According to some players in today’s fitness world, “clean eating” is a plague. At its worst, clean eating causes people to obsessively control – and even scrub – their food. At its best, clean eating confuses innocent bystanders, because what even is “clean” or “dirty” food, anyway?
Don’t get me wrong, soothes the critic. I believe in eating mostly whole, minimally processed food. But people need FLEXIBILITY in their diets, not rigidity.
But clean eating – the way I interpret it – is the freaking epitome of flexibility!
Boom! shouts the critic. That’s the whole problem with clean eating! There’s no single interpretation. Clean eating is confusing – and rigid. Did I mention rigid?
This dialog feels like a game of “telephone.” Clean eating has become extreme eating in many circles. And now, even though plenty of folks love and follow this nutritional approach, clean eating is continually discredited as rigid, confusing, and even the cause of eating disorders.
It’s all pretty stupid, actually.
As I’ve talked about here and in my clean eating articles, switching to foods closest to their natural state and with minimal processing changed my life. I suffered not only from chronic digestive pain and discomfort throughout my life, but I needed to manage genetically high cholesterol, a high risk of breast cancer, and osteopenia. Until I discovered the concept of clean eating, I had no idea that what I ate could actually improve my health and quality of life.
So from personal experience and as a certified personal trainer, I know a thing or two about clean eating.
Since the bulldogs won’t let go of the bone, I present to you five clean-eating myths that need to die. If you’re a clean eater like I am, feel free to shove this article in the faces of people who continue to diss what you love.
Myth #1: Clean Eating Is Undefined
This is by far the biggest criticism I hear about clean eating. It’s also a complete lie.
Tosca Reno is largely responsible for resurrecting clean eating with her 2007 book, The Eat Clean Diet. There are different interpretations of clean eating, but this is the one I follow.
I actually found out about The Eat Clean Diet in Oxygen Magazine. Having never seen a magazine geared towards regular women who wanted to build muscle, I was in awe when I found this mag in 2008. As a novice lifter, I had relied on Muscle & Fitness to gain weightlifting knowledge. But I just couldn’t get my head around doing the same routines as massive bodybuilding titans.
After reading a few issues of Oxygen, I became curious about this “clean eating” thing Tosca Reno and Jamie Eason kept talking about. I pondered Robert Kennedy’s columns about transforming your life through nutrition. I later discovered that Kennedy was spot on: I never uttered a word of regret after integrating effective nutrition methods into my life.
Since becoming a personal trainer, I don’t need these types of magazines anymore. But I still believe in the things Oxygen teaches.
The basic idea that transformed my quality of life? Eat whole, minimally processed foods whenever possible.
I’ve adapted Reno’s principles from The Eat Clean Diet to my own lifestyle and to my clients’ lifestyles. Check out the following top-level ideas; there are many other components of eating for your ultimate health and weight.
Principles of Clean Eating
- Aim to eat nutrient-dense foods in their most natural state.
- Avoid refined, commercially packaged foods that are high in fat, sugar, sodium, and other additives.
- Combine lean proteins and complex carbs at most meals.
- Include healthy fats in moderation.
- Eat consistently throughout the day.*
- Read food labels.
- Eat clean 80-90% of the time and use the rest for special occasions (no guilt!).
- Be prepared and plan ahead.
- Eat plenty of fiber.
- Limit soda, juice, and alcohol.
- Manage portions.
- Drink enough water.
*Notice that I didn’t say “eat every two to three hours.” How often you eat is highly individual. The main point is not to allow yourself to get too hungry, which can lead to binging on whatever crap you can get your hands on (been there). I also think we can’t generalize that everyone should eat breakfast, since there are situations when it might be beneficial or necessary to skip it.
Perhaps clean eating’s bad reputation is tied to its use in bodybuilding world. In their interpretation, a strict regimen of eating and lots of sacrifice means winning on stage. But that’s obviously a great use of clean eating for them.
These principles are the foundation of most smart nutrition strategies, by the way. Which leads me to my next point.
Myth #2: Other Dietary Methods Are More Flexible
It’s always a contest, isn’t it? Whose way is better.
I’ve seen coaches say that because flexible dieting is – wait for it – based on whole, minimally processed foods that includes variety and even treats now and then, it’s far more flexible and realistic than clean eating.
As my preteen daughter would say, okeeee.
Flexible dieting is sometimes called If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM). This method is supposedly more flexible than clean eating, because you can eat pop tarts and ice cream every day as long as it fits into your daily fat, protein, and carb goals.
But health-conscious people know very well that not all foods are created equal. If you eat MacDonald’s every day, you’re getting much more saturated fat than recommended, along with a huge dose of overly processed, salt-laden food.
Most flexible dieters have distanced themselves from this interpretation, however. (Yes, flexible dieting can be interpreted in different ways, just like with clean eating! Imagine the fuck outta that.) With both flexible dieting and clean eating, you choose to eat foods closest to their natural state most of the time. That’s because doing so helps you both lose weight and maintain better health.
With clean eating, flexible dieting, Paleo, or any method, you can use fresh ingredients without additives to create almost any dish (and it doesn’t have to be time-consuming or complex). When you eat out (and yes, you can eat out), you simply follow the same principles and choose nutrient-dense dishes over additive-laden, calorie-dense foods.
So when you drill down, most critics and clean eaters actually agree about most things. I’ll bet that many coaches advise their clients to prep food ahead, too, because this is a smart strategy for success that isn’t specific to clean eating.
I see many nutritional approaches out there that are doable. I might take some aspects of one system and leave the rest. Criticizing other methods assumes you know what’s better for me than I do. And that’s just arrogant.
Myth #3: Clean Eating Requires Rigid Tracking
Not to pick on IIFYM, but according to many of those websites, you must weigh and track every single thing you eat for months while closely monitoring your macro percentages.
Wait – won’t tracking every gram of protein you put in your mouth give you an eating disorder?
Oh, ok. That’s only true of clean eating.
Ironically, tracking your food is not even a characteristic of clean eating. I use food tracking with clients to help them gain awareness around what they eat and to learn how much to eat for their goals. I also track food myself two or three times a year as a spot check. But mostly, we all need to learn how to manage portions and eat intuitively. That’s the goal, after all.
Myth #4: Clean Eating Is About Deprivation and Sacrifice
Critics like to talk about how clean eating only lets you eat broccoli and chicken breasts for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and your post-workout snack, too.
But while bodybuilders in contest prep mode may rely on these foods exclusively, the typical clean eater eats a wide variety of tasty foods. There are thousands of cookbooks for preparing flavorful, delicious dishes with whole ingredients using herbs and spices; omega-3 fats; fruits and vegetables; whole grains; beans and legumes; fish, poultry, pork, and beef; and low-fat cheeses and nonfat yogurt.
Now… about eating ONLY non-commercially prepared foods, which is a related myth I’m including here:
Yes, sure, ok – there are clean eating proponents out there who refuse to eat anything that is commercially processed. They eat only organic, GMO-free foods and cook every damn thing from scratch. There’s always been people out there who do that, even in the 1960’s. But that’s not what clean eating is to me.
I try to choose the least-processed option. For example, I eat rolled oats, not steel-cut, because, well, that’s more fucking convenient for me. I eat plain, non-fat Greek yogurt instead of flavored yogurt. My choices have evolved over the years, and I’m still evolving.
Once you learn to cook with whole ingredients and lose your taste for highly refined foods, cherry tomatoes start tasting like candy. Once you see how much better you feel and look when you avoid refined, greasy foods, you choose to eat clean all the time. It’s not a chore, it’s a way of life.
Myth #5: Clean Eating Causes Eating Disorders and Orthorexia
I’ve saved this one for last, because it’s the most disturbing of all clean-eating criticisms.
Maybe someone you know – or even you – has struggled with an eating disorder or orthorexia. Obsessing over food or obsessively tracking, measuring, or even scrubbing food must be a hellish existence. If this was or is you, I’m truly empathetic.
But to the critics who say clean eating causes these disorders:
You can’t blame light switches for causing people to turn them on and off over and over. And you can’t blame a way of eating for causing obsessive eating.
But the critics do this all the time.
It’s also pretty clear that labeling foods as dirty or clean isn’t a very healthy attitude towards food. If you do this, please stop. Foods are not good or bad… you just need to know which ones make you hum like a rock star and eat the right amounts of them.
Incidentally, in case it’s not obvious to the naysayers, the word “clean” in clean eating is used in a similar way as the phrase, “good, clean fun.” You know – wholesome.
Instead of demonizing foods, I have an automatic, internal checklist that I use as a compass.
Clean Eating Internal Checklist
Will this food:
- Fuel me adequately?
- Make me feel good as opposed to crappy?
- Support my health?
- Suit my macronutrient goals?
As you can imagine, after years of eating clean, this thought process is completely automatic now. Effortless and easy!
Semantics and Making People Wrong
I could go on, but let’s face it: It’s convenient, fun, and “hip” to put down clean eating and clean eaters. It’s a great way to be in the cool crowd… it gets you lots of nods and likes… and it’s easy to do.
But to quote fitness expert and author Tom Venuto,
“Ultimately, what clean eating means is up to you to define. Whether your beliefs and values have you restrict or expand on the general definition, define it you must, keeping in mind that your definition may be different than other’s.”
How we eat is one of the most personal things about us. Our unique tastes, beliefs, health history, memories, perceptions, and experiences influence what and how much we eat. A fight about whose method is healthier, of all things, is useless. I’ve spent a lot of time here defending clean eating, but in the end, does it really matter what it’s called? We all want the same thing: To have the best health possible, to look our best, and to enjoy the hell out of food.
What Do You Think?
Is time to retire the term clean eating? Let me know what you think. And as always, if you enjoyed this post, please share it. I appreciate you.
This article originally appeared on www.workoutnirvana.com.