28 Feb 2017

Clean Enough

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This post is shared in honor of National Eating Disorder Awareness week, February 26-March 4.

*** Trigger Warning: Eating Disorder, Body Image

I don’t know how to say this any more clearly: I. AM. TIRED. OF. ALL. THE. CLEANSES.

Cleanses have been around for a long time. The granddaddy of them all, The Master Cleanse–which involves living off little more than lemon juice for up to 30 days–started the cleanse craze many years ago. Since then, hundreds of other cleanses have popped up, most of them based on restricting the diet to a very small range of food or drink options in an effort to rid the body of “toxins” or other harmful substances, or perhaps to facilitate quick weight loss or a reduction of bloating.

In reality, no credible science backs up the claims of so-called cleanses. Simply put, that’s not how bodies work. Our bodies have built in cleansing mechanisms that rid us of any waste that might build up. Breathing, digestion, urinary, and lymphatic systems help rid us of the actual damaging substances in our bodies. Given overall good health–which includes healthy diet, exercise, and sleep–these systems work just fine, which renders forced “cleansing” unnecessary.

And cleanses don’t actually do what they claim to do. Restricting food and beverage intake does nothing to stimulate the waste-removal systems in the body. In fact, restricting calorie intake can cause these systems to shut down to conserve energy, thus causing the body to hold onto harmful agents.

Moreover, cleanses can often do more long-term harm than good. They can be part of a long-term, slow-motion binge-and-purge cycle: eat too many non-nourishing foods for a while, then try to “fix” it with a restrictive cleanse, only to go back to old eating patterns in the weeks and months following the cleanse… and repeat. These cycles exhaust the digestive system and other internal organs and can cause internal damage in the long run.

My biggest problem with cleanses is that they’re inherently body-negative. They make the statement “Something in me or about me is unclean, and I need to change that about myself.” The essence of body positivity is to accept one’s own body exactly as it is, with love and compassion. Cleanses are inherently anti-compassionate, because they communicate a belief that the body can’t adequately clean and take care of itself. To love one’s body is to trust one’s body, and a cleanse is a way to tell your body you don’t trust it to do what it’s supposed to do.

I also find the culture around cleanses extremely dangerous. People often post “before and after” photos on social media to show the results of their cleanse. This practice makes the statement “I severely restricted my food intake, now look how much weight/bloat/mass I lost.” Can you imagine how triggering that can be to someone struggling with anorexia or another eating disorder? How irresponsible to send the message that food restriction and weight loss are desirable.

I understand the appeal of cleanses. When I was in the roller coaster of my eating disorder many years ago, I would often go on short, restrictive diet sprees where I cut out this or that particular food in an effort to change my body in some way. It’s nice to think that a short-term program can bring the quick results we all want to see. But nothing that works quickly in the short-term is sustainable in the long-term. We’re not doing what we want to do by relying on cleanses (which ultimately amount to crash diets) to do the work for us.

If I’ve learned anything from my many years in eating disorder recovery, it’s that my body and I are in this for the long haul. We will occupy space together for the rest of my life, and I want that time together to be long and fulfilling. Rather than riding the ups and downs of a cleanse cycle, I want to eat in a way that sustains my body for as I long as I have it. After many years of experimentation and mindful observation of how food makes me feel, I follow a “greens and protein” rule of thumb, meaning that the majority of my diet is made up of green vegetables and lean protein sources that are easy for my body to digest. These are the foods that give me the most energy and make me feel happy when I eat them. But that’s particular to my body and lifestyle. Other people thrive on a diet higher in red meat or starchy vegetables. Others do well on a vegan diet. Food is so individual to the person eating it, and we must cultivate a loving relationship with our bodies as we give them exactly what they need.

The bottom line is that, as long as you consistently eat in a way that supports your body’s individual needs and exercise in a way that supports your lifestyle, your body will clean itself. Give your body the tools to be healthy, and it will be. Allow it to do its thing in the best way it knows how. And above all, show it the love and acceptance it deserves.

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