What Clean Eating Is Really Like: The Two Week Challenge

Health & Fitness On Trial

I wasn’t even drunk when I decided to do it.

I was completely in possession of all my faculties and was so enthusiastic I even got my boyfriend on board with only the smallest amount of cajoling (and insisting).

Eat clean for two weeks: That was the challenge. And considering we should be eating like that all the time, how hard could it be?

Really bloody hard, that’s how.

I’m something of a health junkie. But ironically I’m not particularly healthy. There's nothing really wrong with me, but I’m a health journo that jumps from fad to fad with boundless enthusiasm for anything new, sure it’s going to be the answer to losing the extra few pounds/achieving glowing skin/getting ultra energised. I can never stick to it.

Clean eating has been all the rage for a while and it’s a healthy, non-faddy way of eating that makes perfect sense and seems scientifically sound. So I found a two week plan online and put both myself and my poor boyfriend on it with the idea it would kickstart our path to longterm wellness.

It was a comprehensive plan that detailed every meal and snack for two weeks, incorporating the use of left-overs and even including downloadable ingredient guides. If I was going to be able to do it, this was the only way.

Clean eating as my plan defined it is:

  • Nothing processed, everything home-made
  • No alcohol
  • No caffeine (except three green teas a day if essential)
  • No milk (my plan wasn’t totally dairy free as goat's cheese was allowed but cows were out)
  • Gluten free (the only grains allowed where whole, unprocessed and slow-release such as gluten-free oats and quinoa)
  • Veg-based but with chicken, eggs and fish allowedNo red wine was my biggest challenge (Tumblr)

The aim?

The plan said it would make me feel like a BOSS. And the calories were restricted to around 1350 (for women) so aimed at trimming the waistline a little. But mostly it was the promise that I would feel healthy and energised, sleep better and look bright of skin and eye.

It sounded great.

The boyfriend and I decided to do it together because from previous experience we know it’s very difficult to operate on two different eating plans and still have a nice time living together.

The prep

I did a big online shop where I bought everything I was told to by the plan. In fact I did the shop on three different online supermarkets and picked the one that was cheapest (Asda) to actually go through with.

But even so, it still came to almost £100. For A WEEK. For TWO PEOPLE.

I feel this is crazy expensive. No?

The shop itself was packed with vegetables - cauliflower, kale, avocado, Chinese lettuce, carrots, peppers… the works. Plus store cupboard items that not everyone has - chia seeds, almond butter, that sort of thing. I did have a few because of the aforementioned health faddiness but the ones I didn’t certainly pushed up the price. Hulled pistachios don’t come cheap, let me tell you.

Then I had to decant various ingredients into plastic freezer bags to freeze for different days, portion out salmon slices and chicken fillets and remember to soak my dried beans so they would be ready to cook the next day.

By the evening when, it was time to actually whip up meal number one, I was already knackered.

But determined.

The reality

The food I ate on the plan was DELICIOUS. It felt healthy, varied and really tasty. I didn’t miss the carbs or the meat and fully enjoyed the widening of my culinary options.

I made mango salad with chicken; three-bean chilli; salmon and green beans - it was all lovely. Breakfasts were a revelation, from overnight oats to chia pudding, I waved goodbye to my boring piece of toast and peanut butter every day and said hello to a whole new world of flavours.

The shop haul was pleasantly green (Flickr)
Chia seeds: These are a REVELATION (Flickr)

I have never been so nutritionally satisfied. I don't think there is a single vitamin or mineral I could possibly be missing.

But there were drawbacks.

No alcohol is horrible. It’s just no fun. There is no reason to go home in the evening and no point socialising with drinking friends after work. And I speak as a non-alcoholic. Honestly.

I missed my nice glass of red wine with dinner, my couple of g’n’ts at the pub.

It was also my biggest failure. Come day eight (of 14), we had a parental meal with both sets of parents to talk wedding and I cracked. There was no way to get through that without a glass of wine. But I did stick to one and I really savoured its deliciousness (the odd cheat is not encouraged but if you do have to cheat, the plan does give you some options, including two small glasses of wine per week).

The boyfriend experienced a horrendous caffeine withdrawal which gave him a splitting headache for the first week. Probably worth it though because after switching to decaff and green tea (and when the headache went away) he said he didn’t feel any worse for being off the sauce, as it were.

But the biggest difficulty was the time it took.

Busy people just don’t have time to clean eat. And that’s the sad truth.

The main reason is all the chopping. It is great - nay essential - to have plenty of vegetables in your diet but chopping them all up takes so much time.

Dinner started to be a three hour affair from start to finish, incorporating the making of next day’s lunch (and breakfast for me because I prefer to eat when I get to work) and that didn’t even include cleaning up after myself. There were mountains of peelings to get rid of and every day the blender needed a good scrub.

Ultimately it made me think that this is how we humans used to eat, before convenience foods took over. And it’s much healthier and much nicer. But unfortunately our lives have evolved along with the food we eat and we need the convenience options to let us get on with the hectic fast-pace of modern life.

The boyf and I realised we would love to start spending more time in the kitchen making delicious and unusual meals and spending time talking to each other while we did it, but our jobs and social lives just don’t allow it very often.

In fact, we ended up cancelling a couple of social events because we were so un-fun to go out with, what with our no drinking and restricted diet.

Was it any good?

Apart from a couple of alcohol wobbles we did stick to the plan. And I did feel the difference, I slept better and felt a bit more alert. And we both lost a few pounds (him more than me, damn men's metabolisms).

The biggest benefit was realising how boring our normal diet had become - rotating a few safe meals - and how we needed to shake it up.

I also found that reducing carbs (especially refined ones) wasn’t a problem at all, and the same for red meat, which could help me maintain my weight longterm.

The boyfriend shook his extreme caffeine habit and woke up to the joys of green tea and both of us realised that we need to find social activities that don’t revolve around a nice glass of wine.

Salmon with green beans: Easy, healthy, tasty (Flickr)
For the chop (Flickr)
Before the plan (Giphy)

Clean eating long term

But how do you achieve it while hanging onto normal life? That is the big challenge.

I think it comes down to the 80/20 rule and that’s what I’ve been aiming for in my post-clean world.

Eighty per cent of the time you eat clean, which means that 20 per cent of the time you can cheat a bit.

So if you eat well for a few days, you’re allowed to go out for a meal one evening and yes even splurge on a glass of wine or two.

By not saying ‘never’, your brain doesn’t go into rebellion but you still get the benefits of mostly clean-eating.

And it’s about making the best choices you have available. If you can either get a take away curry or buy a healthy-option ready meal that involves throwing some veg in the microwave and grilling up a pre-marinaded salmon fillet, choose the second option as often as you can.

It’s not easy but I would definitely challenge yourself to a two week clean-eating spell. It helps you look at your normal diet and eating habits and work out where you need to change.

I never thought two weeks would be so difficult, but I’m glad I did it. Even though I’ve definitely put those pounds back on now.

Want to give it a go? Here's the plan I followed.

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Images from Flickr users: kaiyanwong223, graibeard, Girl Interrupted Eating, foodchronicles.