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Living Clean without Eating Clean

green salad with grilled pineapple and chickpeas.Last Friday was a big day for me. It was what I refer to as my “clean date.” Six years ago, March 20 was the first 24 hour period of a new way of life for me, free of alcohol and drugs. In the circles I move in, we call that lifestyle “living clean.”

Living clean means more to me than pretty much anything else in my life.  Lots of people who know me now and even who knew me back on March 20, 2009 might be surprised that I, of all people, needed to make such a choice.

On the outside, my life looked pretty good: a successful career, a solid marriage, family and friends who cared about me. And yet I existed in a relentless state of self-loathing and sought things outside of myself to fix what was broken inside. To no avail.  That is the typical of the doomed cycle of addiction.

It’s progressive, and I have no doubt things were about to get worse.

Getting clean changed all of that and set me in a direction where the inside started to match the outside. And both are getting better all the time.

So when I think of “clean,” that’s what I think of.  Which brings me to this thing I’m hearing more and more about these days: “clean eating.”

What does it even mean?  According to this website:

Clean eating is a deceptively simple concept. Rather than revolving around the idea of ingesting more or less of specific things (for instance, fewer calories or more protein), the idea is more about being mindful of the food’s pathway between its origin and your plate. At its simplest, clean eating is about eating whole foods, or “real” foods — those that are un- or minimally processed, refined, and handled, making them as close to their natural form as possible.

The main idea seems to be to avoid processed foods.  So “clean” is a bit of a misnomer. As Sam said to me the other day, it’s not as if processed foods are dirty.

And it’s not only about processed foods. I came across this overview of 10 Ways to Eat Clean, offering itself up as a “foolproof guide” to eating clean. And here’s what it recommends:

1. Limit processed foods

2. Bump up your veggies

3. Cut down on saturated fat

4. Reduce alcohol intake

5. Un-sweeten your diet

6. Watch the salt

7. Choose whole grains

8. Eat less meat

9. Up your fruit intake

10. Nix refined grains

When I look at the list, I’m actually not doing too badly.  As a vegan, I get plenty of veggies, hardly any saturated fat, and lots of fruit. I almost always choose whole grains over refined, so that covers 7 and 10 right there. I gave up alcohol six years ago and can’t imagine going back to it. That leaves processed foods, sweets, and salt.

I eat soy milk, tofu, almond milk, pumpkin seed protein powder, almond butter, and peanut butter several times a week.  Veggie burgers end up on my plate at least a couple of times a month.  Are those all processed? Is hummus processed? I like Marmite on my toast. It’s definitely processed. Is toast okay?

Though it’s crossed my mind that I might take in more sugar than is healthy, I like sweets sometimes. I like to eat salty things. Does that mean I’m not a clean eater?  I do not know.

I thought clean eating would have something to do with organic foods, truth be told. If anything is suspect, it’s got to be pesticides and chemicals, don’t you think? Or GMO. But nothing I read pointed in that direction. No, it’s all about quinoa and brown rice, avocados and cucumbers, veggies and olive oil, black beans and kale salad.

Sam asked me the other day whether I think the clean eating movement (is it a movement? I don’t even know) has co-opted the language of “clean” from the recovery movement.  I hadn’t really thought of it that way. I’d say it’s not so much co-opted as perhaps borrowed.

When we get clean in recovery, we choose to abstain from certain substances. It’s a total commitment. Clean eating is kind of like that, though I don’t think they go for total abstinence. It comes in degrees. The primer I quoted above, for example, talks about limiting, reducing, watching, cutting down.

I myself prefer urging moderation when it comes to food anyway. From what I’ve seen, the “clean” movement demonizes certain foods. Even though they don’t go for abstinence, I’ve never seen a self-proclaimed (they’re always self-proclaimed and proud) clean eater choose something “unclean” without an accompanying, “I shouldn’t be eating this.” That comes perilously close to making some foods good and others evil, which runs in the opposite direction of my belief that food is beyond good and evil.

Maybe that’s what irks me about the whole clean eating thing. I want to roll my eyes when I hear someone say they’re “eating clean.” It’s always said with an air of self-satisfaction, as if it’s a virtue and they’re saints or angels for making clean food choices.

Don’t get me wrong. People can eat what they like, when they like, if they like. Even as an ethical vegan who wishes more than anything that industrial food production was more humane, I’m not about to tell people how they should eat.

At bottom, I’m probably bothered by this clean eating thing less because “clean” means something else more fundamental to me, more because it just sounds like another diet in disguise.  It’s just another way to moralize food and make people feel bad about their choices.

A couple of decades ago when I was still caught in the throes of dieting, losing, gaining, dieting, losing, gaining, a friend gave me a card. It had a Victorian style painting on it of two young women in a garden. One of them gazed down at a strawberry she held in her hand.  The other delivered the card’s punchline in a comic bubble: “For Pete’s sake, just eat the thing.”

For now, I’m going to keep on living clean, and I’m going to keep on eating how I eat.  Agonizing over food choices isn’t part of my life anymore.  Clean, semi-clean, not-clean — when it comes to food, if I want it, I’m having it, one day at a time. 😉



16 thoughts on “Living Clean without Eating Clean

  1. Wow – LOVE this post. As someone who has agonized over not “eating clean,” I enjoy your perspective here. I am (finally!) starting to realize that no one can make me feel bad about my food choices except me, and this post helped drive that home, especially given your past experiences (congrats on 6 years clean & sober). Thanks, and well done! 🙂

  2. Great post, and thanks for the thoughts on ways “clean” can be made as a judgment about our diets and specific foods– all recipes for lower self-esteem. Maybe “serenity now” is what I’d like to shoot for in my eating– being more at peace with the ways I try to feed myself, having compassion when that feeding is hard to do. Will think on this– maybe will blog on it! Thanks for the inspiration.

  3. 6 years. Awesome.
    I’ve been sober for almost 16 months. I don’t think of it as being clean. I never felt that word made sense for me. I am free.
    This is living. Before I was just biding time.

    When it comes to clean eating, it is so overused. I like your list. I try to eat lots of veggies, meat, some fruit and the occasional cheesecake or chocolate. I have developed a love for coffee. It is much better for me than wine was. Lol

    My diet became less clean when I got sober. I was very rigid in my eating rules as I felt the rest of my life fall apart. Not that anything fell apart. Like you, I looked very put together on the outside. But inside I was suffering. Badly. We all need ways to get through anxiety. That was mine.

    Today I try to use the ideas of mindfulness, kindness and whole foods as a basis. But sometimes we all need some chips!

    Thanks for this thought.


    1. Congrats on your 16 months! Terminology depends on the program (if you’re in a program) and of course people choose what they can identify with, which is the way it needs to be. We say “clean” to distinguish ourselves from the program that focuses alcohol and sobriety. I agree with you about mindfulness in eating. If I can eat mindfully even 50% of the time I’m pretty happy with my effort!

  4. Tracy, the sincerest of congratulations on 6 years of recovery (can’t think of a better blanket term!). Such an incredible gift, and I can relate so well to the cycle of addiction, I have been in and out of several… some mind-altering, like drugs and alcohol, to the current (and longest for me), food. I really like the idea that I am working to match my insides to my outsides, I will be taking that with me today!

    Thanks for sharing this milestone with us 🙂

    1. Thank you so much and yes, addiction can manifest in all sorts of challenging ways! Nice to share the road to happy destiny with you!

  5. I love the 10 Ways to Eat Clean. I strive to eat well but didn’t know that I was actually following so many of the clean eating rules. I am going through a similiar thing as you as well right now and this blog was inspiring. It is nice to read about others that seemingly have it together but are just like me at the heart of it!

  6. I think of “eating clean” sort of like gasoline. Low-quality fuel will slowly gum up the works inside your car, but high-quality fuel will keep it running at its best. So for me, the clean isn’t so much about the “fuel” itself, as it is about its effects on the “engine.”

  7. Thanks for this post! I’m coming to it somewhat late, but it encapsulates many of the feelings I was having about the phrase “eating clean.” I saw this post the other day, “Clean is for Underwear, not food,” The author is coming from an eating disorders recovery perspective. I think in both cases, the moralizing that “clean eating” implies is really not helpful.

  8. I love my Fitbit, it just motivates me when I am at work. I use it as a watch as well, but I am not addicted to it by any means. I didn’t eat pork or beef for over 3 years and I can tell you I felt great. I did it for health reasons. I’ve since been eating both and feel a little tired like before. I’ve been looking into the clean eating and it seems like something I can do. I love fruits and veggies. I also looked at the paleo way of life and I don’t think I want to go without my morning oatmeal. I do love your blog. Keep up the writing and have a great holiday.

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