Adventures and Failures in Clean Eating

I got really into “clean eating” last year. A few things happened that accelerated this process. First, I got married. It turns out, a wedding is an even better weight loss incentive than a middle school frenemy making a snide comment about my butt.

Then, my family was hit with a series of health problems. I became convinced that I could avoid them all if I just ate perfectly, whatever that means.

As a result, I started working with a nutritionist. I learned things like, a lot of cheese is full of allergens and hormones. Thickeners in almond milk may have effects we can’t foresee. Oh, also apparently I am sensitive to cauliflower. She cited a few books she liked offhand and I read all of them, and more. Suddenly I was super worried about stuff like, “Does my brown rice contain arsenic? And will it trigger lupus?”

It occurred to me one day that I hadn’t even eaten a single piece of candy during the month of Halloween. I couldn’t believe anyone would eat candy, after all I’d learned.

But I’ve found that whenever I look at fairly mundane actions of my loved ones and find myself thinking, “How could you do that?” it might be me, not them, who has the problem.

A few months out from this phase, I’ve gained a little perspective. And a couple pounds. I thought I’d share a few of my adventures and failures in trying to “eat clean.”

Adventure: Learning to Cook

Once a dietitian tells you to give up soy, GMOs, sugar, dairy and 20 items you’re pseudo-sensitive to for five weeks, you have to actually figure out what the hell to do with fruit and vegetables. I started obsessively watching Master Chef and any other cooking show, and reading cookbooks cover to cover. Did you know that the cooking oil you use is probably rancid? I learned a lot of stuff that no one cared about, but did make my food taste better. In that sense, my relationship with food started to legitimately improve from when I was an unathletic kid embarrassed about my Cheeto fingers. Win!

Failure: Picking and Choosing What’s “Healthy”

There is a lot of contradictory information out there about nutrition. Did you know wine both correlates with a longer lifespan and is actually just a harmful, sugary toxin? Did you know chicken is a GMO factory full of hormones, a healthy lean meat and also generally overrated compared to grass-fed beef? I found it easy to build an argument for foods I liked, and against foods I didn’t. But was this actually leading to a healthier diet? Or simply justifying what I wanted to do anyway?

Adventure: Getting in Touch with Your Senses and Symptoms

Now I’m going to totally contradict my former point. (See! There is no truth!) One of the main things I learned was that our taste preferences are more reliable than we give them credit for. We’re brought up thinking that healthy food is boring, and delicious food is unhealthy. Once you cut out super-refined products and low-fat “health food,” this rule doesn’t stand. I realized that some inclinations toward yumminess also made food healthier, like adding nut butter to fruit, which helps you metabolize the sugars more slowly. On the flip side, some aversions to foods are grounded in food sensitivities, like my hatred of eggs. Learning to trust myself helped me become more confident as a cook—and to gravitate more toward foods that made me feel good.

Failure: Being a Know-It-All

Turns out, people don’t love it when you pick up the package of what they’re eating and proceed to explain why 90% of the ingredients are terrible for them. They also don’t really like it when your reaction to bad health news is telling them to drink more green tea. (I’ve been that person, sorry.) At the time, I thought I was being helpful, but now I realize I was just being annoying.

Adopting a cleaner diet has been eye-opening, and it has transformed my health. But it also made me myopic, and gave me an irrational sense of guilt whenever I ate like, soy sauce instead of coconut aminos. Eventually, it occurred to me that stress may be just as bad for my health as junk food. Beyond that, reading the book Goodbye, Vitamin, where the protagonist tries and fails to heal her dad’s Alzheimer’s with food, made me think hard about how no miracle ingredient can save us from the inevitable. We’re human. We’re mortal. We’re dirty. We’re #unbalanced sometimes. And that’s ok!

Whenever I wrap up articles like this with some kind of lesson, I end up regretting it. It’s not like now that I wrote this, I know how to eat right and be chill as heck about it 24/7. In some ways, I’m more confused than ever, but with more fun facts. That said, I hope this post has helped you feel less alone if you feel a pang of inner panic every time a health influencer uses the term “balance” on Instagram. At the very least, maybe I’ve helped you think about getting less rancid olive oil. Peace, love and avocados to you.


DISCLAIMER: Obviously, I’m not a nutritionist or eating disorder counselor. This article is not meant to be a substitute for actual dietary advice or eating disorder help. If you’re truly worried about your eating habits, seek help. The Emily Program is full of people who understand.

Also, my nutritionist never called it “clean eating,” and never, ever shamed me for any food choices I made.

Image sources: 1 / 2 / 3


Becky Lang is a writer, creative director and occasional podcaster living in Minneapolis.She also likes to draw dogs and female protagonists.

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  • ” I found it easy to build an argument for foods I liked, and against foods I didn’t. But was this actually leading to a healthier diet? Or simply justifying what I wanted to do anyway?”

    THIS TIMES A MILLION! I find that we all do this in just about every area of our lives, but especially when we want to take a specific food stance that we may have to explain or defend.

    Also … I do sort of wish you hadn’t framed it as “eating clean” — I appreciate the disclaimer at the end that your nutritionist didn’t call it that, but I would love to see lifestyle bloggers/influencers phase out the term altogether.

  • Really loved this piece and related to it in so many ways! Do you mind sharing the books you mentioned that your nutritionist recommended? Thank you!

  • Thank you for this! Over the past few years I’ve slowly started eating more of a plant-based, whole food diet (but within reason – when we travel nearly everything is fair game). It’s become really tough to visit my parents’ house, as everything is pre-packaged, processed junk: toaster pastries, canned soup, sugar cereals, tinned meats, fruit cups (not real fruit), etc. It’s what I ate growing up and thought of as normal, but I can’t stomach the thought of eating those things now. Plus, they really just don’t taste like food. It’s a struggle to not be rude when we visit, but also take care of ourselves as well. I usually offer to bring a substantial “side” dish that we’ll fill up on, along with a bag of greens for a salad to share.

  • It’s so tough to really “eat clean”! It’s good to know we’re all in this together. We try to have a good balance of healthy + not – we’re more healthy-ish. I’ve heard before that most cooking oils are rancid, but it’s great to be reminded! The contradictions and information we’re bombarded with really overwhelm me – especially with the wine. I mean, can we not get ONE good thing that’s indulgent and super good for you? Just sayin…
    https://batalidioranddeweywalkintoabar.com/

  • i’ve done so much of the paleo/whole 30 thing….and i truly feel the best version of myself when i’m doing this! however, i also now have that sense of “guilt” that you talk about when I splurge on pizza or something – and the guilt is almost unhealthy the way it gets me down. I’m in a continuous struggle at finding balance!