Big, big, big warning before we kick off that I get into specifics of diets and food restriction in this, so if you find that triggering, maybe go read some funny stuff I wrote like this.
If you thought this post would be paying homage to the seminal 2003 Britney classic ‘Toxic’ and its subsequent cross-genre remixes, I’m afraid that sadly, you would be wrong. But even though this piece isn’t about Britney Spears, it is about total BS (even I'm impressed with that link, tbh).
In my post last week, I wrote about how we must be weary of unqualified nutrition, fitness and wellness ‘experts’ and stop believing non-evidence-based information on health, lest we all end up restricting everything bar chia seeds and kale. The range of nutritional information, restrictive plans and dietary advice that spring from a simple Instagram hashtag search is totally overwhelming and, in many cases, the information is totally conflicting. High-carb low-fat diets, high-protein low-carb diets, plant-based diets, Slimming World, Weight Watchers, juice cleanses, detox teas, celebrity plans; they all promise wellness, vitality, weight-loss, happiness and, even more potently, they all vilify an opposing range of foods. And this slew of sometimes unreliable, anecdotal, varying information can lead, like it did for me, to a total toxic mix of a diet. A carefully, cherry-picked plan: elements of five or six or seven restrictive diets that lead to one hell of a struggle.
I speak from experience. This time last year was when I reached all time diet low. I wrote about it in more detail in my first post on this blog but the TL:DR version is that my body was my only hobby, I was on an incredibly restrictive diet and a few days before what promised to be a lovely dough-filled five days in Milano, I had a bit of a breakdown. My diet was a mess. I was a mess. I had subconsciously selected a few bits and pieces from certain wellness ‘gurus’ and fitness ‘experts’ and amalgamated them into the most depressing diet known to man. Let’s break it down in some diet maths, peeps.
The main structure of my diet was based on Tim Ferris’ Slow Carb Diet, so for six days a week (and on the seventh day, God created the ‘Cheat Day’) I ate nothing but low GI foods: veg (not carrots or chickpeas though, too high carb, obvs), beans, nuts, fish and eggs. Yep. No dairy, no fruit, no refined carbohydrates, no fun, no oestrogen production for my poor lil’ body. Tim’s one saving grace, however, was that he did allow you to eat as much as you wanted, whenever you wanted, so in theory, although the diet was hugely restrictive with regard to food type, it did allow for some satiety. Unfortunately, however, just before I started the Slow Carb Diet, I’d also read Amelia Freer’s book Eat, Nourish, Glow, in which she totally maligns a whole host of foods and eating habits- mainly, snacking. I haven’t picked up the book in the best part of a year but the information is imprinted in my mind- she said, if you need to snack, it means the meals you’re eating aren’t nourishing enough and snacks will lead to a dangerous spike in blood sugar levels. Huge. Effin’. Sigh. This, added to the fact that I was purely surviving off legumes at this point (which, I remember Amelia writing we shouldn’t be eating too much of anyway, meaning I lived with a consistent sense of guilt), meant I was always starving. I totally lost touch with my body’s natural hunger and fullness signals because I never listened to them. I remember mentioning to a colleague at the time that I wanted to start eating less in the run-up to Chrimbo so that I would feel ‘actual hunger’ for the big roast dins on 25th December. The truth was that I did feel ‘actual hunger’- it’s just that I felt it so potently and consistently that it became my normal.
In turn, the snackcess (copyright: ya gal CM) that Amelia denied me also encouraged a bingeing mentality in me at every meal time (as if the huge eat-til-you-feel-sick-and-don’t-want-to-eat-for-another-six-days Slow Carb cheat day wasn’t enough to do this), as I knew that I wouldn’t be eating again for at least the next five or six hours. Whilst these days I'm now a little grateful for the binges that these two diet plans lead me to, as they probably were just keeping my body functioning, at the time they caused me an immense sense of guilt and shame, not least because it was also at the time when the Deliciously Ella brigade were in their prime and, from what they said, all the sugar and packaged food and, bloody hell, even bananas I was consuming on the ‘cheat day’ were slowly killing me from the inside and eroding my worth as a human. Thank God, after a few months of sticking pretty strictly to this mix of plans, I realised that working out five times a week, a limited diet and an active job made me feel like a zombie and I relented to eating fruit. But obviously, there was also a caveat to this from another diet plan, this time from The Body Coach himself, Joe Wicks. His plan dictated that I shouldn’t be eating carbs or fruit on ‘rest days’ so if I ever did ‘relent’ and shamefully consume an apple on a day when I didn’t also do HIIT, the guilt, in turn, consumed me.
Concurrent to all of this, I was also intermittently tracking my calorie consumption on My Fitness Pal and weighing up my daily intake of nutrients against the NHS’s RDAs. I remember the total glee I felt when MFP informed me that I’d only eaten 20g of sugar when the NHS recommends a 90g intake. The sad reality is that, instead of viewing the NHS’s guidelines as something to be beaten or scorned or competed against, if I did want any proper, reliable, evidence-based nutritional information, I should’ve really just looked to them.
But the NHS guidelines aren’t sexy. They don’t come accompanied by a carefully curated Instagram shot, blow-dryed hair and a book deal. We’re reluctant to listen to them because they can’t promise you dramatic results, washboard abs, a lust for life, perfect skin, 1000 twitter followers or a glow (a note on glow: glow is so ubiquitous these days. It’s not a thing. Certain ‘gurus’ promise you this because it’s a totally intangible claim). Regarding nutrition, the main crux of what the NHS say is:
‘Eating a healthy, balanced diet is an important part of maintaining good health, and can help you feel your best’
‘Eat a wide range of foods to ensure that you're getting a balanced diet and that your body is receiving all the nutrients it needs.’
And, most importantly for me, they don't try to turn it into a diet. They recognise that nutritional is deeply personal and different for everyone:
'Reference intakes (RIs) are not intended as targets, as energy and nutrient requirements are different for all people. But they give a useful indication of how much energy the average person needs and how a particular nutrient fits into your daily diet.'
Simple. Not sexy.
To me, this means eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full (sometimes don’t), eat a wide variety of foods without guilt or shame and hopefully you'll feel OK (provided you do all the other important stuff like rest, drink water, laugh, dance, read, be nice to yourself, call your Nan and hang out with your pals).
All foods play a part in a balanced diet. This week I ate nuts and seeds and dried apricots and carrot batons, sliced peppers, courgette and feta salad, lentils with aubergine and rosemary, veggie moussaka, oranges and pears and apples, broccoli and a baked sweet potato. And I also had sponge cake and jam on toast and a burrito the size of my head and thickly sliced French stick and Spanish omelette in a sauce that seemed to be purely oil and all the things that make a lot of wellness bloggers break out in hives quicker than I can eat a handful of Mini Eggs (frighteningly quick). I ate what I wanted. I ate what tasted good. I ate what made me feel good and, emotionally, I felt no different eating raw veg than I did eating some squares of chocolate. I heed the NHS’s advice, but I don’t follow it like a diet, I don’t feel bad when I don’t hit all the RDAs or eat more sugar than they recommend.
So again, a plea to listen to reason.
A plea to listen to evidence.
A plea to detach yourself from the guilt and shame that restrictive diets encourage and to eat what you want.
A plea to step away from the toxic mix and leave that to Britney.