The aftermath of clean eating | It’s not a sprint, it’s…


George Reynolds sweats it out, looks at both sides of the “clean eating” debacle, and ponders his cum gutters

The aftermath of clean eating | It’s not a sprint, it’s…

Just over a year ago, I made my body disappear. I’d been meaning to get round to it sooner, but there are few things harder than trying to lose weight when you are obsessed with food. Pre-disappearance, our relationship had become profoundly dysfunctional, love-hate. I would diet and teeter and crash and binge, living off thinly dressed salads during the week in the hope that I could absorb their meagreness osmotically, before angrily, violently making up for all those wasted opportunities to eat something delicious, taking back Friday dinners, Saturday brunches, Sunday lunches. My body did not disappear.

I was my own science experiment, developing a macabre fascination in seeing how efficaciously I could accelerate my disappearance

But if you start running and don’t stop, it does. The average person burns somewhere in the region of 2,500 calories running a marathon; my guess is that I was burning quite a bit more than that every week, which made for an interesting dilemma: I could eat more and see it have no impact, or I could eat the same, and lose weight slowly, or I could eat less, and lose weight really, really fast. I took the fast route. I was my own science experiment, developing a macabre fascination in seeing how efficaciously I could accelerate my disappearance: I weighed myself before and after long runs, nodding approvingly at whole pounds sloughed off in water weight and now-dwindling fat reserves. It was ghoulishly fun, in a way, to eat next to nothing and watch my frame approximate that next-to-nothingness with more and more fidelity after every fasted 5k, 10k, 10 miles.

More than the alarming rate at which I was fading at the back end of my longer runs, it was my wife who put a stop to it, when the odd concerned comment morphed into a specific observation: you’re missing part of your body. At first I was pleased: why, thank you; that is exactly the point. But she countered: it’s not that what you had previously has decreased in size; there is literally a hollow – there, just above your butt – that wasn’t there before. I looked more closely in the mirror: yep, no denying it, weird cavity where part of my arse used to be. Another glance in the mirror: those are pecs, those are abs, those are Brad-Pitt-in-Fight-Club cum gutters. Nice! But now one more look, seeing things differently this time, using a different taxonomy: those are my hips, those are my ribs, that is my clavicle. This is me, skin and bone.

There’s a meme that feels about as old as the internet itself: a picture of something demonstrably bad; a three-word caption.

Is that good?

Deliciously Ella or dental surgery with Larry? Your choice

Deliciously Ella or dental surgery with Larry? A tough choice

The old line that nothing tastes as good as skinny feels is a patent untruth, the sort of thing you wish could be removed from the public record as a service to the impressionable. I can think of plenty of things that taste infinitely more delicious than skinny feels, especially now that I know how it feels to run far enough away from your food to stop it catching up with you. Pain, mostly; a constant, low-level thrumming in joints or muscles or in the part of my brain that revisited familiar routes before I left the house and said this again? but also, more insistently: this, again.

Where it gets hard is that there are two types of health, and technology has made it so much easier to measure and share the first (tracking steps, tracking calories, posting post-workout selfies), and so much more important to manage the second.

The solution that the Perniciously Ellas of the world sell you is pure type one, bound up as it is an equation of sub-GCSE simplicity: eat these permitted foods, subtract these prescribed foods, and on the right of the equals sign you’ll have someone, essentially, like me: cheekbones so sharp they could cut a ripen-at-home avocado; a figure so lean you could serve it alongside some steamed broccoli for dinner on a 5:2 fast day; a package so angular and trim it fits perfectly into the square of an Instagram. It is a lifestyle utterly inseparable from the false convenience of the smartphone: the silent enabler by your side 24/7 that allows you to quantify all of this stuff, to log the numbers that you can plug into the equation that you hope will solve your body.

I’m afraid that the solution is not, as some on Twitter would appear to suggest, to put butter on everything

Any engagement with the other type of health has to start from the fact that it is so much harder to achieve – and indeed that it’s not something you simply reach, like the finish line at the end of a marathon; it’s something you have to keep working at. And I’m afraid that the solution is not, as some on Twitter would appear to suggest, to put butter on everything. The backlash to the clean eating boom has been as distasteful as the boom itself, the now-vindicated full-fat brigade piling on these poor skeletal waifs with vengeful fury and a butter-fingered grasp of irony (being smug about what you don’t eat is no different from being smug about what you do, surely?). Yes, they spouted some genuinely damaging nonsense; gallingly, they made money doing it; the embarrassing backsliding and flip-flopping we are now observing is the desperate flailing of a child caught in a lie. But stigmatising their diet plans (and, by extension, them) as weird, as profoundly unnatural, just reverses the same binary. The whole point of clean eating was that it represented a movement away from denatured, heavily processed ingredients. That the message got warped and somehow reappeared as sugar is food for tumours is regrettable, certainly. But in decrying this nonsense, or joining the mob in its violence, you’re expending energy you’d be better deploying elsewhere.

Women smiling with spiralised courgette

Women smiling with spiralised courgette

Because when two sides of an argument can state their cases in identical terms (“eat a natural diet!”), we’re in trouble. That’s my final analysis, really: we’re in so, so much trouble. We have never been more surrounded with information and fact and bluster and bullshit; it has never been easier to gamify our consumption, whether by orthorexic calorie counting app or identikit social media feed; it has never been harder to find something concrete onto which you can moor. People solve for the harms of clean eating by throwing out phrases like just eat normal food and happy medium and balanced diet, as though normal has a single shared meaning in the cold dawn of 2017, as though happiness isn’t something philosophers have been trying to crack since Aristotle, as though maintaining your balance isn’t one of the most enervating things you can do.

Does it start with education? If I say it starts with education am I painting the world in the soft hues of Guardian-reader fantasy, kale for every food desert and a chickpea stew for every housing estate pot?

Does it start with legislation, taxing sodas and forever disrupting our position on the Big Mac index? Or is that a profoundly patronising attitude to take?

Does it start with pleasure, a resolution to stop caring about what we look like and start measuring our scant remaining minutes on this earth in dessert spoons? I suppose that depends. How much butter can you feed a heart before it breaks?

Does it start with us? Do we trust ourselves enough to switch off from all this nonsense, to listen to what our bodies want? Do we moreover trust ourselves enough not to want to look down from our new-found position of equanimity and tell others that they’re doing it wrong? Do we commit to start treating food like nitrogen, something by nature inert, free of morality, which can nonetheless kill us if consumed too little, or too much?

Does that work?

Is that good?

I still go running. I’m training for another marathon, in fact – it’s in a couple of months. I eat properly, which means a lot, because I’m going a long way, and there’s this one route I like in particular. Head East from Islington, drop down onto the canal. Sharp left at Victoria Park, out towards Stratford. Hang another left at the Olympic Stadium, and just run, run, run – up the River Lea, up towards the reservoirs. After a while the traffic thins out; you can go a mile without seeing another person. I sometimes stop to catch my breath; I take my headphones off to give my ears a rest. If I’m there at the right time of the day, I’ll sometimes chance upon it. It’s the funniest thing, perhaps my favourite thing. It almost sounds like silence. C