Tuesday, September 23, 2014

What Does It Mean to "Eat Clean"?

photo by Monstruo Estudio

Hey everyone! Today I want to explain a bit about health and eating clean. I talk a lot about food and healthy eating, whether I'm posting here or talking to my friends, but I think I need to clarify what that means.

Some beautiful juice from Fresh Pressed in Singapore!
A lot of people think I eat unusually. Okay, I focus a bit more on health than most of my peers, but why is it so shocking to eat the way I do? I'm not offended- on the contrary, I wish I had more time to teach everyone who asks about my eating habits why I've come to be so picky.
First of all, let me go waaaay back in time and explain why it's become my habit to consider what's in a food before eating it. When I was around five years old I was diagnosed with severe OCD and mild Tourette's Syndrome. To everyone who likes to organize things and calls that OCD... um, no. If you actually have a problem with OCD it means you have HUGE anxiety about particular, irrational things- these vary depending on your personality. A famous example is having to wash one's hands a hundred times a day even if they're red and raw from scrubbing. See, that's OCD- when it feels like you literally might die if you don't do whatever random thing you feel like you HAVE to do. For me, it was things like twitching, small jumps, making noises in the back of my throat, and for a short time having to repeat the F-word until it "sounded right". This is where the whole Tourette's thing came into play as well; I honestly felt like I couldn't help or control any of these things.

So my parents took me to a doctor. He recommended I take some kind of drug that would cure me of my tics and twitches, but, oh yeah, it might also cause partial paralysis. But hey, no more twitching, right?

Needless to say, we switched doctors. This time, though, my parents took me to a naturopathic doctor. For those who don't know, that means someone who specializes in using medicinal herbs and considering a patient's diet rather than giving them a bottle of pills. This particular naturopath instructed my parents to take gluten, dairy and peanuts out of my diet and see what happened. The result? After the initial tantrums I threw because I couldn't eat graham crackers with peanut butter and chocolate chips anymore, my OCD/Tourette's behaviors started to subside. This wasn't a quick process; it took many years before I really understood what was happening to my body and why I couldn't eat certain foods. Even now, I’m still understanding how certain products affect me and in what ways. When I was little, the distinction between food I could and couldn’t eat was simply whether or not it contained an allergen. Now, I consider what other things in my food might be causing my sensitive body to react, like GMOs, pesticides or even seemingly innocent food coloring. Ugh. But that’s a post for another time!

Lately, in the US at least, going gluten-free has become a big health trend. You can find gluten-, dairy-, soy- and nut-free items at plenty of big supermarkets, and there are tons of smaller shops that cater specifically to that audience. I have no problem with this. I love the fact that finally, finally there is a market for these kinds of products. When I was little, the ONLY gluten free bread we could eat was this nasty tapioca bread made by Ener-G foods, which my mom actually had to drive to the company’s warehouse to buy. I mean, Energ-G deserves a HUGE shout out for being one of the first companies to realize there was a need for gluten and dairy free products, but I still am not a huge fan of their bread. Their pretzels are fantastic, however; in elementary school, my friends were all obsessed with the strange circular pretzels I brought for lunch, despite the fact that they were “weird” and gluten-free. 

The challenge was that, when I was young, the idea of going gluten-free was a little out there. Gluten is a protein present in wheat flour, and people couldn’t imagine bread without… well, flour. The same went for dairy. Cow’s milk and bread were staples, essentials in the American pantry. How could you possibly suggest an alternative? The problem was, people were looking at the problem the wrong way. The first few companies that tried to make things gluten free simply tried to take the flour out of baked goods and replace them with chemicals that replicated the effect of the regular ingredients (gluten is what causes bread to be fluffy and stretchy; simply taking it out results in bread that resembles a hunk of stone). Instead, they needed to realize that there are actually a myriad of other flours that could create a healthy product. That’s the other thing- health wasn’t the priority, gluten-free was the priority. I understand this, as many gluten free companies cater towards those with Celiac disease, a gluten intolerance that can become deadly if the afflicted eats something with even a trace of gluten. I’m fortunate enough not to have that problem, but when the focus was purely on making products gluten free, nutrition came second. This meant that all sorts of weird preservatives and unhealthy ingredients were the norm in gluten free bread (as well as a lot of regular bread!).

Recently, this situation has shifted, and more companies and bakeries are providing gluten free products that are actually really good for you. I think this has been aided by the obesity epidemic in the US, in some ways, because as a country we’ve gotten stuck so far at one end of the health spectrum (read: people who eat shit like McDonald’s for every meal) that we can do nothing more than bounce back in the opposite direction. In Seattle, where I’m from, local and independently operated stores are all the rage, providing a range of gluten and dairy free products as well as food that is GMO-free, organic and made without chemical coloring. People (companies) have realized that you can make gluten free bread by substituting regular, over-processed wheat flour for more nutrient dense flours made from grains like buckwheat, amaranth, brown rice or quinoa. Instead of pasteurized, low-fat cow’s milk, you can use milk made from almonds or hazelnuts- you can even make this kind of milk at home! When people find out about my gluten/dairy/peanut/soy/etc sensitivities, and later hear that I avoid soda and other junk food, they ask me what on earth I eat. Usually, I just tell them “fruits and vegetables”, because it takes so long to explain about gluten and dairy substitutions. Even when I do explain, people think bread made of quinoa flour and honey sounds disgusting (it’s freaking AMAZING, by the way). Unless you, like me, have grown up in a world where avoiding gluten and dairy is the norm, it can be hard to comprehend, though people are more accepting of the idea these days.  

So... how does all this tie in to clean eating? The phrase "eating clean" invokes images of freshly washed fruits and veggies, tall glasses of green juice (all the rage right now on both the East and West coasts of the US) and piles of raw nuts. The term is linked to the trendy Paleo and raw food diets, and basically causes one to envision a smiling, bubbly veggie lover in yoga clothes. At least, in Western culture. In other cultures “eating clean” might make people think of avoiding meat, or washing fruit before eating it. I don’t know. The point is, it doesn’t sound like is has anything to do with bread or milk. Let me explain.

These days, I'm more obsessed with health and wellness than anyone I know. I read books and blog posts and talk with people about how to eat well, and I've noticed something interesting. Going gluten free creates an awareness of what you’re putting into your body. This, in turn, causes people to think about what else is in their food, which leads them to choose healthier products overall. 

Disclaimer: I am not a licensed scientist, nutritionist, medic or anything of the sort; everything you see written here is based purely off my own observations, opinions and experiences.

There are two main ways to go gluten/dairy/whatever free; either way you eliminate the allergen, but one way you replace the holes in your diet with cheap substitutes and the other you replace it with whole grains, produce and lean proteins. Those who take the route of cheap substitutes avoid the allergen, yes. But those who enter a new realm of health improve their entire lives. The reason is that those who go gluten free and really want to understand and replenish their health start thinking more about what they’re putting into their bodies. I don’t want to put words into anyone else’s mouth, so I’ll relate my own experience…
I never cared what I ate when I was younger as long as it tasted good and I wasn’t allergic to it. Heck, at the time I didn’t even care if I was allergic to it, I just knew my mom wouldn’t let me have it if I was. Then middle school happened, and I’ve talked a little before about my disordered eating and learning to eat in a way that made me feel good. What I’ve started to question lately is if I would have ever reached this point in my quest to understand health and wellness had I not started on a gluten-free path so early. I wouldn’t have thought much about reading food labels. I probably wouldn’t have understood the difference between gluten free bread made out of amaranth flour versus gluten free bread made of chemically processed white potato starch. I wouldn’t have cared whether I had a sugary Luna Bar or an apple with almond butter for my afternoon snack... But having been forced to understand food and my reactions to it for so long, I grew to understand the importance of what we eat... 

...and now we’re back to clean eating. From finding out I had allergies to going gluten free, developing an eating disorder and eventually discovering that health was about more than eating three square meals a day, I’ve developed my own understanding of eating CLEAN. This isn’t just for those who, like me, have to abstain from certain ingredients. This is an explanation of the way I believe it’s ideal to eat, based off my experiences.

photo by Paul Morris
Eating Clean Means…

  • Avoiding things you’re allergic or sensitive to. If a food is giving you stomachaches and headaches every time you eat it, why are you still eating it? It’s self-sabotage! Your body is literally begging you to stop!
  • Eating fruits and vegetables that are free of GMOs and haven’t been sprayed with pesticides. Organic and local are the best options for you as well as the environment.
  • Choosing breads and pasta made from whole grain flours and basic ingredients. In France, there’s a law against baking true French bread with anything other than flour, salt, yeast and water. Whether you are gluten intolerant or not, you can find baked foods with similarly simple ingredients. There is never a good reason for a bread or pasta to contain food coloring, high fructose corn syrup or “enriched” anything- all this means is that the ingredient has been processed to such an extreme that the producers actually have to add more nutrients back into it!
  • Avoiding additives like corn syrup, food coloring, and anything over-processed. There should NEVER be anything in your food that you can’t pronounce or is an abbreviation.    
I realize that eating entirely organic and purely clean is unrealistic for most of us. I get it; I’m a college student who, at the moment, doesn’t have a job. I honestly can’t afford to buy all organic produce right now, nor can I ensure that the food I get from my school’s cafeteria is free of GMOs and pesticides. Lately I haven’t even been eating entirely gluten free, because I’m in foreign country on a budget and sometimes it’s really, really hard. The list above is an ideal, what I would eat like if I were perfect. Obviously, I’m not! But you CAN eat more cleanly than you realize. You can choose to eat fruits and vegetables when you need a snack instead of buying a Three Musketeers bar from the nearest vending machine. It can be cheaper, too- for the price of that candy bar I could buy five bananas! 

If nothing else, what I want you to take away from this post is this: what you put into your body matters. Whether it's organic, gluten free, or just a piece of fruit instead of a bag of chips, food affects the way you feel and the efficiency with which your body functions. This is my story, my experience, and my way of eating for wellness and longevity, and in my opinion, something that should receive more attention in this world of processed, chemical-laden food. 

Thoughts? Questions? Comment below- I'd love to hear from you!

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