The Dirty Side of Clean Eating: How My Obsession Turned (Very) Unhealthy

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Photo: Courtesy of Elijah O'Donell

It started innocently enough. As a 25-year-old, I was engaged to be married and started to scrutinize my diet after ordering my wedding dress a year before our wedding day. I had always been a slim person, rather effortlessly, but somehow, this item that I had checked off my planning list had turned into a small obsession: not fitting into my dress a year later was not an option.

I had just moved away from my family and friends to start my life as an expat in London. My PR career had started three years earlier, and I was an avid fashion-magazine collector since I was about 11. My gospel was spelled in the ways of unattainable beauty standards and random nutrition advice picked throughout my favorite reads. Back then, the ‘5 [fruits and vegetables] a day’ campaign was in full swing in the UK and that, along with the wedding-dress drama, is how I decided to jump on board the clean eating wagon.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that living in an unknown metropolis, starting a new job, and being away from pretty much everything and everyone I had known since birth was enough of a trigger to make me crave control over a situation that was out of my comfort zone. Control plays a crucial role in this story; it has the power to turn a seemingly harmless “diet” into full-blown eating disorder. Especially in people with perfectionistic tendencies, just like me.

On top of watching my fruit and vegetable intake, I started running. Although, at first, I absolutely hated it, it seemed like a cheap-enough way to keep myself busy, on my own, at any time of the day, and with the added benefit of being praised for it. Bingo!

I soon discovered the “runner’s high” and that this new hobby of mine was a handy appetite suppressant. I got into the habit of eating as little as possible, until I was ingesting no more than 1,200 calories a day and exercising for an hour at least, every other day, leaving my body with less than half of the recommended 2,000 calories necessary to just maintain body weight.

I felt giddy with excitement at my newly enhanced thin privilege and, to me, there was no looking back ever.

I was visibly losing weight and this got me some unexpected comments from my peers and colleagues. I was the “fit chick”, the one that always refused treats and showed incredible self-control when glazed donuts made their appearance in the office’s communal kitchen. I sincerely thought that I had discovered the holy grail of leanness – and what my beloved women’s magazines had been recommending all along: eat less and exercise more. I felt giddy with excitement at my newly enhanced thin privilege and, to me, there was no looking back ever. This was the body I was meant to have. Full stop.

The reality was that my “applauded health practices” quickly started to look like a severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. Not applying them was panic inducing at best, and missing a workout when I left the office exhausted at 9 p.m. was not an option. I vividly remember lying awake in bed, absolutely starving, yet not allowing myself to eat until it was “time” for my carefully measured, low-sugar, low-fat breakfast before going to work. I had such little body fat that I had stopped having my period, my hair was falling off, I was producing no estrogen at all (hello, cystic acne), and I was terrified of gaining weight or for people to think I was “letting myself go”.

Unfortunately, the situation was conveniently masked by birth-control pills, and I kept this holier-than-thou exercise routine and diet until years later, when – at my lowest weight ever, and what I thought was so healthy before baby – I stopped birth control in an attempt to conceive. Three months after being off birth control, there was still no sign of my period. My gynecologist diagnosed me with “Hypothalamic Amenorrhea” (HA) – a loss of periods due to an energy deficit that forces the body into starvation mode – and advised me to get back on the pill or go through IVF. I was shocked and confused: Hadn’t I followed all the rules, avoided all the fat and desserts, and exercised religiously? Why were my non-dieting friends conceiving in record times while I was still just trying to get my period? It all seemed so unfair and I started frantically scouting the internet for answers, solutions, options, and whatever I could do to “fix” my barren womb.

I came across a blog called ‘No Period. Baby?’ written by an American woman called Nicola Rinaldi. Nicola had documented her journey from HA to recovery and had conceived two baby boys, all naturally. Her solution? Eating all the foods and keeping exercising at bay, at least until your body recognizes that it is not starved anymore and starts cycling again. I reached out to Nicola and she kindly responded, directing me to an online forum where she was regularly posting comments and helping other women to recover their cycles.

At first, I started reading, unsure what to think of all this, and even more confused about her method that involved “undoing” a perfect body that took years to achieve. But I soon got hooked. I was finally part of a community of women that understood my personal issues, something none of my real-life support system had managed to provide. A few months into it, I started posting and, a year after stopping birth control, I decided to take the plunge and go “all in”. From November 2009, I started nourishing my body meticulously and committed to solely walking or mild yoga workouts. By March 2010, my cycle came back. I got pregnant on my second ovulation. No help, no meds, no injections, no monitoring; it truly felt miraculous. In reality, I was just eating as much as I needed to and re-establishing trust between my body and myself. I was over the moon and spent a few years free of body-image issues and internalized fatphobia, just focused on motherhood and the wonderful (exhausting) blessings (and challenges) it provides.

Little did I know that, by the time I had carried, delivered, and breastfed my two beautiful babies and developed a chronic autoimmune disease affecting my thyroid levels, I would join the dieting wagon again, this time under the overarching goal of achieving “optimal health”. It was 2014 and I was told it was “not a diet, but a lifestyle”. This clever formulation meant I was not even concerned about my former HA days. I believed that it was my moral duty to avoid any more distress to my leaky gut. I read about people reversing their autoimmune reactions simply through diet changes, and I was sold.

I spent my days and nights scouring organic stores for the purest coconut oil and cooking every dish from scratch.

I started avoiding gluten and, a few months later, I was eating strictly paleo. For those of you not aware, that meant no grains, no soy, no dairy, no processed foods, no refined sugar, no alcohol, no beans. Carbs were my “digestive health” enemy and I did two Whole30s in a six-month period, only to binge my brains out on all the crisps and chocolate right after. I spent my days and nights scouring organic stores for the purest coconut oil and cooking every dish from scratch. I would carry my own food everywhere, too afraid to ingest even a microgram of flour that would compromise my efforts to achieve supreme health.

I saw several dietitians, with vague symptoms, and they hastily proceeded to remove more food groups from my diet after successfully testing my food intolerances. By 2016, I was routinely going to restaurants with friends and watching them eat delicious breads and desserts while sipping on chamomile tea to go with my unprocessed meat and steamed vegetables. Control was back with a vengeance, and it was worse than ever before. Once again, I was getting leaner and thinner and was constantly praised for my “willpower” and for “taking such great care of my health”.

What I didn’t know at the time was that I actually suffered from orthorexia, an unhealthy obsession with eating healthily. I was trapped in my own mind most of the time, planning, counting, analyzing labels, and scrutinizing for allergens. Some ingredients were so fearful to me that I was physically unable to ingest them. I remember traveling to Thailand with my five closest girlfriends and a suitcase full of healthy snacks and protein shakes, because I was so concerned that delicious Thai dishes would “hurt my sensitive gut”. In all honesty, and although I didn’t know it then, I was on the verge of a breakdown. I was utterly exhausted (carb-free life is weak and depleted), depressed, lonely, obsessed, and trapped in my own orthorexic tendencies. I was so consistently overwhelmed that I was unable to deal with my kids’ behavior without yelling or feeling like a total parenting failure. I looked sad and tired, my skin would break out so badly that I was put on Accutane, and my cycle went back to being wonky again.

Coincidentally, I lost my job in early 2016, and cracks in the squeaky-clean (in-control) persona I had worked so hard to portray started to appear. Friends started commenting on my eating habits and showed concern for my mental health. In my quest for meds-free auto-immune living, I was diagnosed anemic and prediabetic. I immediately blamed myself for my utter inability to stick to a stricter diet instead of recognizing that, with a 99 percent failure rate for long-term weight loss, the system was rigged and I was not a one-percent unicorn.

In May 2016, desperate for help, I was introduced to feminism, fat activism, and the health-at-every-size movement through the ‘Finding our Hunger’ podcast. By interviewing hundreds of experts advocating for a diet-free lifestyle and a weight-inclusive approach to health, the podcast addressed issues of our highly fatphobic society. I remember feeling like I was struck by lightning after a few episodes. On one hand, I felt a deep sense of betrayal that most of the health and fitness gurus I had followed religiously had led me down the wrong path. On the other, I was relieved that the spiral of depravation and misery I had carved for myself was not the only way forward.

I am finally able to understand that appearance is only a tiny fraction of what makes us human and that we are all worthy of love and respect.

After two years, hundreds of therapy sessions, one-on-one body-image coaching, and learning how to eat again, I feel truly recovered. Years of hardcore dieting have affected my metabolism forever and, although I may not be textbook “healthy”, I am appreciative of what my body can do and recognize that health is not a requirement for human worth. I move in ways that make me feel good, instead of punished. I eat when I am hungry and as intuitively as possible, and this is the way our kids are taught to eat too. No foods are banned or deemed forbidden or “bad” in our house. I am accepting my body at whatever size and shape, simply for the amazing vessel it is, carrying me through life and giving me strength, energy, brain space. I may not love my body, but I stopped abusing it. I respect it and follow its cues.

I am finally able to understand that appearance is only a tiny fraction of what makes us human and that we are all worthy of love and respect, whatever our body’s size, shape, color, gender, or ability.

Florence Gillet is an Eating Psychology Coach and the founder of By opening up about her experience with eating disorder recovery as a mother of two, Florence hopes to spread awareness about pervasive fatphobia, self-acceptance at any size, mental health issues, and raising body-confident kids in a culture engulfed in body hate.