If you’re someone who is interested in body composition or performance, you’ve probably heard the term Clean Eating thrown around.
But what does it even mean?
Does it mean I have to wash all my food before I eat it?
No, not quite.
It’s pretty hard to find a sensible definition when you search Google, but we can probably sum up “Clean Eating” as:
“Eating minimally processed, nutrient-dense foods.”
This is definitely an approach that I would advocate for everyone, for the majority of the time.
So what is this blog about?
The issues arise when “Clean Eating” goes too far.
Issue 1 – Restrictive approach followed by binge eating
A lot of “Clean Eating” approaches demonise certain foods/food groups.
For example, a lot of “Clean Eating” followers are adamant that grains and dairy are ‘bad for you’ and should be eliminated from the diet.
Let me tell you now that unless you have a particular food intolerance to dairy or wheat/gluten, there is absolutely no reason to completely exclude them from your diet.
This can lead to a low carbohydrate approach, which can negatively affect people’s energy levels and moods, and thereby cause massive cravings for ‘junk food’.
What happens next can often be a binge episode on high calorie, low nutrient-dense foods.
Following this the “Clean Eater” is back on the wagon until the next episode of binge eating, which usually coincides with the weekend.
For this reason alone a “Clean Eating” approach can lead to fat maintenance or even fat gain for those who are trying to lose weight by following a cycle of low calorie healthy eating followed by episodes of uncontrolled binge eating.
This can lead to a pretty unhealthy relationship with food, thinking that certain foods are addictive or ‘bad’ for you, and having repeated episodes of uncontrolled eating followed by guilt from performing the gluttonous act.
Really this is just cancelling out any type of calorie deficit that is being created during the week by eating clean, and thereby equalling no weight loss.
This leads us to the next issue…
Issue 2 – Thinking Calories Don’t Matter
Did you see the recent article about a KFC meal equalling far less calories than a Joe Wicks recipe?
If not, I highly recommend googling it.
Essentially you would have been better off from a calorie perspective by eating the KFC meal than the Joe Wicks meal.
Now I’m not here saying that food quality doesn’t matter, because obviously they do from both a health and performance perspective.
However, thinking that calories don’t matter when you’re eating ‘healthy food’, is just nonsense.
The law of thermodynamics still apply: if you’re trying to lose weight, you need to create an energy deficit through eating less calories and burning more through exercise.
If you eat 3500 calories of ‘clean’ food your body will react the same if it were 3500 calories of lower nutrient-dense, ‘unhealthy’ foods, as long as the macronutrient ratios of the menu remain constant.
So, if protein, carbohydrate, and fat quantities are the same, the two menus will create the same response (more or less) on an individual’s bodyweight and muscle mass.
When people who advocate “Clean Eating” believe that calories don’t matter, they can inadvertently over eat, and thereby cause weight maintenance or even weight gain.
Especially as a lot of health foods contain healthy fats (again, not a bad thing) these foods are inherently higher in calories, because fat is the highest calorie macronutrient at 9 calories per gram.
Eating high amounts of fatty foods, no matter how healthy, will mean a large intake of total calories, so it’s something to be aware of if you’re trying to lose weight.
Just because you’re “Eating Clean” doesn’t mean that your body doesn’t abide by the laws of Physics: weight gain/loss is down to energy in VS energy out.
Food quality does matter from a health/performance perspective, base your diet around lean proteins, fibrous carbohydrates, colourful fruit and vegetables, and healthy fats.
However, don’t exclude certain food groups because you think they’re bad for you (unless you have a specific intolerance), and include little indulgences every now and then.
An 80/20 approach of nutrient dense, low calorie foods, paired with a bit of ‘junk’ every now and then, is far more productive long term than 6 days of “Clean Eating” followed by a day of uncontrolled binge eating.
It also leads to a far more balanced approach to nutrition and food, and saves you from disordered eating.
Life is meant to be lived, and there are some delicious foods out there.
A piece of cake or some artificial sweeteners every now and then aren’t going to kill your or sabotage your efforts.
And actually if you can be more consistent eating some ‘junk’ food every now and then, you will be far more successful in the long term.