Clean Eating: Why I Still Call it a Scam

Image Credit: Carolyn Coles

Upon diligent reflection of last week’s emotionally-charged article headline on the sultry subject of clean eating, I believe it’s only fair to expand a bit more on why I believe clean eating to be a faulty concept and nothing but a false belief limiting the minds of many.

The context of this belief and its impact on the individual can render positive or negative, but it all boils down to the individual and their underlying, deep-seated ideals buried in the depths of their consciousness.

First of all, almost immediately after I hit publish last Monday, I noticed some traffic from the bodybuilding.com forums and thought to myself, “Oh, cool, someone really enjoyed the article.  I’m glad they decided to share it.”

I never expected I’d receive a lesson on people’s inability to comprehend what they read as well as how a headline with a few carefully-selected words could immediately send someone into a defensive fury.  Thus, it’s obvious that a first impression, ie: me calling clean eating a scam, altered their ability to remain objective enough to read and analyze the information for themselves.

Call me a mind controller.

If you were (un)fortunate enough to find the thread, you’d notice hundreds of responses in which you’d harbor no doubt that most people either couldn’t get past the headline or are just plain illiterate.

It’s as if they’d already made up their mind about the body of the content and there was no swaying their opinion.

I received some hate-mail, many comments and even an entire blog post written about the article and how I was wrong with my attempt at demonizing such a wonderful concept.  Even if you read the comment section here, you’ll be able to spot a few who obviously didn’t read the article – or if they did, their preconceived judgments shunted their ability to think rationally and they felt the need to project their personal beliefs on myself and others.

The evidence is clear because there seems to be no middle ground with regards to the responses.  I either received reinforcement for taking my usual, moderate stance, or I was assumed to be some internet attention-whore.

I will say part of my mission was accomplished as my well thought-out headline garnered the attention I was after.  However, I find myself in slight disappointment that so many can’t set their emotions aside for a moment to consider another viewpoint for more than five seconds.

While I never intended to write this one, I feel it’s absolutely necessary to push the envelope a bit further.  After all, the real reason I write is to give back to the fitness community that’s given so much to me.

Let’s get to the good stuff.

I Never Advocated a Diet Full of Ding-Dongs and Twinkies

First off, I’d like to get a small moment of silence for a small Twinkie break and state the following:

I NEVER, EVER ADVOCATED A DIET FULL OF JUNK.

Stop.  Look above and read that again.  Stop once more and read it, yet again.  Better?

However, you wouldn’t know this if you only read some of the comments here and on the bodybuilding.com forums.  First, let’s start with this comment*.

The simple fact of the matter is that the QUALITY of calories you put in your body matters just as much as the quantity. You can eat 500 calories in veggies or 500 calories in candy bars. Guess which one will give you the best nutrition?

Here’s a perfect example of taking something out of context.  I agree – a diet full of junk would be a very bad idea.  A bowl full of veggies is going to provide many more micronutrients, more satiety and more fiber than a candy bar will.  But I never stated someone should make their diet nothing but processed junk.  I merely suggested it’s no big deal to work these foods into your diet if you want to.

She also makes a statement about diabetes and how junk food contributes to the disease.  While I agree that a diet full of junk food is often in correlation with type 2 diabetes, it’s not necessarily the causation.  Many other factors must be taken into account, such as activity levels, body weight, body fat, and whether or not they are genetically predisposed to such a dreadful fate.

As per the context issue – many responses on the forums were similar.  It seems near impossible for folks to take a middle-of-the-road approach; evidently it has to be all or nothing.  It’s either a diet full of cakes and candy or a diet full of super clean food and no treats whatsoever.

Now this leads to my second point.

No one could ever define for me what a clean food is.  Well except for Alan; he did take a few jabs at it and I think he might be onto something.  He said it best here:

When I say I don’t do cardio, I’m really just kidding myself because I spend at least 6 hrs a day scrubbing my food.

He proves my point exactly.  There is no such thing as clean eating as it’s too fluid of a concept – there are no facts.

Speaking of facts (if you really care about them), check out his AARR if you want nothing but practical information you can use and abuse.  The writing is both witty and eloquent.  The cut of his jib is just right.

So, What is Clean Food?

What does the term mean, really?

Does clean mean that you eat only organics?
Does it mean you only prepare your food a certain way?
What constitutes a clean meal?
Is it still clean if you combine fat and carbohydrates?
Is a steak unclean because it contains saturated fat?
Is a McDonald’s burger less clean than a burger from a fancy restaurant?
Are vegetarian and ­clean-eating synonymous?

The questions are endless and guess what?  We’ll never have a clear-cut answer.

Why?  Because the answer is subjective and clean eating has a different meaning for everyone.

Need proof?  Just watch this video (will open in a new tab; just hit pause – stay with me here).

To summarize the video, it seems clean eating means to eliminate most processed foods from the diet and to focus on natural, whole foods with an emphasis on eliminating animal fats and fast food.

In general, for long-term health, I think these ideas are at least on the right path.

However, let’s look at some of the ideas she expressed and dissect what she’s attempting to convey.

First she mentions the importance of choosing carbohydrates in their healthiest form and to focus on good fats as opposed to bad fats.  So for her, the good fats are your typical unsaturated sources coming primarily from plant sources.  She mentioned eating fish (source of omega 3’s) and chicken (preferably white meat) due to how lean these choices are and for aiding in the reduction of saturated fat consumption.

However, I don’t believe reduction of saturated fat is all it’s cracked up to be.  The impact of saturated fats seems to be largely dependent on the individual’s lifestyle, level of fitness, genetics and their current diet.  Heck, just look at some of the Paleo folks who live on fatty cuts of red meat, heavy cream and cheese.  Many of them are very fit, active and have the awesome lipid profiles to boot.

Then she mentions something that threw me off for about a minute.  She said we have to stick to “low-gluten” foods and then stated it’s important to eat “low-gluten” fruit.  Uhhh, no fruits (in their natural form) contain any gluten.  Gluten is only found in grains, pasta, wheat products, etc.

Then she mentioned some other products to avoid and I knew what she meant to say was “low-GI.”  So it’s clear she just got her terminology mixed up.  No big deal.

And this is where I have a major problem with this type of mindset.  She went onto label watermelon as a bad choice and peaches as a good choice based on the glycemic index.  Now I want to ask one question.  Since when should a fruit ever be labelled as bad or unhealthy?

Thanks to my friend Alan Aragon, we now know that the glycemic index is fairly complicated and nothing to get too worked up about.

Here is where my concern really begins to grow for those in the fitness community.  Why would we ever label a whole, natural food that is full of vitamins, minerals and energy as something that is bad for us?

She also makes mention of the idea of restricting carbohydrates after 6 p.m. and to limit fruit or other carbohydrates to the morning or around her workouts.  As we all know by now, as long as we’re in a neutral calorie balance, we cannot evade the laws governing thermodynamics.  Just look at this or this.

And finally, while she speaks of clean eating as a means of eliminating processed foods, she mentions in the end about the difficulty she experiences hitting her protein requirements, thus she opts for a protein powder to fill in the gaps.

(Queue suspenseful music)

What does she do here?  She makes a rationalization to stray from the clean-eating ideals to fit her lifestyle. So at this point, she is actually breaking one of the rules she laid out for herself (and proselytizing to her viewers) early on.  Is this okay?  Is she still considered a clean-eater? Ehh, I suppose we won’t excommunicate her… just yet.

The only consistency with the concept of clean eating is that the ideas and viewpoints are always changing.  In fact, it’s common for people to make adjustments that suit their lifestyle and then make a rationalization as to why it’s okay.

It’s akin to some of the folks who follow a Paleo diet.  Some eat dairy, while others refer to it as the liquid death.  Some eat regular potatoes while others only eat tubers.  I really want to know who’s right.

And now, boys and girls, it’s time for an example.

Let’s take something simple like rice cakes.  To some people a rice cake is nothing but processed garbage and nutritionally void at best.  But when certain situations (like contest preparation) arise, they become a staple in their diet.  Don’t believe me – just check out this video in which all he eats leading up to a competition is ‘fish and a rice cake.’

Now as informed fitness enthusiasts, we know rice cakes are high on the glycemic index and are sure to send your insulin into a raging fury, shuttling everything you consume with them into your fat cells regardless of calorie balance.  It’s probably true as I read it in a magazine once.

Something we ought to think about here is whether or not he could eat a chicken sandwich or some steak and potatoes in lieu of the rather boring supply of fish and rice cakes.  My hunch tells me yes but an old belief I once cherished says “no way in hell” could he achieve the same results without being anal and overly restrictive.

Thankfully, I’ve evolved.  Oh and I believe you should open your mind, too.  I just had a conversation with a friend of mine and he fully agrees with me: the grass definitely is greener on the other side.

Clean Eating and why I Still Call it a Scam

Before anyone gets too touchy about ‘scam’ and ‘clean eating’ being in the same sub-heading, I’d like to talk about what a scam is.  To scam means to cheat or to deprive by deceit.

And since I feel clean-eating is nothing more than a false belief, I believe it’s robbing and deceiving some people from many social joys they could be experiencing.

If it’s not that, it’s robbing them of some mental freedom they could experience by loosening up a bit.

What do I mean exactly?

Well, when you decide not to have pizza with your buddies for fear being unable to count your calories or because you’re absolutely positive that pizza has a little trans-fat, you’re missing out on a good time.

When you make up excuses about why you can’t take your girlfriend to Ben and Jerry’s for ice cream once or twice per month, you’re letting a false belief about this particular food get the best of you.  Who knows?  It might be keeping that guy from taking the next step with this girl.

When your mind floods with worry, fear and, preoccupations about whether or not you should have that burger your co-worker brought in for you while waiting on your last-minute flight, you’re giving into a pressure that doesn’t have to exist.

IT DOESN’T HAVE TO RULE YOU.

All this talk about clean eating is merely an imaginary concept.  It starts in the mind is nothing but a rationalization.  It’s different for everyone and to some (like me), it becomes a controlling and limiting belief.

If you don’t believe me, fine.  Let’s look into what Tom Venuto has to say about words and their meanings.

In his book, The Body Fat Solution, Tom voices many truths about how the chaos in our brains affects our results.  Our reality is based on our perception and our perception is based on the way in which we view something.  In this case, it’s how we view and label certain foods.

For some, our attitude toward food has been tarnished because we believe clean food to be bland and boring while dirty food is everything we crave.  And since we’ve garnered such a belief, we’re often very pissed off.

Have we always felt this way?  Probably not.  So how did it happen?

There was a paradigm shift – some moment in time, we listened to someone’s ideas about whatever and it made sense, or so we thought it did.  After some more reading and research, beliefs and ideas about this clean-eating situation became concrete and hardwired into our psyche.

Feelings of guilt poured over us if we felt the temptation to buy a tub of ice cream as we passed it on our way to the produce section.

If we stop for a second and ponder when these feelings originated, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact time, but they’re there.

I know this doesn’t affect everyone but it does affect many who have become obsessed with something that is nothing more than a false perception.  To change perception, we will ultimately have to change our attitude.

To quote Tom from the chapter Attitudes and Beliefs that Set the State for Success:

“Changing your attitude is a simple matter of changing the way you look at things.  Zooming in on the details, getting the big, panoramic picture, or seeing things from the other side can sometimes change everything.”

While this sounds simplistic, it’s very powerful.  If you can, for just a moment, be completely objective about your feelings toward food and think back to what it must have been like before bodybuilding or any interest in fitness came about, the concept of clean eating never existed.

Sure, there were no processed foods like we have today, but they still had heavy cream, butter, fatty cuts of meat (bacon, sausage), white rice (Asian cuisine) and multiple other foods people today won’t touch for fear of it spiking their insulin or making them grow eyeballs in funny places.

I can’t be too sure, but I’m willing to bet folks 100 years ago had little to no preoccupations with their energy source (read: food).

A Bit About Beliefs

In the same chapter I quoted above, there’s a section titled: “What Are Beliefs?”

I’ve done my fair share of personal development writing and Tom really impressed me with the info he presented in this book.

I love what he said about beliefs:

“Beliefs are not facts.  They’re only interpretations of value judgments you make about yourself, your experiences, and the world around you.  Think of beliefs as mental software installed in your brain that takes in raw data through your senses and then applies meaning to it.”

As I see it, this is my take on why clean-eating is a concept as opposed to something concrete.  Why?  Because there is no single definition for it.

As I mentioned in earlier examples, everyone has formed their own meaning.  Therefore, I’d rather teach folks how to incorporate their favorite foods into their diet, develop a healthy relationship with their cheeseburger, and free themselves from incessant worrying often associated with the clean-eating mentality that’s often present and even projected onto others.

I hate to say it, but what the hell?  The personal projection is often in a condescending or elitist tone.  Yea, some people just get a kick out of feeling superior to their peers for putting only clean food into their bodies.

Lastly, I’d love to illustrate my point again using another one of Tom’s examples.

On pages 51-52, Tom makes this wonderful statement:

“Low-carb diets, for example, have legitimate fat-loss benefits such as decreasing appetite and controlling insulin.  Unfortunately, when someone is successful with a low-carb diet, they often take on dogmatic and inaccurate beliefs.  For the rest of their lives, they might look at almost all carbohydrates as fattening and since they counted carbs, not calories, they often think that calories don’t count, a dangerous and false belief.  But try convincing a formerly obese low-carb dieter of that (it’s about as easy as getting them to change their religion).”

You see?  We’re merely talking about a strong belief, not a fact.

Health and Body Composition

I never wished to cover this but I will since it came up in the bodybuilding.com thread.  Since we know the laws of thermodynamics do ring true, we know the only factor required to lose weight is a calorie deficit.

So, as long as one’s diet was sufficient in protein and the rest of their energy needs were met with Snickers bars, they’d still drop body fat just as effectively as someone on a similar, protein-rich diet, but with whole food instead of candy bars.

I don’t think anyone would disagree with that.

However, I do want to make something clear that I may not have made clear in the other article.  There’s a HUGE difference between fitting a candy bar or a bowl of Apple Jacks into your daily diet and creating an entire diet of junk food.

The difference is moderation as opposed to the all-or-nothing approach so many appear to be enraged about.

So here is my rule of thumb for myself and for personal clients.  First, set your protein intake.  Then set your calories.  Get a good dose of EFA’s and make sure to consume 2-3 pieces of fruit, a few servings of veggies and a multivitamin daily.

Once these needs are met, I am only concerned you meet your energy requirements.  Now I always suggest that we opt for whole foods, preferably rice, potatoes, fruit, veggies, etc.  But we all know those choices can get a little bland or boring at times.

And that’s perfectly okay.  If you wish to have a few pieces of pizza or your favorite burger for dinner, just work them into your diet.  Move some macros around and don’t worry about it.

Again, while I’d never advocate a diet rich in junk food, there have been some very interesting case studies.

The McDonald’s Diet
First we have Chazz Weaver’s McDonald experiment that many in the forum chose to ignore.  I’ve linked to the last part of his log here.  For thirty days Chazz ate nothing but McDonalds for all meals.  He maintained his regular exercise routine and counted calories to ensure a caloric deficit.

Guess what?  He lost 8 pounds and all his blood lipids improved.

The Twinkie Diet
Then we have a more recent experiment in which Mark Haub, Professor of Human Nutrition at Kansas State University, who underwent a diet full of junk food and snack cakes.  Oh yea, he’s eating a daily dose of veggies to get some actual nutrients.  At least he’s having some clean food in his diet!

He’s been consuming less than 1800 calories per day, has lost about 10 pounds thus far and his blood work is improving.

AM I STATING OUR DIETS SHOULD BE FULL OF JUNK?

No, not at all.  But it does prove a point that we focus on a bunch of silly dogma that is mere minutiae in the end.

Our real focus should be on maintaining an active lifestyle that revolves around a healthy relationship with our food as opposed to worrying about the Snickers bar you’ve been secretly depriving yourself of.

Good Intentions and Why I Love the Fitness Community

For the most part, I think our intentions are pure and full of awesomeness.  I believe wholeheartedly that an active lifestyle accompanied by a healthy diet is paramount in leading a happy and fulfilling existence.

I do think we forget about the big picture too often and for many, it can lead down a road of destruction.  I’ve encountered more than I’d like to admit who’ve experienced an eating disorder shortly after they became obsessed with fitness and body composition.

I’ve even experienced a minor case of binge eating myself.

So yea, I’m not just rambling here.  I know what it’s like to be on both sides of the fence and believe me; the grass is much greener on the other side.

*No ill-will toward Tiffany.  I actually think you should check out her site for what looks like some pretty tasty recipes.


September 9, 2010
108 Comments.

  • Jenn Begay March 29, 2014

    I live this article!!!! Thank you!!!

  • Grant October 17, 2013

    i had to add a dirty, high carb desert after every (fairly clean) meal to get my carloies in. making sure you get lots of vitamins, minerals and epa/dha from food sources (sometimes supplements), will always be important, but beyond that, it’s all about the macros.

  • Nutritionally educated March 02, 2013

    P.s. Google the sceptical nutritionist when you get the chance. An interesting blog of discussions on a lot of food beliefs held by the public and health professionals, and based on scientific evidence.

  • Nutritionally educated March 02, 2013

    Thank you for reminding people about how personal food is. With so many listing rules about ‘clean eating’, people forget that everyone has a different relationship with food. The only rule people should follow with food is trying to keep it as nutritionally balanced as possible. Even nutrition students forget this because we all study too hard on the perfect diet. We get a shock going out on placement. Just because one particular diet quirk isn’t supported by scientific evidence, doesn’t always mean it’s harmful, (with plenty of exceptions). 
    (And just to be clear the ‘clean eating’, ‘paleo’, and other fad diets are not scientifically based, and certified dietitians and nutritionists do not support or condone these diets).
    I am encouraged that you promote a happy healthy relationship with food, and I am inspired to pursue this line of focus in my profession as well.  

    • JC Deen March 02, 2013

      Glad you liked the article. Thanks for the comment.

  • Mizz.Beccy January 02, 2013

    I agree with most of your stance. I have struggled with my weight most of my life, and the bottom line is that eating clean works. Recommending a few twinkies a month to me is much like recommending someone to try a little bit of meth. It is a neverending spiral. I know that for me, processed sugars are addictive. I am able to pin point the exact feeling (high) that I would achieve from a cake, a candy bar, a pastry. (Even as a write this). I believe that these simple sugars are addictive, and we should not recommend that anyone continue to consume these products. It may not have the same effect on every individual, but it is a matter of life and death for those it does.

    • JC Deen January 02, 2013

      comparing a twinkie to meth is crazy. They are nothing alike…

      You belief, is just that – a belief. It’s not true for everyone. I eat simple sugars every single day. Am I overweight and addicted to them? Not ta all.

  • gabrielle maston September 16, 2012

    I totally agree with this post. There is no clear cut definition to “clean eating”. Its a great example of how scientific literature gets misinterpreted by those who cherry pick information. I have seen in different forms some “clean eaters” cut dairy, eat organic, only allow a certain number of ingredients in one meal” Just crazy stuff. For starters I hope these “clean eating gurus” end up with osteoporosis due to lack of calcium for the great brain washing they have placed on unsuspecting victims who don’t know any better.
    Just one question… so if there is clean eating label for what I would term eating normal healthy food, is junk food dirty eating?? Labeling our food good/ bad, clean/dirty is bad for our mind psychology surrounding food. Can I suggest to people most of my eating disorder clients label their food the same way…
    Labeling food creates fear surrounding food, fear that your going to eat incorrectly and fall off your “diet”. Life is not a diet people!!! I will kiss the ground when people finally accept that food is just food, to be used at specific times. For both health, well being AND part of social occasional. Eating birthday cake socially is NORMAL it doesn’t make you a dirty food eater. It makes you human!

    • Sarah October 07, 2012

      Love your reply Gabrielle. I finally had my compulsive eating under control, and was at a healthy happy medium, until I read about “Clean Eating” four years ago. I was successful in achieving my body goals eating clean, a few times, but I gained 30 pounds 2 years ago due to another bad outbreak of bingeing brought on by stress and feeling bad for not eating clean. Got back on the wagon, lost the weight, did 2 competitions this year, got published in Oxygen magazine last week- my Clean Eating Bible… but have been unable to deal with only eating clean anymore. I’ve been reading and learning why what I took as gospel is wrong and I think I’m going to finally make it out of this and have a healthy relationship with food and my body again once and for all.

  • Erick June 19, 2012

    The HCG diet is a scam.

    Clean eating is not a scam. It is simply an approach to diet.

    If you don’t like it and it didn’t work for you, that is fine. Same thing happens with a lot of different approaches to diet. I’ve seen a lot of people try to do the 80/20 rule or 90/10 rule where they follow a plan 80 or 90 percent of the time and then relax and enjoy junk foods 10 or 20 percent of the time. Then it becomes a 70/30 or 60/40 when they get stressed or travel a lot for work, then it turns into 50/50 or 40/60, and at some point they just throw in the towel and binge for a while. Shall we call your approach to having pizza and fries occasionally a scam because it didn’t work out for some? It would be pretty similar to your calling clean eating a scam.

    • JC Deen June 19, 2012

      This is all a matter of semantics. you’re obviously tied to your beliefs as others are tied to theirs. Frankly, I don’t care what diet you choose, as long as it fits your lifestyle and you don’t shove it down others throats.

  • Ryan June 19, 2012

    “The difference is moderation as opposed to the all-or-nothing approach.”
    This should be stated at the beginning of most posts or in capitals somewhere, or just reiterated.

    Great post, fitness enthusiasts need to remember that we want to be fit and look good to enhance our life not destroy it! Balance is key and you could not of explained and backed this up better JC.

  • Alexis Sorensen June 14, 2012

    Amen. Awesome Post.

  • Steve October 03, 2011

    While I don’t necessarily agree wholeheartedly with clean eating being a scam, I do think people overdo it. I would guess that I eat more cleanly than most of the American population. To me dietary habits, along with exercise habits and just about everything else in life, is about choices. Or moderation as someone else put it. I understand that if I eat ice cream, choose to ingest it, I can either choose to burn it off, choose to pack it on, whatever. I don’t get how people miss that connection between what they are consuming vs. what they have to do to get fit, stay healthy, maybe pack on muscle or lose weight. I didn’t read all of the comments but did the op have a change of heart?

    • JC Deen October 03, 2011

      are you talking about Health Heather?

  • How to 'Look Great Naked'-With JC Deen | The Art of Physical Fitness October 02, 2012

    [...] of JC’s most popular articles, “Clean Eating: Why I Still Call it a Scam” and “I Don’t Want to Get Big and Bulky: Fitness Marketing and it’s Effect on [...]

  • How to Build Muscle and Clean Eating Wrap-Up July 13, 2012

    [...] article Clean Eating is a Scam and Why You Should Abandon It. I then followed that piece up with a part 2 and part [...]

  • Why You Should Never, Ever Give Up April 11, 2011

    [...] they get. Goodness, I remember how emails poured in during class right after I published the first Clean Eating article. After reading some of the stuff I did, most people would’ve stopped publishing [...]

  • Bret Contreras » Good Reads for the Week December 22, 2010

    [...] 84. Clean Eating is a Scam! by JCD [...]

  • My Response to the Twinkie Diet (kind of) | Athlete Creator November 08, 2010

    [...] Clean Eating: Why I Still Call it a Scam [...]