We've spoken in previous articles about the hit and miss nature of clean eating. Clean eating in summary categorises food as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and many adherents simply restrict themselves of certain foods by simply accepting or declining foods by the nutritional information, whether it is packaged or been processed from its natural form. This selection by way of categorisation is the focus rather than the caloric and macronutrient content itself.
Our Equalution client who transitioned from a restrictive eating style and experienced great fat loss results with a more scientific and balanced approach. She incorporates her favourite chocolate daily.
There are varying levels of clean eating ranging from the military-style regime that segments 6 meals with a handful of variety including egg whites, lean meats, a mountain of greens, unrefined carbohydrates such as brown rice and quinoa and those calorie-dense ‘healthy fats’ such as nut butters, nuts and coconut by-products. Portions are usually weighed out and consumed religiously 2-3 hours apart. On the other hand the paleo dieters will usually have similar practices yet deem the ‘clean carbs’ as forbidden and grains as the devil. So their preference and eating behaviours include a diet of nuts, seeds, in-season veggies, fish and meat. Holistic eaters will typically go for food in their most natural form and will opt for organic over ordinary as well as completely anti-packaging, anti-chemicals, anti-ingredients, anti-fun (just kidding, maybe fun but definitely no balance!).
So as you can see, clean eating is undefinable, it can’t be defined in black and white and it is a world painted largely by speculation, hearsay and unsupported by science. Many clean eaters will bang their heads against the wall thinking they’re doing all the ‘right’ things without reaping any benefits mentally or great results physically. Here’s where they tend to go wrong:
1. Failing to acknowledge calories.
All food has calories and no matter how nutrient-dense you believe it is or how close it is to its original form it has an energy intake that if consumed will contribute to your total intake of calories for that day. If you eat in excess from your maintenance calories then you will gain weight, if you eat in a deficit from your maintenance then fat loss will occur.
Where many clean eaters will go wrong is by failing to acknowledge the caloric intake in their clean meals and the total intake of their daily food choices. As a result, due to many of the most worshipped ‘clean foods’ being extremely calorie dense, some clean eaters will find themselves progressively gaining weight due to unawareness of caloric intake.
Avocado, chia seeds, nut butters, quinoa, brown rice, coconut oil, cacao nibs, salmon, raw vegan slices and protein balls are very calorie-dense foods and usually habitually consumed by a lot of clean eaters. While one of these foods won’t directly cause weight gain, a diet that is comprised of a collection of these foods in the wrong quantities can quite easily put you in a calorie surplus.
Let’s take the scenario of a 23 year old receptionist who trains 3 times a week and has a maintenance intake of 1750 calories. Here’s a typical clean eating diet, let’s see why it can be problematic in this context:
½ Cup Oats
Natural Protein Powder
Unsweetened Almond Milk
Organic Rice Cakes
Total: 2100 Calories
See why our 1750 maintenance example will now be putting on weight progressively in this surplus - regardless of how ‘clean’ her meals were?
2. Too much protein.
Many clean eaters overload on protein under the impression that it has no effect on weight gain and needs to be consumed in high quantities for optimal results and also good health. While it’s true that protein is an extremely important macronutrient in that it is responsible for performing crucial functions within all cells of the body as well as forming structural tissues such as muscle fibers and transporting other substances such as vitamins and minerals throughout the body(1).
However, consuming too much protein - which is possible and common amongst clean eaters - can be detrimental to your health. Eating too much protein can come at the expense of other macronutrient groups, cause weight gain through caloric surplus, kidney stress through the removal of more nitrogen waste products from your blood(2), dehydration as found in a study involving endurance athletes(3) and leaching of other bone minerals(4).
At first, a high protein diet can make maintaining a caloric deficit (if you’re in one) fairly painless, since protein is the most satiating macronutrient, in which having a fair amount can keep you fuller for longer. However the blandness which can affect adherence together with the health detriments can cause a range of issues affecting your attainment of results.
3. Too much fat.
The majority of clean eaters believe that carbohydrates are the real enemy and that we should be eating copious amounts of dietary fat every day if we want to be healthy, lean, and strong. Some believe that their body thrives off high fat and it is the key to fat loss. For a regular ‘sheep dieter’ who follows the diet of their idol with their dream body this can be problematic through misinterpretation.
If you get your quantities wrong in a high-fat diet you can be easily susceptible to a calorie surplus as fats account for 9 calories per gram as opposed to protein and carbs at 4 calories per gram… see the strife it can cause switching to this stream of dieting? Clean eating diets comprised of nuts and seeds, avocado, natural oils etc while the adherent is ‘winging it’ going off the ‘is it clean or unclean’ line of judgement, can lead to rapid weight gain due to ignorance of caloric intake.
While fats are essential in the diet and a low fat intake can be detrimental given they’re used in processes related to cell maintenance, hormone production and insulin sensitivity and are therefore recommended to make up 20-30% of your total daily intake, excess consumption may be problematic. There is speculation that high fat can increase testosterone and therefore increase muscle mass but this isn’t necessarily the case.
One study showed that men getting 41% of daily calories from fat had 13% more free testosterone than man getting just 18% of daily calories from fat(5) - hardly an increase given the difference in intake and still not enough to impact on muscle mass, and small fluctuations in free testosterone, up or down, don’t help or hinder muscle growth as proven in studies(6). When you increase fat intake to 30%+ of your daily calories, in order to make room for the fat there is usually a decrease in carbohydrate intake.
The reduction is usually quite a bit as a gram of fat contains over double the calories of a gram of carbohydrate. Reducing carbohydrates impairs performance in training and activity as well as the body’s ability to build muscle. And what are you gaining by adding the fats? Nothing but an insignificant increase in testosterone levels, which will have no direct benefit in terms of building muscle as well as increasing your calories and cutting yourself short of your required carbohydrates.
Aside from the potential surplus already caused by increasing your fats without moderating your calories, a high-fat diet can be particularly troublesome when you’re dieting to lose weight, because, as you know, this primes your body for muscle loss.
4. Fear of carbs.
Low carb diets have long been glorified in the diet industry. As a result, carbs have inherited a bad rap as leading to inevitable weight gain which has fuelled instructions to ‘cut back on carbs’, ‘eliminate breads, pastas and wholegrains’ and ‘avoid the whites’. Many clean eating diets will support this mantra with ignorance to the science behind fat loss.
In our article ‘The Truth About Carbs’ we busted myths relating to carbs causing insulin spikes making you gain weight, carbs at night making you fat, carbs being non-essential in the diet and toxicity of sugar. Clean eating diets tend to have a huge stigma against sugar in which many studies have put to the test by comparing groups eating a diet with the same macronutrient composition (same ratio of protein, fats and carbs) with only differing carb sources proving sugar as not interfering with fat loss(7). Some of the effects of cutting carbs are as follows:
Decreased thyroid output- T3 goes down, reverse T3 goes up, further blocking T3(8)
Increased cortisol output - Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress, such as the physical stress of exercise, studies have shown that cortisol increases particularly in those who train if carb restriction occurs(9)
Decreased testosterone - Lowered testosterone can affect overall body composition decreasing muscle mass and potential to gain muscle. Lowered testosterone can impact anabolic effects on muscle and also decrease basal metabolic rate (BMR). It's also important for overall health and well-being(10)
Impair mood and cognitive function
Muscle catabolism - Low carb diets can lead to muscle breakdown, due to severely lowered insulin levels
Hormonal deficiencies - Why a lot of women will not get their period while on a low calorie/carb crash diet
Suppressed immune function
Carbs are essential and without them your metabolism may slow, stress hormones increase and muscle building capacity decreases. So, in turn, this can have you feeling spaced-out, fatigued, sluggish, moody and even ill.
5. Categorising food.
Clean eating diets can facilitate a poor relationship with food due to the categorical nature by which an adherent will either allow or prohibit themselves from making certain food choices. In doing so it can resort to lack of socialising and increased isolation due to adherents feeling as though they ‘can’t’ eat certain things as it doesn’t fit within their small circle of food inclusions.
This type of paranoia towards food outside of ‘earthy categories’ simply isn’t healthy – both physically and psychologically. It’s not a sustainable way of eating or living. There is a disorder which diagnoses the obsession of clean eating as Orthorexia Nervosa. This doesn’t mean “don’t be health conscious”, it simply means that when it becomes an unwarranted obsession that leads to things like social isolation and fear of food etc, it is then a problem.
The main reason people fail when dieting in both adhering and seeing physical results is a lack of consistency. This inconsistency comes through boredom, feeling that the diet is simply too hard and also can’t be kept up, clean eating tends to tick all these boxes through the restraint of food choices. So it’s bound to happen when following a diet with lots of rules, that prohibits enjoyment of your favourite foods and eating how you want on a daily.
6. Binge eating.
Continuing from the behaviours mentioned above, many clean eaters due to the overwhelming restriction simply won’t be able to keep up their way of eating and will often cave to a binge. Binge eating has varying levels of severity and can be better explained in our article ‘Am I a Binge Eater?’. However extreme the adherent has the disorder or its frequency it is usually still triggered by similar emotions of feeling restrained by choice on a diet, restricted and deprived and down about the lack of results. Clean eating can accentuate these feelings and make the adherent vulnerable to binge eating episodes of chowing down all their favourite things as if they won’t be there tomorrow after they swear to be 100% as of the next day.
This is usually fuelled by a number of different ‘rules’ clean eaters stick by. Firstly there’s a preconceived thought that in order to keep the metabolism ‘firing’ you must eat every 2-3 hours, in turn a clean eater without calorie control can be susceptible to a calorie surplus by means of overeating within a day. On the other hand some clean eaters have an obsession with trying to get as much nutrients as possible into their day's worth of eating and as a result pack their meals with ‘too many things’ that can clock up calories.
8. Cheat days.
Here’s an excerpt from our article exploring whether your cheat meal is affecting your progress to put into perspective the interference of the calories in vs calories out principle of fat loss cheat days can make within a clean eating lifestyle. Firstly, those who follow a more restrictive clean diet as opposed to a flexible dieter will tend to feel the ‘need’ to have an indulgent day for cravings, sanity and fueling their motivation levels. However for someone that follows a science-based approach of making food they love fit within their intake requirements these urges are less existent and as a result they are far more consistent to a particular intake and overall adherence.
Many will put aside one day in which they will keep things relatively ‘clean’ but deviated from the usual regime and then finish it with a ‘cheat meal’. Let’s look at the effects of this if not done correctly and ‘winged’ like many do. If you’re dieting on a 200 calorie a day deficit at 1600 calories and your TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure) is 1800. Your ‘diet’ may look like this (in the context of a ‘clean eater’):
2x Burgen Rye Bread
1x Can of Tuna
Grilled Chicken Breast
Natural Peanut Butter
2x Rice Cakes
1x Protein Shake
So then it gets to Sunday… And ALL you want is a clean dine out breakfast and lunch and a burger, chips and some dessert for your cheat meal. Let’s do the math on that:
2x Poached Eggs
2x Slices of Sour Dough
1x Skim Cap
1x Protein Shake
1x Superfood Salad- Chicken, chickpeas, quinoa, kale, chia seeds
1x Lean Beef Burger
Side of Chips
1x Slice of Cake
Not too bad right? 3200 Calories... making the weekly daily intake average 1830 calories...
Understand how fat gain can occur and/or maintained and staggered results?
Whether clean eating or flexible dieting the maths is inarguable. An excessive surplus day can average out your week of being in a calorie deficit which can put you either in maintenance or surplus hindering fat loss and results.
9. Cutting and eliminating food and food groups.
Similar to categorising food, cutting and eliminating food and food groups is problematic for the simple science that if you can’t have it a little bone in your body will be dying to have it. If a clean eater loves cheese but has ruled themselves out of having diary then they inevitably will be counting down the day to have cheese again.. And when it comes, there’s no saying how or what inner strength will be called upon to stop at a ‘reasonable’ portion. Cutting and eliminating food and food groups - particularly in the context of dairy- can also reap the adherent of potential health benefits physically and psychologically of having an all-rounded balanced and moderated diet.
10. One size fits all approach.
The health and fitness industry - made worse by social media and traditional media sources - has done a detrimental amount of damage by brainwashing the ‘normal’ person with fitness inspirations that live a life of ‘clean, wholesome and holistic’ food choices and in turn sports a ripped physique and washboard abs.
Why won’t this work for you? For starters, the vast majority of fitness models and influencers are subject to high training schedules, paid sponsorships in which they spend countless hours getting shoot ready - because at the end of the day it is their job, and in some cases performance-enhancing drugs. That’s not to say that all great motivators are not genuine but it is to say that their methods are likely not suitable for you.
Why? Because you aren’t them. Their body composition, activity level, age, height, gender etc may not all be the same as yours and as a result your body may require a different amount of caloric intake in order to be able to lose body fat. As well as this, many competitors have underlying issues regarding their relationship with food and eating disorders in which their all or nothing approach is what works for them.
So, they don’t touch foods outside of the clean foods they eat 95% of the time because deviating from that may be a downward spiral of binging or uncontrolled eating. The health and fitness industry has done a good job at muddling the importance of what should primarily be focused on if you’re trying to achieve a physique goal. It will generally emphasise things like meal timing, ultra-clean eating, supplementation and cardio rather than the SCIENCE which is first and foremost calories, macros and energy expenditure. It can’t be argued that the principle of any body transformation comes down to energy in vs. energy out.
Clean eating, in summary, is a scam. It’s a scam that’s promoted by athletes, coaches, trainers, doctors, government officials, schools, diet book authors, and pretty much everyone else who eats on the basis of fear, little scientific knowledge and resources and little regard for calories in vs calories out for fat loss. Aside from the little scientific support it has no objective definition.
While it may be the case that some people may just like that way of eating - that is absolutely fine, just do not do it out of necessity, at the expense of having balance in other areas of your life and especially without enjoyment. Many people who hinder themselves with rigid dietary rules also have a more difficult time maintaining a healthy weight.
Food doesn’t make you gain fat - over-eating food makes you overweight(11). Eating some of your calories from less nutrient-dense sources is not going to give you a nutrient deficiency and there is no evidence that any food directly damages your health in moderate amounts in every situation.
You can be careful about your diet and intake, which you should be, however there’s no reason you need to avoid any specific food to achieve optimal health, a lean body composition, and maximum longevity. Balance and moderation are what’s important, and what constitutes both of these terms depends on the mentality of who’s eating the food and how much they’re eating.
Have your cake and eat it too, all within your intake requirements.References: 1. http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/handbook/howgeneswork/protein
7. Metabolic and behavioural effects of a high-sucrose diet during weight loss. Surwit RS, Feinglos MN, McCaskill CC, Clay SL, Babyak MA, Brownlow BS, Plaisted CS, Lin PH. Am J Clin Nutr. 1997 Apr;65(4):908-15.