying about whether a restaurant serves food that you deem acceptable). Its really a very real thing and really incredibly scary because I myself have been through that – eating only brown bread and maybe potatoes but not rice, only chicken and fish but not beef and pork, only salads without dressing. I didn’t like going out to eat because I hated how I couldn’t predict what foods a cafe would serve and it was a hassle to have to look at a menu online and decide I would only eat the rice and chicken when what I really could try was a creamy pasta even though I’m not a fan of pasta but I had deprived myself of creamy sauces for so long that I just wanted to taste it again.

At the end of the day, your body knows what it needs to eat. You can’t be on a diet forever because you’ll end up miserable. Its all part of mindful eating. Listen to your body because it knows what and when it needs to eat. When you’re hungry, eat. When you’re full stop. Eat chocolate and sweets if you want, but keep it in moderation (though I sometimes I find hard to do that) and if you end up overeating. Don’t punish yourself. Drink tea and go for a long walk and start again tomorrow. 

It takes effort to do something like that I know especially because you’ve been eating in disordered patterns for so long, but Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you won’t get results if you’re not willing to put in the effort to changing your habits. Tell yourself that you are stronger than your old habits, and you are. If you’ve had your share of sugar and find yourself wanting more, get up and walk away instead of giving in again and again. 

You can do it, you may encounter setbacks but you will get up again and you will try again.

You will make it. 

We will all.

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