I once thought that Clean Eating was the path to lifelong leanness and better health. The idea that we would just eat food “closer to its natural state” was appealing. Only in recent years have I discovered the limitations of Clean Eating – and its dangers – that stopped me from recommending it for health and fat loss.
While Clean Eating is still the prevailing wisdom in some circles (including with many bodybuilders, fitness competitors, and fitness influencers), many people are getting wise to the limitations of Clean Eating.
What Is Clean Eating?
Clean eating is a vague and unscientific term that refers to eating food as close as possible to its natural state.
While the premise isn’t all bad, there are a number of issues with it.
For one, everyone has their own definition of what Clean Eating is.
Many bloggers and alternative health practitioners use the term to unnecessarily ban foods like dairy, gluten, grains, meat, or cooked food.
While it’s certainly better to eat lean protein, veggies, fruit, nuts, and seeds more often than BBQ chicken wings, donuts, and pizza, there’s no reason why ALL foods can’t be part of your nutrition plan.
Clean Eating Is VERY Popular
There’s a magazine called “Clean Eating” and some books about the Eat-Clean Diet.
The hashtags #eatclean and #cleaneating regularly have 56 million and 45 million Instagram posts respectively.
The idea is that you’re eating fewer highly-processed foods, which is generally a good thing.
That means more foods like vegetables, fruit, fish, some dairy, minimally-processed oils, whole grains, and lean meats.
Nothing particularly wrong here.
Upon further inspection (and some coherent scientific thought), I’m not sure that the concept is as sound as I once believed.
Yes, I think most people’s diet should be composed of minimally-processed foods.
But there are so many grey areas in the clean eating world.
It’s hard to make solid rules that everyone can stick to…or that make scientific sense.
Another problem with clean eating is the assumption that the quantity of food you eat doesn’t matter, only the quality.
But it’s pretty easy to overindulge on calorie-dense “clean” foods like nuts and whole grain bread.
Nuts have health benefits, but they’re also very high in calorie density.
If you’re looking to get lean it’s important to maintain your calorie intake at the right level for you.
Clean Eating tends to ignore the concept of energy balance – the idea that you need to burn more calories than you take in to lose weight.
“Just eat clean!”, they say, and all your weight problems will disappear.
While Clean Eating can make it easier to manage your calorie intake (it’s harder to overeat chicken breasts and veggies than potato chips and french fries!), it isn’t always the solution.
My Experience With Clean Eating
In my clean eating days around fifteen years ago, I could eat an entire loaf of gluten-free high-density whole grain bread (with a large quantity of olive oil).
I’m pretty sure I managed about a day’s worth of calories with that one “snack”.
But heh, I was eating clean, right?
Was I lean?
I was about 30 pounds heavier than I am now (even though I was in my 20s).
Now I eat the right amount of protein regularly and it keeps me from overindulging.
And I allow myself treats regularly so I don’t binge eat.
You can’t overeat on a regular basis and lose weight…even if all the food you eat is “clean”.
No Sauces Or Dressings Allowed?!
Clean Eating advocates generally frown on sauces and dressings.
Unless it’s mustard or no-sugar-added tomato sauce (which contains sugar naturally, BTW).
Adding a bit of sauce to make something tasty (even if that sauce has some sugar or fat!) isn’t something to worry about.
The calories/sugar/fat will be minimal, but add to your enjoyment of the food.
If adding some BBQ sauce to your chicken breast and vegetables helps increase your consumption of protein and veggies then it’s worth it.
Freaking out about a little bit of sauce (as I used to do!) isn’t necessary.
Clean Eating For Weight Loss
You don’t have to “eat clean” all the time to lose weight or be healthy.
Eating the right quantity of food, in both calories and macros, is important for staying lean and for our health.
Sure, that generally means that most of what you’re eating will be whole foods, as close to their natural state as possible.
But completely banning all processed food?
For either your health or for weight loss.
Calorie Density And Effect On Weight Loss
If you’re struggling to get lean, you need to take a closer look at the calories you’re eating.
Eating for weight loss doesn’t just come down to calorie density, but paying attention to the idea is useful.
Adding lots of low-calorie veggies and some fruit to your diet is likely to help with weight loss.
They fill you up so you eat fewer calories.
So pile on the broccoli, celery, spinach, tomatoes, and zucchini with your shrimp dinner.
And you’ll still have some space in your daily calorie alotment for a few squares of chocolate for dessert!
Criticisms of Clean Eating
Although it may seem innocuous, clean eating is still a fad diet.
Clean eating has been criticized because there’s no evidence that it has health benefits and it sometimes involves eliminating entire food groups.
Many proponents of Clean Eating are very judgemental and unjustifiably critical of certain foods.
At the extreme end is an eating disorder called Orthorexia Nervosa, which is characterized by an excessive preoccupation with eating healthy food.
Yes, it’s possible to worry about what you’re eating TOO MUCH.
I’ve been a nutrition professional for two decades and I’ve certainly experienced times when I’m become overly concerned about what I’m eating.
Sometimes you just need to live a little.
And let go of the guilt of not “eating clean” all the time.
Clean Eating Can Lead To Binging
Trying to maintain a clean eating streak often leads to anxiety and an obsession with food.
I did it myself FOR YEARS.
I would give up chocolate (my favourite treat) for weeks or months, eventually succumbing to my craving.
Then I felt like a failure.
The guilt then lead to binging on chocolate, ice cream, cookies (I have a sweet tooth!) for a couple of weeks.
Then I would get “back on the wagon” and give up chocolate again.
Only to have the whole process repeat itself a few weeks later.
Many of my Online Coaching clients have gone through that process many times and I spend time helping them overcome those negative food associations.
Being A Health-Conscious Parent
Having a child means that those food fears can become magnified.
The younger my son was, the more careful I was about what he was eating.
Now that he’s five and in kindergarten, I know that it’s impossible for me to have 100% control over what he eats.
He’s influenced by children around him.
Unless your child suffers from true food allergies (so scary!), shielding a child from food experiences will only create negative experiences with food.
That’s not to say you should let kids eat whatever they want.
Protein, healthy fats, vegetables and fruit should be staples.
But treats are important too.
Just as they are for adults.
The Truth About Clean Eating
I once heard overheard another competitor at a fitness show say:
“You can tell when someone’s been eating clean and when they haven’t.”
No, you can’t.
How lean someone is comes down to the overall nutrient quantity that they consume over time.
A single chocolate bar or bowl of pasta doesn’t have any particular fat-promoting properties.
What you eat over the whole day, week, and month matters.
What’s Better Than Clean Eating?
I have Online Coaching clients who eat daily treat foods and stay slim, while many people who eat primarily “clean foods” (with occasional food binges, or course!) are overweight.
It’s easier to maintain a nutrition plan long-term when you enjoy the food that you’re eating.
So it’s important to include your favourite treats regularly in reasonable quantities to keep you motivated.
And there’s no reason why you can’t be healthy and lean while doing that.
Giving up judgy labels like “Clean Eating” can be helpful for healing your relationship with food.
When you pay closer attention to the quantity (calories, macros) and quality of what you’re eating, you’re more likely to get lean.
It’s worked for me and many of my Online Coaching clients.
And it’s a much more fun way to live.
Because giving up all the foods you love doesn’t make sense.