I like to believe this notion of “clean eating” started off with good intentions. At least it did in my case when describing previous recipes I’ve posted here on the OSH blog (though I believe I’ve gone back and corrected most).
At the surface clean eating was trying to imply what our diets should be focused on: lots of whole foods from as close to nature as possible- fruits, veggies, protein (animal or plant based), whole grains, nuts, seeds, and good oils.
But there’s a few problems with this phrase I’ll address:
There is no clear way to define what “clean eating” is.
Recently I’ve read a lot of science-based articles that exclaim food is neither good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, clean or unclean.
It took me a while to truly wrap my head around this line of thinking, but as one article noted It’s impossible to judge a food in isolation without seeing the big picture from the rest of the diet. Now that makes perfect sense.
Instead what we do is clump everything that’s not “healthy” into an “unhealthy” (and vice versa) category casting judgement we derive from our own definitions. Different foods have different pros and cons depending on the individual and circumstances. Period.
I’m not going to split hairs over proper terminology. I’m totally guilty of using the phrases “healthy and unhealthy” when describing food because it seems universally recognized. So, what is most recognized in regards to eating healthy:
1. Eat Mostly Whole, Minimally Processed, Nutrient Dense, Satiating Foods
2. Eat a Variety of Fruits and Vegetables
3. Eat Enough Quality Protein
4. Eat a Variety of Animal Products
5. Eat within Your Calorie and Macronutrient Needs
This is not terribly complex if you peel back all the marketing and hype streaming daily across social media. Focus on the 5 key points above and enjoy whatever else you like that fits within your goals.
This phrase has taken on a misguided meaning in regards to how it can change our body composition (chasing after the overrated 6 pack for example). There are COUNTLESS articles and books, even food blogs now, dedicated to preaching that “clean eating” is the only way to reach your fitness goals.
Eat to Perform posted an article What Food Freedom Means to Me in response to a Whole30 instagram post. I recommend you read the whole thing (it’s short and amusing), but here’s a highlight:
Food Freedom is about eating real food, paying some attention to the amounts and portions, and having choices. That way, if you are gaining fat, you have some idea why. If you are losing muscle, you also have some idea why. If you are just reliant on a food list with no information to back it up, that’s not freedom, that’s confusing as hell.
Instead this is what most are doing….spinning their wheels, trying to find a “clean eating solution.” Shakes, elimination diets (unless for food intolerances/allergy issues), pills, detoxes, etc. are not optimal for weightloss because they teach you nothing about how to maintain your weight or eat for your goals in a healthy sustainable and lifestyle way.
Most will experience weight loss after adopting one of the above mentioned methods from being in a calorie deficit but it’s not sustainable and the cycle continues. And that weight loss was most likely fat and muscle which is not ideal either!
Orthorexia nervosa- An obsession with dietary perfection, a phrase coined by Dr. Bratman. Perhaps you’ve never put your diet on a pedestal but someone around you has, making your choices appear less than acceptable. This food shaming mentality is different from finding something gross based on personal taste. It refers to a pathological fixation on eating strictly clean and unprocessed and feeling guilty or ashamed for straying off course.
If someone strives to consume 0% of calories from any food that’s been processed or refined from its original state, then that’s perfectly fine – as long as this is the person’s genuine preference, and not a painful battle of will. (Well said Mr. Aragon!)
Talk about an enormous amount of will power and determination not to mention STRESS for the majority of the population. I believe we all want to focus more on nutrient dense foods vs. focusing on the higher sugar and fat content items. But creating an environment of restriction is not ideal and sets many up for failure.
There’s no doubt that what you eat can have a massive impact on your health, performance, and body composition. However, there’s no evidence you can’t achieve all of these things while still enjoying any food you like.
We must know ourselves first and establish what our goals are. By learning how to listen to our own bodies, we will have better long-term success. Unfortunately, most don’t know where to begin so they turn to guides and shakes and lists of approved foods for a quick-fix not understanding the implications (see problem #2).
The point is to gain a general awareness of your overall calorie consumption and appreciation of macronutrients.
If you feel like your nutrition’s off track, you’re not reaching your goals, or you’re just clueless where to begin…
Start with food journaling to get a big picture of your overall intake. Are you consuming a balanced diet of protein, fats and carbs? Do your portion sizes meet your goals and activity levels? How can you start getting more strategic about your overall calorie intake? What will benefit your performance or body composition? What foods become a disappointing calorie bomb after just a few bites that perhaps is consumed too often?
I’ll leave you with this nugget of awesomeness from an interview with Alan Aragon:
Practically speaking, do your best to dominate your carb choices with whole and minimally refined foods, while keeping the low-fiber/refined flour foods and added sugars to a minimum. Keep your fat intake dominated with intrinsic fats (pre-existent within whole foods) rather than added fats. Of course there are exceptions such as olive oil, but that’s the general rule.
Foods on their own cannot be good or bad. What matters is their relative contribution to the diet. If you dominate your diet with crap, then you have a crappy diet… Diet quality matters, and it always has. However, a healthy diet can indeed contain the crap, but obviously it must comprise the minority of intake in order to preserve the overall quality of the diet.
Still clueless, shoot me an email and I’ll do my best to help or point you in the right direction.
*Complete Human Performance– “Started by Alex Viada and Kelly Bruno in 2012 with one goal in mind –– to cut through the misinformation about training and nutrition and to create simple, customized, and highly-effective training plans to help athletes of all levels reach their full potential. They have a combined 38 years of strength and endurance training and are both experienced having both competed in Ironmans, ultramarathons and powerlifting.”
*Alan Aragon “is a nutrition researcher and educator with over 20 years of success in the field. He is known as one of the most influential figures in the fitness industry’s movement towards evidence-based information.”