I Tried Out Clean Eating For A Month And It Wasn't That Bad
Nut butters for days.
You've probably heard of "wellness" and "clean eating". I mean, it's everywhere.
Maybe you have friends who've sworn off carbs and others who've swapped out regular milk for milk alternatives in their morning coffee. Wellness is all over my Instagram feed, but I can't define it beyond the general idea that "gluten is bad". Eating clean is an incredibly #millennial thing but it seems so abstract, expensive, and devoid of fun. Wellness also appears to be a super-female thing. There are a lot of male fitness Instagrammers and men who eat clean, but the values and lifestyle behind wellness fits with stereotypical feminine ideals of "watching your weight". Mainly, I know that wellness is for women who aren't like me.
I assume I'd feel a lot better, mentally and physically, if I led a life more similar to wellness girls, but I've never actually tried to live "healthier". It just seems like so much effort and the antithesis of everything I am as a person. I've always been slightly adverse to being one of those "health" people – probably because I've never believed I'd actually be able to stick to a healthier lifestyle.
I am the kind of woman who brunches at 1pm. I want to see what it'd be like to be the kind who brunches at 11am. It's all glamorous and alluring. Wellness women on Instagram live a seemingly unobtainable lifestyle – but it looks like how I should be living. They focus on long-term gain over short-term pleasure, and it feels grown-up. I'm 24 years old and I work in London in digital media, yet my life doesn't really look anything like that of Andy in The Devil Wears Prada. She's fictional, but her lifestyle choices were deliberate, while mine are a combo of guesses. But I desperately want to get better at looking like I've got my shit together. (I blame all the stupid rom-coms I've watched of women trying to have it all in New York City.)
The first hurdle was nailing down what wellness means. I didn't need to google much before it became super obvious that I'd need to cut out gluten completely (because of the War on Carbs) and get rid of all refined sugar. A lot of bloggers follow plant-based, aka vegan, diets too, and some even only eat raw foods. After a bunch of Instagram account stalking, I narrowed down the criteria to the ones below.
During my month of wellness and healthy living, I will try to:
- exercise two or three days in the week
- cut out all gluten
- cut out added and refined sugar
- eat organic where possible
- cut out all 'white' carbs and cut back on all carbs in general
- eat popular wellness foods like açai berries, Kombucha, chia seeds, nut butters, coconut oil, almond milk, cocoa nibs, raw cacao, and green smoothies
- eat real food
- eat clean
- only use milk alternatives for cooking, drinking, coffee, etc.
- become a "wellness girl" on Instagram
Note: I decided not to go vegan because I didn't want to. I'll also try to gain an additional 100 followers over the course of the month. I'm starting the challenge with 96 followers.
I'll be judging each week via four criteria: how easy it is to eat clean, how regular exercise makes me feel, how many Instagram followers I gain, and my general wellbeing.
I started off the week woefully unprepared because I hadn't gone shopping, nor did I wake up in time to make anything for breakfast. I ended up eating two Babybels from the office kitchen but kept the camera away, as this meal definitely isn't Insta-worthy. I also wasn't sure if they count as real food either...so, you know, off to a strong start. My day got instantly better though once I Instagrammed the pistachios I'd brought to work (43 likes!).
I ended my first day by pulling out my trendy spiraliser to make courgetti for dinner. I heated up the courgette too much, and it got all soft and mushy and didn't look that great so I didn't Insta that either. I also REALLY wanted chocolate after dinner, but I refused. Wellness?
I actually remembered on Monday night to make chia seed pudding to take to work for breakfast the next day – it was a weird, gelatinous type thing that doesn't really deserve the label "pudding" but didn't taste bad either.
In terms of cooking things that are actually edible, the week went pretty well. The only slip-up was that I accidentally gave myself mild food poisoning on Tuesday with my homemade veggie Buddha bowl (a mixture of leftover courgetti, poached egg, avocado, feta, and sautéd veggies I had in my fridge). I didn’t make chia pudding that night because I was too busy dealing with the whole food poisoning thing.
I spent most of the week feeling like I wasn't being "wellness" enough, so on Friday I caved in and got a green juice from a pricey café near my office. I Instagrammed it, and it was the first time I actually felt like a proper wellness person – and the sting of the £6 price tag for a juice meant it had to be good for me – right? It also definitely tasted like it was incredibly good for me, if you get what I mean.
I was seriously overwhelmed in the green juice café because I genuinely had no idea what most of the stuff was: activated tamarin almonds, kombucha, golden lattes, drinks with activated charcoal in, raw chocolate, schisandra, mooring, and guarani were among the things listed on their menu. I consider myself as pretty educated on different cuisines and foods, but the menu genuinely floored me. I felt quite stupid, really. Despite all my research, I still had no idea what I was doing, and it was clear I needed to devote even more time to learning.
By Sunday, not eating white carbs or sugar was starting to get to me. A lot. I spent the entire weekend kind of pissed off at everyone, and annoyed that my kitchen snack cupboard was full of things I couldn't eat. I just wanted a bowl of cheesy, gluten-full pasta, and ice cream...and apple crumble. And pizza. God, I miss pizza.
So far, the hardest part has been the perpetual state of confusion I'm in.
I went to the gym three times. This feels like enough.
The most exciting thing about the challenge is that I've finally got an excuse to build my 'personal brand' and potentially ~make waves~ online. I've put a stupid amount of hashtags on each photo I've posted so far so I can reach a ton of people, which has resulted in a lot of piss-taking messages from my friends, who've wondered if living in London has finally turned me into a wanky twat.
When I made the Buddha bowl for dinner, I spent ages fiddling about with the presentation and laid it out in a way I never would normally, and then spent ages deciding on a filter, leaving it to go cold. Considering this was the meal that gave me food poisoning, I ended up getting way more satisfaction seeing the likes come in on the photo than from actually eating it.
I also bought pricey Tenderstem broccoli one evening after work rather than using the frozen broccoli I already had at home because I thought it was more aesthetically pleasing, which I kinda hate.
I felt pressured by the end of the week to step up my game, but also worried about the costs racking up. My feed is littered with bloggers posting dishes with expensive and obscure ingredients, whereas most of my meals so far are variations of the same thing. I'm def not a convincing wellness blogger just yet.
Apart from the slightly low moment where I was dying from food poisoning on the second day, I actually felt pretty okay in general. I haven't noticed a change in my energy levels or concentration levels, which I expected, as I'm only a week in.
It was pretty tiring to make dinner every day, and make breakfast and lunch for the next day though. I didn't really like that I had to rely so much on prepping as that means going to the supermarket often to grab fresh produce because it doesn't keep for very long, which also takes time. I guess this means I'm acting like a more ~together~ person, but it also meant I barely had any free time in between coming home from work and going to bed, which made me feel a bit like a capitalist shill.
Follower count: 112 (+16)
My love affair with chia seed pudding ended this week after it broke my insides. I can only describe how it made my stomach feel as "twisty". I had to completely re-plan what I eat for breakfast but struggled to come up with something that didn't involve spending more money. I decided on smoothie bowls, which are allllll over Insta but require a ton of fruit to make and, at the time of the Chia Disaster, the only fruit I had in the house were bananas.
I finally went to Whole Foods this week, and it was, well, surreal. I mean, before this week I didn't realise you could buy pasta made out of 15-types of beans. The customers were asking questions to the staff that I probably should be asking as a fellow health-conscious person, and it was pretty weird to be surrounded by a group of people who follow wellness IRL. The vast majority of my wellness community consumption has been online, especially because it's so far removed from the lifestyles most of my friends live.
My plan to start making açaí bowls for breakfast totally fell down the drain too when I found out a tiny pouch of açaí power is £20. Twenty bloody pounds. I ended up spending a truly ridiculous £80 on foods for the month. A lot of this staple stuff, like almond butter and coconut yogurt was just enough to last out the month, too, and I didn't even buy everything on my list. This cost goes alongside the £18 of shopping I did at a regular supermarket for fresh produce and my newfound love, almond milk matcha lattes, which I got three times this week. The costs were really starting to go up – to an uncomfortable level.
Discovery later that day: Eating almond butter out of the tub doesn't have the same allure as eating PB from a jar. It's just not the same. I'm heartbroken too.
I got a comment on one of my photos from a PR firm who were looking for "content creators" and asked if I'm interested in "media coverage". I only had 115 followers at this point, though – surely it's not that easy to become a known wellness person, right? Well, apparently not because I followed up and they never replied, so I guess my stardom was just not meant to be. I got contacted by a matcha company too, but they also never got back to me - but whatever it totally didn't hurt my feelings at all. I did however get sent free wellness-approved brownies from Adonis Foods and starting having these for breakfast, which solved the açaí problem for a bit. The brownies are vegan, sugar-free, gluten-free, organic, and low-carb, and they actually tasted pretty decent and satisfying, though they weren't super sweet or anything. These breakfasts were convenient, which contrasts with pretty much everything else I've eaten so far. Though if I'd actually bought the brownies, I would've paid highly for the convenience.
On Friday, I got kinda drunk and completely forgot about wellness – so I had chicken nuggets. I got a McDonald's meal again the next morning to fix my hangover (a conscious, sober decision this time). I still don't really know what wellness is, but I'm pretty sure it's not McDonald's twice in the space of 12 hours.
McDonald's blip aside, I've begrudgingly accepted that this whole wellness thing is making me a lot healthier because I can't eat most of the office snacks, any of the office Great British Bake Off cake competition entries, or any food brought in ever, nor any of the lunches. It's pretty fucking miserable if you ask me. But at the same time, I probably shouldn't be eating that much junk food every week...right?
The office cake competition did however inspire me to bake something this weekend – gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free cookies, to be exact. They were actually pretty good. I mean, a regular cookie far beats it, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t bad. (This sentence sums up everything I've eaten these past two weeks.)
I still don’t understand what "real food" is – it's such a vague yet broad category. I mean, sure, broccoli is “real food”, but isn’t ice cream real food too? Where does alcohol fit into this? I wish I had someone in real life I could barrage with questions, and get all the answers from. So far, the hardest part has been the perpetual state of confusion I'm in. I don't know what I'm doing, but I'm constantly worrying I'm doing it all wrong.
I went to the gym three times again. I didn't totally hate it.
Two of my friends had convos separately with another friend that I've been posting a lot of food pictures and thought I was being really weird. There were even talks of an intervention, apparently. People are noticing: My personal brand is falling apart.
On Wednesday, I admitted to a co-worker that all my food Instagrams are for work and not because I'd suddenly started caring a lot about my health. My new online persona is so different to who I actually am and who people know me as.
I feel weirdly...uncool? I guess so much of being a "cool girl" millennial is about celebrating and ironically indulging in things that are bad for you and being flippant about health – it's way cooler to Instagram a 3am dirty burger than a handful of almonds. It also feels extremely humblebraggy to post pictures of all the healthy food I'm eating – like I'm trying to show off my wealth and show that I'm a super-organised and together person.
On Friday, I closed my eyes on train and started thinking about what caption I'm going to use for the Instagram of my breakfast. So I guess you can stay I've started to get pretty obsessive about it all.
I went out for lunch with co-workers this week and spent ages scrutinising menus online before I could find somewhere I could eat at that wouldn't make everyone else hate themselves. I worried I was being super difficult and apologised a bunch of times, while poking fun at how sad my meal would probably be. We eventually found somewhere great that everyone enjoyed, but the stress beforehand wasn't so cool.
Thinking about food all the time is exhausting. I’m constantly thinking about what I’m going to have for my next meal or snack, and the thought of not preparing snacks and meals is terrifying.
The huge cost in wellness items seems to completely outweigh the reduction in costs from eating out and drinking less, too. When a pot of wellness-approved yogurt costs £2, in comparison to the non-wellness-approved four pots for £2 you usually get, it's easy to see how simply getting wellness substitutions for things you used to eat doesn't really cut it. To follow wellness and stick to a budget, I need to change my eating habits, too.
Follower count: 121 (+25)
I went on holiday for part of this week, and somehow managed to stay on track with wellness thanks to the ridiculous amount of prep I did beforehand. The food highlight was a few days before, when I found chocolate I can actually eat in my local supermarket and was ecstatic. I bought a lot of it. Wellness suddenly didn't seem so bad.
I bought a golden latte made with almond milk from a fancy café that I begrudgingly have to admit was the bomb, omg. I also tried a nut milk this week, which was £5.75 for a 330ml bottle and that should not be allowed ever. I felt pretty damn fancy walking around with it, though. It's absolutely the kind of product that says "I’m rich enough to buy this fancy stuff for my health".
This lavish purchase got me thinking a bit more about wellness, and why it's struck a chord with so many people. It’s about listening to real people on health, who are somehow more trustworthy and relatable than advice from experts, but this advice both is and isn’t accessible – sure, it's available online, but you need to know what you're looking for.
And arguably, the advice isn’t from real people at all. The biggest influencers are the ones who do this full time, who regularly get promotions from brands and free samples so they can afford to keep doing what they’re doing. It's much easier for them to live this kind of lifestyle, than it is for someone working long hours away from home.
I baked again this week: I made peanut butter cookies to take on holiday, and they were pretty damn good. I was mostly forced to bake my own desserts because the ones in Whole Foods are super expensive, but I'm proud I'm baking and cooking more. It's yet another thing that feels like an accomplishment and a marker of a real adult.
I went to a café while on holiday, but I couldn't actually eat anything there because it was all non-refined-sugar desserts and gluten-full stuff, so I just stuck with a black coffee (there was no milk replacement, either). I wasn't sad about it nor did I feel like I was missing out, which is way different than any time I've been on a diet and gone out to eat with friends or family. In fact, it didn't bother me at all. I was content waiting until I got home to make something that I knew I could eat – something nutritious and healthy, that would still taste good.
(Who am I????)
I didn't go to the gym at all before holiday, because I told myself I would be doing a ton of walking and cycling on holiday. This turned out to be only slightly true.
Being on holiday and eating non-pretty meals for a lot of this week really stressed me out about my Instagram. I felt pressured to post daily – every meal, even – and not being able to make Instagram-worthy meals while on holiday for a few days made me panic that I'd lose all my followers or lose any credibility I had. I even felt a sense of relief when I got back home and could post a picture. Sure, eating clean was becoming a lot easier, but Instagram was becoming a lot more stressful. It feels like work, but considering that I only gained four followers this week – the payoff isn't really there.
I'll admit it – cultivating a following as a wellness girl is way harder than I assumed it would be.
Something changed this week. I'm a lot more comfortable now about what I can and can't eat, and I feel pretty...good. This is not something I'm used to. To be honest, I'm pretty smug in the knowledge that I'm living so "healthy". Sure, my bank balance at the moment isn't that healthy thanks to my frequent Whole Foods trips, but I'm really taking care of myself and my body.
Wellness is giving me a level of control over what I eat and how I live that's really comforting and reassuring, and feels like a truly grown-up lifestyle. I finally eat like I think I'm supposed to – and you know what? It's not so bad.
The shift in attitude is pretty drastic: This is the kind of sentiment I would've dismissed as gross just a few weeks ago. I've not got long left in my wellness experiment, but right now it seems like, maybe, wellness is something I could, and should, continue.
Follower count: 125 (+29)
I settled into a groove with cooking clean dishes this week. I've experimented with a bunch of ingredients, and I know exactly where to go around work if I want to buy a clean lunch or coffee. Unlike two weeks ago, I'm quietly confident in my knowledge of what I can and cannot eat.
I tried out a free sample of a raw coconut kefir drink at Whole Foods, but didn't buy it because I genuinely had no idea what the woman selling it was talking about. She was throwing out words like “diverse cultures” and “pressed ingredients” and kept repeating the word "gut". It’s clear that these are all Good Things™ though, so I acted impressed and nodded in approval.
I realised after this that part of being a wellness person is keeping up with trends, evolving your knowledge, and trying new products. But that constant level of learning means the options of what I can eat are ever-expanding. I think so much of the "science" behind wellness is completely stupid, but I'm (perhaps naively) confident that I can navigate between the junk logic and the things that actually make sense to find the products that work for me.
As much as I hate to admit it, I've definitely drank the Kool-Aid a little. I catch myself gushing to co-workers about a new product I want to try or something gluten-free I want to bake – or telling them to try "gross" things. I see myself as totally removed from the wellness community, but when I actually listen to myself, I sound exactly like them.
The jury's out on whether or not this is a good thing.
I didn't go to the gym at all. I'M SORRY. I hate the gym, okay?
I keep getting to 125 followers then dropping again to 121-ish, and I've accepted that I'm not going to hit wellness infamy any time soon. Also, people I know IRL have almost definitely unfollowed me over the course of this experiment. I've given up on reaching 100 followers because, honestly, I’m annoying myself. I’d much rather enjoy my meal over stopping throughout to check my notifications, which I end up doing every time I post a picture.
I feel straight-up amazing. I'm way more comfortable in my knowledge of clean eating and everyone keeps applauding me for eating so healthy – and coming to me for advice – which is giving me a superiority complex. I also feel a part of something, like I'm in on some secret lifestyle.
But smugness aside, I'm pretty happy with myself for committing to wellness so...well. I've actually managed to mostly stick to a set of rules and pay attention to my health – this is definitely the most successful I've ever been at a life change (and, believe me, I've tried plenty).
Follower count: 121 (+25)
RESULTS & WHAT I LEARNED
Did I meet my goal of gaining 100 followers? Nope. But did I come close?
Also nope. I made just over a quarter of that. Gaining just 25 followers in a month is actually pretty embarrassing, and I probably would've gained more from just spamming other accounts with "follow me!!!" comments for a month. Before I started, wellness seemed so fake and uniform that I assumed I'd hit my goal if I just followed a specific formula. Maybe if I'd used my actual personality more, I would've stuck out, had a stronger #brand, and got more followers.
Wellness changes your relationship with sugar.
My energy levels are much more constant throughout the day thanks to eating and drinking way less sugar, and I no longer get midday slumps. But I'm slightly deprived of energy all day, like I’m running at 85% constantly, rather than the peaks at 95 and troughs at 60 I used to get - but admittedly those peaks were really short-lived.
I get much less headaches now, and I used to get a sore throat all the time, which has completely gone now, and that alone is enough of a motivation to keep eating less sugar. I definitely get less hungry now, too, which is something I never thought I'd say. I totally thank the whole no-sugar thing for that: I eat more protein now to make up for the lower amounts of carbs, and I was 100% not paying attention to protein before I started wellness (and as it turns out, I was eating hardly any protein beforehand).
Wellness can make you pretty obsessive about food.
It’s easy to see how a mindset of "food as fuel" or "only eating food that is good for you" can get damaging and obsessive; I ended up thinking about food all the goddamned time. I was starting to obsess and head towards what was maybe an orthorexic mindset – pretty worrying. I was also losing the enjoyment of food for food's sake, and things like going for a meal out or even being cooked for by a friend started to feel like inconveniences.
Wellness is incredibly women-driven.
Wellness is, in a lot of ways, presented as traditionally feminine. It's another way to get women to spend massive amounts of money on products: As a woman, you need to be healthy in a certain way. That's the way this kind of marketing works; it's about creating something out of thin air and telling women it's essential to their everyday lives, creating and exacerbating issues to foster insecurities that can be plastered over – but never plugged – with purchases.
Yet despite all of this, it's really addictive.
Wellness is expensive and I hate so much of it. But it's given my life a level of structure and control that I didn't really have before. Actually feeling good about myself is addictive and motivates me to keep going. Wellness is tiring, and it's hard work – but we're constantly told being healthy takes effort. It definitely doesn't feel natural or easy. Perhaps if it was, wellness wouldn’t have the same appeal.