I was ready to go ‘clean’, and the measure of success lay in my wardrobe: out of the mountain of things I no longer could face wearing because I didn’t feel good in them or even fit into them, there were some key trophy pieces (I suspect we all have these): my beloved Madewell ‘Skinny Skinny’ jeans in my favourite wash; a pair of stiff selvedge jeans with a slim slouchy leg; a pair of suede leggings I bought two sizes too small (I know, I don’t know what I was thinking but I loved them) and know that at one point I could fit into them…and a couple of other pieces. My capsule skinny wardrobe; if I could fit into those, I had access to the rest of my wardrobe.
To my own surprise, I was excited about going ‘clean’ for 2 weeks. I had never done a diet properly, and this was the first time I was really going to do something as it was designed and not predict the outcome. It was an adventure.
The rules of the Cleanse were, in summary:
Coffee limited to one cup of organic coffee a day
No refined ingredients. In the author’s own words, ‘if it couldn’t swim, fly or run or it didn’t grow off the land – don’t eat it!’
There was a menu plan provided with recipes, but I could adapt it as long as I used the ingredients in the provided list of ‘superfoods’. This included avocados, nuts, dark green vegetables, lean meats and fish, eggs, and ‘clean’ oils like olive oil, ghee and coconut oil.
Other principles I noticed were:
Meals were mainly protein and veg-based – there were little or no carbs, even wheat-free alternatives like potatoes and rice
Salads featured heavily in the menu plan
There were no portion sizes, in fact, there was no nutritional information or calorie/fat quotas against any of the recipes, nor a daily guide to how much I should be consuming
Use organic/free range where possible
There was liberal use of ‘healthy’ fats like avocado, ‘clean’ oils, nuts, seeds, and lean meat. There is a chapter in the book titled ‘why fat can make you thin’, which really challenged my existing principles around food by saying that not all fats are equal; some fats should be eaten and can be good for you
The preferred methods of cooking were steaming, wilting, boiling, baking and poaching. No frying and definitely no deep frying.
What I loved about this programme from the outset was the flexibility to go freestyle and create my own meals from the list of superfoods listed. This gave me a lot more freedom and increased the chance of me completing it as designed.
I also loved the philosophy underpinning the absence of portion sizes or daily calorie/fat quotas, which was that I was not meant to go hungry. I could eat more veg with my meal if I was hungry; I could snack (he advises berries and nuts but I freestyled). The book states: ‘a [A] well nourished body doesn’t feel constantly hungry.’ The message that I was not meant to starve to get healthy and lose weight was a completely new one to me, and challenged my own practice of depriving myself to bring myself ‘back into line’. It was only mid-way through the programme that I really felt the impact of this gentle approach on my body. It was a breath of fresh air.
However, I was nervous about going wheat, dairy and sugar-free. Those were the cornerstones of my diet and I wasn’t sure how I would cope. I was also apprehensive about including additional fat in my diet, like nuts and seeds. Would this make me fatter? How would I lose that weight on top of what I already had?
I had already made a soft transition to some of the principles: I had cut out refined foods from my diet, and it was an easy progression from my natural preference for pure, high quality food. I was just more committed to it now, and it made perfect sense: why would I ingest inferior food stuffed with chemicals instead of a better quality version made with fresh, superior ingredients? The only difference was I now committed to this as a principle.
I made a couple of adjustments to the programme from the outset:
I was not going to eat all-organic, as it was too expensive
I included fruit in my diet. Duigan cautions against eating too much fruit, especially the thick-skinned varieties, because they also contain sugar. The poor banana gets a pretty bad rep here. I could not justify excluding fruit from my diet – they’re fresh produce, natural, contain vitamins and minerals – so I decided upfront to include it. If that proved to be the reason I didn’t lose any weight, maybe I wasn’t meant to be skinny.
I also included the occasional squeeze of honey and medjool date here and there. In the Islamic tradition, these are both highly prized ‘superfoods’, and with good reason – they have acceptable GI levels which are almost half that of sugar, despite being sweet. They are powerhouse foods so I was OK with including them occasionally.
I should also mention that I ate a small amount of white rice and rice noodles on two separate occasions, thinking they were OK as they were wheat-free, but it turns out they’re not. White rice is a ‘no’ because it’s refined, but I didn’t know that. Oops.
Note on exercise: Clean and Lean is a combined diet and exercise programme. The book contains a series of exercises for a 20-minute daily workout, and the author advises to start gently (shorter routines and easy sets) and build up to a full workout. I didn’t follow the exercise programme in the book, but continued my own workout routine of running twice a week.
I decided to keep a journal of what I ate during the 14 days, and also my observations about how I felt, any difference noted. I weighed myself every Sunday to see if there was any difference.
Here is my menu for one day (I recorded everything accurately so I didn’t omit anything). It’s typical of what I ate over the 14 days:
Apple with peanut butter
2-egg omelette with goats’ cheese, mushroom and red onion, and sauteed veg (spinach, kale, tomatoes, asparagus, mushrooms, red onion), avocado (0.25)
1 baby turnip
Grilled chicken and rice noodles
2 apricots, yoghurt, dash of honey
This was a significant departure from what I was used to eating, which would typically consist of bread-based and/or sweet snacks (including fruit), glasses of milk, and almost always a dessert. Removing the wheat and sugar from my diet by default stopped me from snacking, and when I was hungry I started eating fresh vegetables with hummous, or fresh fruit, or a couple of pieces of grilled chicken. One of the things I noticed immediately was how easy it was to take on a new habit, to enjoy something new and make it a new ‘normal’. We just have to be forced into it sometimes, that’s all.
We all have a voice inside our head. It is our internal narrative, chattering away, telling us who we are, what we are. We are commenting on ourselves all the time. I assert that we discover who we truly are to ourselves – what that voice is – when we are not where or how we want to be in our life. With specific regard to our bodies, we discover what relationship we truly have with our body when it is not what we want it to be. My voice turned out to be cruel, nasty, judgemental and unforgiving. A royal bitch. I lived with it on loudspeaker for the two years I was not in the shape I wanted to be in, but it was always there, often subdued because I appeased it by being the ‘right’ shape and size, but it had always been there nonetheless. In all likelihood it traces back to my childhood when I decided I was not enough: not good enough, not brave enough, not lovable enough, not desirable enough, not funny enough, not amiable enough, not popular enough. It’s a created voice, manufactured by the ultimate human defence system – our brain – to keep us safe. I have always been terrified of harm and of failure, and yet I decided that I was always going to fail. For most of my life I have managed that voice by accepting that it is there but had not engulfed me completely. But when I felt I was out of control, it became almost the only voice I heard.
My physical appearance was just one reason for the bitch in my head to yell at me. While I was fat (in my eyes), I called myself a variety of cruel names in my head. I would even whisper them to myself. Once, I created a meme of myself using a photo of me at a wedding, with hateful words underneath my image. The word ‘fat’ featured. If I had posted this online, it would have been considered cyber-bullying. It was in 2015. I am still startled by the sharp hate in those words when I see the image in my camera roll. I keep it for several reasons.
It was a few days into the cleanse when I noticed something: silence. The voice had gone still. And it was only in the silence that I knew the voice had always been there. It was the first time I can consciously remember when I was eating without judgement, without self-criticism and scrutiny. I felt safe with food, and that meant I just ate without it being good or bad. It was a new experience, and an unexpected opening for kindness towards myself.
The first three days were hard: I missed dairy, I missed wheat, I missed sugar. Without them, I felt dissatisfied, like I hadn’t eaten properly. Only when I stopped eating them entirely did I realise how readily I reached for them: as a small snack, a meal, a post-meal add-on. I hadn’t realised because it would often be a small something here and there, but cumulatively it was probably the majority of my diet. The physical impact of not eating them was immediate: I felt lighter, and I attributed it to the sheer drop in calories I was consuming, because for the first few days I didn’t really know what else to eat.
From Day Three, in the absence of my old ‘normal’ I created a new one out of necessity: my meals became protein and veg heavy; fish, chicken, meat, with lots of stir fried, wilted and fresh vegetables. My snacks changed. Once I let go of my mental association of bread and sugar as the only ‘satisfying’ foods, I started enjoying these new meals. It was foreign to me to eat like this daily but I became used to it almost straightaway. A typical breakfast/brunch would be poached eggs and sauteed vegetables; dinner would be a big salad or chicken/fish with a heap of lightly cooked vegetables. I hardly ate nuts before, but I started eating peanut butter daily, and I don’t think I would have survived this cleanse without the natural sweetness of peanut butter powder (amazing stuff, available from health food stores).
Although I mainly used my own recipes, I tried a couple from the book, and they were surprisingly good: flavoursome and quite easy. We got takeaway a couple of times, and I was able to eat plenty, choosing the grilled meats and baba ghanoush with my own side of vegetables, so I was not missing out at all. In fact, it was more than making do, it was better than before: my energy levels stabilised almost immediately. And the statement in the book proved true: my body was being properly nourished, and I felt less hungry during the day. Instead of veering from hungry and lethargic to full and buzzing, I was just satisfied pretty much all day, and my need to snack disappeared without me realising it. And it was tasty!
I could write pages about the gastronomic impact of doing the Cleanse and the effect of it in general, but I will try and limit it. Regarding the former, quite simply a new world of food opened up for me: white and brown starch was replaced by vibrant multicoloured fresh produce; fresh meat and fish; fatty nuts and oils; dairy-free milk which I found I prefer over regular milk. I discovered new tastes and experimented with new flavours, inventing ‘clean’ snacks involving rye bread, kale, peanut butter, almond milk, (not together), kitchen sink salads with anything I could find thrown in. I discovered cooking, and found that after years of resistance born of laziness, I actually love it. The creativity, the freedom of experimenting with new ingredients and flavours, the power of making your own food and knowing what has gone into it, being able to share it with others – there is nothing I don’t love about cooking now. And I may never have discovered it if I had not done this. I found I loved things I never thought I would: sauteed spinach; rapid pan roasted tomatoes; stir fried asparagus; avocado in and with almost everything; nuts; kale – kale! I think I ate more fresh vegetables in these two weeks than I had in the previous two months. There was no longer any spinach or kale sitting sadly in our fridge, no lonely tomatoes shrivelling in the fruitbowl.
As a tip, Jamie Oliver is brilliant for recipes that are ‘clean’ or can be adapted to be ‘clean’. Ottolenghi, king of vegetables, is also very good. Surprisingly, perhaps, I found the Deliciously Ella book to be disappointing and not very ‘clean’: the recipes are not tasty, and there is too much brown rice and starchy stuff.
Note: eating good, fresh produce costs more than eating crap. I was shopping far more often, and stocking up on avocados, spinach, kale, herbs, fish etc almost twice a week. It’s an investment.
And with this, the myth that I had been living in – my dependency on bread and sugar – was busted in three days. I had allowed myself to want and need these things, but I didn’t physically need them. There were no withdrawal symptoms, few cravings, and no grouchiness (to my surprise). What I found instead when I switched the make-up of my meals was that I was feeling lighter and hungrier – but not starving – more regularly: waking up ready to eat, going to bed feeling full but not stuffed. It was as if my body was being de-clogged, and it felt great.
In addition, going dairy-free cleared my throat; my tongue was pinker and clean; my singing in the kitchen improved exponentially. Due to the change in diet, my eyes were brighter and my skin healthier. There was no doubt that the change in diet was having a positive impact.
This could be an entirely egocentric statement, but in the confines of a restricted diet where guidelines superseded my regular eating practices, I was fascinated by what I saw in my own behaviours and habits around food. I assert that food is not so much what we actually eat but what we associate with it. Uncovering the meaning I attributed to food was eye-opening, and what I learned about myself in those two weeks was not only unexpected, but probably more significant than the physical impact of the cleanse.
Feeding my body, not starving it. James Duigan advises that you eat within an hour of waking up, otherwise your body will become ‘stressed’. This again was a new practice for me, and I was a little uncomfortable with it: I was used to not eating until late in the morning, when I would be really hungry. But it turns out that by doing this, I had been deliberately starving my body, and it was stressed by it: it triggered an urge to overeat and make up for my low energy, and I often ended up still fatigued and stuffed on top of that. By having something light first thing on waking – normally fruit like melon or apple – after a cup of warm water, which I have always done, I killed off that sharp hunger and, I think, set my body up for a better meal later. And I continued that later into the day: I ate when I was hungry, not starving, and it meant that I didn’t overeat, but also that I wasn’t punishing my body by starving it, which I had been doing as a habit. At a deeper level, this links to how I treated my body for being ‘fat’, by trying to beat it into shape. Now, inadvertently, I was learning to replace a cruel practice with a kind one.
Comfort eating. I had not thought of myself as a comfort eater: I didn’t binge on buckets of ice cream or gorge on leftovers, which was my typical association of somebody who ate their feelings. I was wrong: I was a comfort eater, and I started seeing how my eating habits were responses to emotional states and stories I had created around food. Because I couldn’t just eat whatever I wanted to, whenever I wanted to, I was able to identify the thought I had about food – the trigger which made me pick up something and eat it – and inspect it to understand where it came from. And for the first time I could see with sharp clarity how my associations with food were saturated with morality, comfort, and reward and punishment. These were all automatic thoughts I had not even questioned: eating something indulgent to reward myself when I had had a good day; eating something indulgent to make up for a tough day; eating something rich or sweet to celebrate after an achievement; starving myself and withholding food if I had been ‘bad’ or extravagant earlier, or even the day before. I noticed how I associated sweet and yeasty foods with comfort, possibly through childhood association: coming home from the wilderness of the school playground to hot Ovaltine and crumpets saturated with maple syrup; making roti (chapatti) with my mother and making smiley faces with raw dough in a safe, loving environment; associating sweet things with kindness and love and perhaps even assuming it would also be physically beneficial.
I also noticed how readily I wanted to ‘let go’ and relax after working to reach a milestone. After Week One I had lost just over a kilo, and my first automatic thought was ‘yes! Let’s go and celebrate with a cake!’ My definition of ‘letting go’, ‘celebrating’ and ‘relaxing’ had been created by me, and it was always geared towards breaking out of rules or practices which had helped me get to my achievement; it was a bit like saying ‘Let’s celebrate by undoing some of the great work I’ve been doing through self-deprivation’. I saw that I associated continuous hard work and following a regime, not just dietary, was ‘restrictive’; eating indulgent food represented ‘freedom’.
It was confronting yet hugely helpful for me to see these mental mechanisms in play, and what I had been doing to myself for years without even realising. I thought I had been truly free with food by eating whatever I wanted, but it was not true: I had just been following rules that I had created as a reaction against what I thought others had been telling me to do. I was using food to rebel against the world. ‘I’m meant to diet to lose weight? Screw you, I’m going to eat what I want and show you that I can look how I want and be happy’ (I faked that); ‘Life is hard; I’m going to eat something I associate with comfort to make myself feel better, and I have to do it to make up for the day, I’m entitled to it’.
In only two weeks I had amassed a small collection of food stories I had created. With those, I started to investigate what urge was triggered when I had that thought, and how I was tempted to react to it. The power of the mind is incredible: I chose to hold these thoughts, and instead of react to them as I would have done, I just accepted them, and then started to rewrite the story. I only touched the surface of this in two weeks, but it has been life changing. I have learned that as soon as I start creating reasons or justifications to eat something – ‘oh, I only had a few carrots earlier, I must be hungry now’, ‘it’s been a few hours so I should eat’, ‘it’s only a small biscuit’ – then I am not actually hungry and I won’t appreciate the food; I have learned that when I tell myself I ‘need’ something specific to eat, there is invariably another thought sitting behind it which I can investigate and choose my action accordingly. I started to recreate my relationship with food – and the world, because what I am doing here I am doing elsewhere in my life – by asserting my power over it, rather than let automatic thoughts govern me.
Being present. I had chronic FOMO with food (Fear Of Missing Out, and I don’t think it’s healthy that this has its own acronym). I wanted to eat everything: I did not want to miss out on a taste, a food experience, a meal. It was common for me to eat a meal and be thinking about what I wanted to eat afterwards, or later that day. I had a conveyor belt approach to food: meals and treats would be lined up in my mind and continually be replenished. My food opportunities were endless.
What this meant was that I rarely tasted or even enjoyed the food I was eating. I was not present with it, thinking about future meals instead, and that meant I never let food satisfy me; the message I was telling myself was ‘this food is not enough, I need more’. It didn’t help that I was often doing something else while I was eating: reading a book, flicking on my phone, watching TV. But mostly it was the food TV channel playing on loop in my mind that consistently distracted me: what else could I squeeze in and eat today? Now, because I wasn’t eating on impulse, I could stop and be present with food, because this had to satisfy me. I was also curious about the new tastes and meals I was trying, so I paid more attention to what I was eating. Cooking my own food rather than buying it or just heating something up also made me more engaged with what I was eating in that moment. Part of me saw how not being present with food was ungrateful; not appreciating food that I’m fortunate enough to have and enjoy. Being present with food is something I started valuing, and in turn this allowed me to be satisfied by what I was eating. The way I see it, I am never going to eat everything that I would ever find tasty in this universe, so I may as well appreciate what I do get to eat.
Habit. In the two weeks I was doing the Cleanse I didn’t eat out or really go out. I saw that food was a big part of having a good time while I was out – whether it was stopping for a coffee while I was out shopping, or wandering through the Foodhall at Harrods – and I assumed that if I couldn’t eat the things I wanted to, there was no point in going out. It also struck me how we are surrounded by crap food when we are out: sugar-laden snacks, ubiquitous poor quality caffeine, bread-based grab and go snacks. I started eating before I left home so I wouldn’t need anything while I was out, and whereas before I would have thought I was depriving myself of an opportunity to have a ‘treat’ while I was out, as I started to appreciate the impact of nutritious, better quality food, this has become a practice I’m much happier with.
Our bodies are an intimate landscape, and we look to certain parts of it for comfort. For me, it was my shoulder bone between my neck and shoulder; the flesh on my upper arms; the curve of my waist; the area behind my knees, which I touched numerous times daily as I prayed. I also discovered the area on the back of my ribcage just by my armpit. It was these parts I would pinch, clutch, squeeze to see how acceptable I was to myself: if I felt the right amount of bone, or the right ‘fit’ in my hands, I felt comfort; if not, I was unhappy. I had stopped putting my hands on my waist because I hated what I felt; I had rejected my own body. During these two weeks, I gingerly reached for these areas out of tentative curiosity to see if there was any change: would I find comfort?
In two weeks I had lost almost 2 kilos. Weight I had been trying to lose for over two years had disappeared in 14 days. I almost couldn’t believe it, but my Madewell skinnies slipped on the way I remembered. I could feel my waist again. And I had done this without counting a single calorie, fat gram or portion; I had not felt deprived in any way, in fact I had eaten better than I had in ages. I was eating fat and had still lost weight – a revelation! I was enjoying my food, it tasted good, and I felt lighter and leaner.
I was proud of having completed a programme as it was meant to be done, and it got me thinking about the effect of doing other things properly in my life, instead of dismissing them from the outset and not bothering.
Until this point, I had always thought it was much better to ‘naturally’ be in shape and not have to work hard for your body or health – that was for losers. That view was completely upturned: I was now experiencing what it was like to take control of my health and my body, and it was immensely powerful. I had caused this change in condition rather than leaving it to some mysterious force known as ‘circumstance’. I had executive creative privileges to be whatever I wanted, and I did not want to let this go. I wanted more.
Perhaps most importantly, I uncovered how unhealthy my relationship was with myself and my body, and it was not acceptable. That bitch voice had to go. I had started taking steps to rewriting an old narrative which had often caused me to be unhappy and frustrated in limiting habits.
I had completed the Kickstart Cleanse. The next step: making it last.