I’m eating paleo.
The last four weeks, I’ve been telling people that, and the last four weeks, I’ve seen almost everyone’s face make the same expression: confused, amused, disdainful. You’re probably making it right now.
Let me clarify that initial sentence: I’m eating paleo for a finite amount of time, for a wellness challenge at my gym that also involves sleep, hydration, exercise and mobility. The idea is to take stock of and improve on your life, and the creators of the challenge have made “eating clean” one of the ways you can do that. So for eight weeks, for the most part, I’m not eating wheat, sugar or dairy, which makes morning teas at work, and any kind of social engagement involving a meal, somewhat difficult.
It wasn’t always like this. Six months ago, my go-to dinner was a can of baked beans, with some frozen vegetables stirred in (gotta get those vitamins), and maybe some chunks of cheese melted in there. I’d eat it out of the saucepan so I didn’t have to wash a bowl afterwards. Economical and speedy, but not exactly the pinnacle of health, or adulthood.
I am – or I used to be – one of those people who makes fun of people who eat ‘superfoods’ like kale or goji berries, and people who wear activewear and log their runs on apps which push to Facebook. In uni, I remember being completely contemptuous of the blonde, tanned girls who would talk about how bloated they felt because they hadn’t been to the gym that day. It infuriated me in a way I couldn’t articulate; I didn’t hate them as individuals, but I hated what they were: avatars of the wellness craze, beautiful, mostly white, always thin women, with hundred dollar leggings, sipping coconut water and running endless loops on a treadmill.
All of this, activewear aside, feeds into society’s notion of “wellness”. Wellness is defined, broadly, as ‘a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being’, emphasising ‘the proactive maintenance and improvement of health and well-being’. It’s not enough to be disease-free — the goal is to be as good as you can possibly be. That’s why Sarah Wilson doesn’t eat sugar, and why Pete Evans wants to feed children bone broth. It’s why so-called “superfoods” are worth over $43 billion globally, and why Lorna Jane can sell a singlet for over $60. It’s not just about being more or less healthy, you have to be “well”. And people really want to be well.
Globally, the ‘wellness’ industry is worth $3.4 trillion. That’s $3.4 trillion worth of almond flour, protein powder, massages, anti-ageing cream, gym memberships, treadmills and Instagrammers (#fitstagram). It also includes “complementary/alternative medicine”, the spa industry, and the booming workplace wellness industry. It’s an impressive industry, proving that “wellness” is something that people feel strongly about. But for every movement, there’s a backlash.
For every spin cycle class-going Instagram queen, there’s someone watching TV on the couch, and for every person eating gluten-free or paleo or vegan, there’s someone eating delicious, delicious pizza. And there are legitimate concerns with the “wellness” movement: the cost; the potential for food restriction; the rejection of people — especially women — who don’t look traditionally (read: white, slim) fit or healthy; and the dubious science behind some of the wellness industry’s biggest empires.
Wellness, to me, has always been a vexed issue. Most of my teens were consumed by an eating disorder, and that kind of thinking never totally vanishes. I examine my eating habits more often than I’d like — am I restricting certain foods for health or is it a manifestation of some messed-up eating patterns? Am I exercising because I like it or because I want to lose weight?
But in the last few months, as I’ve discovered a fitness practice that I actually enjoy, with fellow gym-goers I actually like, I’ve found myself falling into everything I disliked just a few years ago. The early wakeups, the clean(ish) eating, the five-times-a-week gymgoing. I still don’t have any activewear from Lorna Jane, but at this point, it feels like an inevitability.
So do I feel well? I’m not sure. I can lift more and run further than I used to, and I eat less potato gems and family blocks of Cadbury Dairy Milk than I used to. Those are both wins, mostly. To me, just as important, perhaps more important, than how “well” I am, is whether I’m happy or not. I get to go to the gym with a lot of great people, many of who I can now call friends. I try new recipes, and enjoy eating different foods. I haven’t thought about how much I weigh in a long time.
I don’t have any answers. I’m not a food scientist or doctor, or even a chef or fitstagrammer. I’m really not that good at being paleo — I just baked and taste-tested a batch of caramel brownies, and they were delicious.
Wellness, from what I can gather, is a balancing act: are you avoiding a social event because you don’t want to be tempted by cake? Do you go to the gym even though you’re already exhausted? I’ve done both those things, and the pursuit of wellness can quickly spiral into unhappiness. There are things more important than not eating dairy and sugar, or exercising every day. That doesn’t mean people who don’t eat sugar or dairy are unhappy – although a life without cheesecake seems pretty grim to me. It just means that there’s a happy medium.
And if I’ve learned one thing from falling down the wellness rabbithole, it’s that eating clean and exercising hard is all well and good, but being happy is better.
Image: Francesco Gallarotti
Sharona Lin is a recent graduate and recent Canberra convert. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Pop Culture-y (popculture-y.com), has written for The Age, Tone Deaf and The Music, and has written several award-winning short stories. In the coming years, she hopes to publish her first novel.
This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.