Clean Eating is a Scam and Why You Should Abandon It

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Clean Eating

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Clean eating – it’s a term we’ve all used and have surely heard a million times.  We’ve stumbled upon it in the magazines, seen it in our favorite diet books and have probably even heard it on TV.  Heck there’s even a magazine titled Clean Eating.

Now I have no problem with the magazine – the recipes are great(love them, by the way) and the pictures are something I enjoy looking at.  I do, however, have a problem with the negative connotation it presents to the minds of many health and fitness enthusiasts and even some professionals unwilling to consider other ideas.

The first thing I want to ask is this: what exactly does clean eating mean?

Most everyone will have somewhat of a different answer to the question. And every answer all boils down to some kind of belief system they’ve created – how they view certain foods. One person, perhaps a Paleo dieter, might actually say that fresh orange juice is off limits because it has too much sugar. However, they might feel a piece of fruit is okay, even though the amount of fructose and sucrose is very similar when comparing the fruit and the OJ.

Another example is someone who labels whole grain foods clean and foods like white bread dirty or off limits.  While the whole grains may have a bit more nutrients or fiber, the impact is minimal and hardly an issue as long as your diet isn’t completely out of whack.

And then we have the group of people who label all foods with any kind of preservatives of chemicals in them as completely off limits only until they get a craving for something or decide to compromise and have that bag of Oreo’s anyway.

As I mentioned earlier, it all boils down to a belief – whatever one believes to be good or clean and bad or a cheat meal. I don’t particular care for such a mindset because it’s very limiting.

While I don’t believe this to be true for everyone, for many who adhere strictly to the clean-eating principles, it cripples our relationship with food and can have a negative effect our social lives.  For some, it has much steeper consequences.  An obsession with clean eating and meal timing can be the cause for dysfunctional eating down the road for those with such tendencies.

I cannot say that clean eating is the cause of any particular eating disorder, but my hunch tells me ideas behind the concept are partly responsible for many health and fitness folk developing a tragic relationship with their cheesecake.

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An Obsession in the Making

Keep in mind, the following section is a personal story. I live a very relaxed life these days, but in the beginning, I was quite obsessed with my diet and fitness regimen.

In my first year of college, I was very fortunate to get involved with a great group of people the opening weeks of class.  Most of these people also happened to be very physically active like myself and enjoyed competition as much as I did.

It turned out that every year a little contest was held during a student conference over Christmas break.  It was secret and non-commercial.  They labelled it the “best-body competition” although it had no formal name. I was invited to compete.

The cost was $60 to enter and there were about 15-20 participants.  There was first, second and third place prize money to be had and I made up my mind to be a placing contestant.

At the time of my joining, I was pretty chunky.  I was still athletic as I continued the resistance training I participated in for football but I really needed to lose about 35+ pounds to have a shot at this thing.

So what did I do?  Just like most everyone does, I scoured the internet and every magazine for all the info on clean eating and losing body fat that I could find.  Many of my sleepless nights spent searching were successful as I found a ton of information to get me very lean.

So for about 3 months straight, I put my new found knowledge to good use.  I ate 6-7 small meals daily, all of which contained about 30-40g of protein, fiber, healthy fat and some form of clean carbohydrate. In this context, clean meant foods such as brown rice, whole wheat bread, sweet potatoes and lots of oatmeal.

What couldn’t I have? Everything from table sugar, to milk, to most fruits (due to GI index, which is complete bunk), and to anything white (rice, bread, potatoes).

I trained on the weights about 4-5 times all the while doing 20+ miles on the elliptical or treadmill every 7 days.  Smell a disaster?

Weekly schedule
Up at 7 to do my cardio.
Breakfast right after.
Class.
Weights after class.

In all reality, the only reason I believe I didn’t burn out had to be a result of my previous athletic conditioning and from the sheer amount of food I was eating.

I had an unlimited meal pass to the cafeteria, therefore in between classes, I used to roll in and grab some lean protein and a few pieces of fruit (bananas mostly) for a snack.  All my meals were deemed clean as I ate lots of egg whites (cholesterol is bad, so I thought), bland brown rice (no MSG from seasoning), oatmeal (not the packets either), cottage cheese, steamed broccoli (no butter), the occasional spoon of natural peanut butter and dry chicken breast.   The diet was miserable as I watched all of my friends eat greasy pasta, ribs and ice cream cones – they were as active as I was and in fairly decent condition, too.

While I never counted calories (I didn’t know how at the time), I’d guess I was eating between 2500 and 3000 calories on most days.  Some days were well above 4000 calories (when I would binge out of deprivation).  Keep in mind I was walking everywhere, training twice daily and always attended social functions (standing, dancing, lots of moving about).

To cut myself short, the moral of the story is this.  I lost a good 35-40 pounds in both fat and muscle and got the 2nd place prize money.  This was also the very first time in my life that I’d ever seen a full row of abs when gazing into the mirror.

And here is where it gets dark.

I was obsessed with this lifestyle.

But before we get into what I went through, let’s first establish what clean eating means to some people and why it makes no sense – no matter how you look at it.

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Clean Eating Exposed

While there is no real basis as to what constitutes a clean and a dirty source of food, the idea is still prevalent to this day.  Allow me to educate you on why this faulty type of thinking stands firm.

I have no clue where the concepts came about or who originally coined these terms but I think they’re awful and here’s why.

Typically, clean foods are considered to be whole, unprocessed, low-calorie choices and dirty foods tend to be higher in calories, full of flavor, the occasional man-made compounds such as artificial sweeteners or trans-fats, and they’re only acceptable every once in a while (and for some – NEVER).

Many people think that clean eating will produce the muscle gain and fat loss results you want, while a diet full of dirty food will give you subpar results at best.  However, this makes no sense when looking at the macro composition of foods that are often referred to as clean or dirty.

If I were to sit the stereotypical, fitness junkie down for a flash card test, in which he/she labelled foods as dirty or clean based upon a picture, this is likely how I imagine it would go.

Flash Card: Pizza
Fitness Junkie: Dirty
Flash Card: Tomatoes, olives, shredded cheese, onions, beef
Fitness Junkie: Clean

Flash Card: Stir fry with white rice
Fitness Junkie: Dirty
Flash Card: Brown rice, broccoli, asparagus, chicken
Fitness Junkie: Clean

Flash Card: White bread
Fitness Junkie: Dirty
Flash Card: Whole grain, wheat bread
Fitness Junkie: Clean

Without further ado, I’m certain you get the point.  And here’s why it makes no sense.

Let’s take a pizza pie for example.  I love pizza and I love even more so to make my own at home.  I eat the same foods day in and day out so spicing up my diet with something like a fresh pizza is always a treat.

The typical ingredients for a pizza are dough, crushed tomatoes, cheese, meat (beef, pork, chicken), olive oil, lots of veggies and sometimes fruit like pineapple.  All of these foods by themselves are typically deemed clean by the informed fitness enthusiast.

Combine them for an awesome pizza pie and you have a solid, tasty meal.

We’ve garnered some sort of negative connotation with these foods that are traditionally higher in calories mainly because of the fast-food way of preparing them (lots of oil and other high fat items) but in reality, there is nothing different about the macro composition.

And this is why many people will allow their social lives to take a nosedive – all because of some false belief that a slice or two of pizza will make their waistline expand but an equal caloric amount of brown rice and chicken won’t.

Sure, you have trans-fats, some extra sugar, and processed flour, but from an energy balance standpoint, it’s pretty much the same – one is just more calorie dense.

Now let’s take a look at how this myth began to cripple me.

How a New Hobby Turned into Mental Chaos

After the competition was finished, we headed over to the local 24-hour diner.  I ordered the fattest plate of eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, waffles, hash browns and cheesy grits you’ve ever seen.  It would’ve made Adam Richman (man vs. food) very proud.  If I had the money, I would’ve gotten the entire dessert menu for my appetizer.

For most, after long periods of clean eating, you’re supposed to have a cheat meal.  Mine was epic.  The mental anguish I experienced a few days later was more than I could bear.  After seeing a full row of abs completely blurred out as a result of the sheer amount of food and sodium I inhaled – I was in shock.  It was traumatizing to witness all of my hard work completely undone.

Little did I know that it was only water retention and I would return to normal a few days later.

Now when this happens I just brush it off because I know in a few days the water will flush out and I’ll return to my previous aesthetics.  Then, however, I had no such clue.

And this is where a bad cycle began.  All because of this view I had about clean eating and what I thought it was.

You see, at this point, the only smart thing to do would’ve been to cut back on the cardio, tone down the weight training for a few weeks and take a well-deserved break but I didn’t.

I fully believed in the go-hard-or-go-home approach, so I kept everything up.  Except this time, I was more devoted than ever.  I even started separating my meals into protein/carb and protein/fat portions for fear of fat storage.

What did this mean exactly?

It meant I was the only one abstaining from pizza during social outings.  It meant omitting the bun from my hamburgers during our Sunday evening cookouts.  It also meant I ordered the naked chicken tenders with water instead of enjoying the wings and beer with all my buddies at the bar.

It was all because of my obsession with the clean and unclean myth that plagues many fitness enthusiasts’ psyche even to this very hour.

Someone out there right now is worrying incessantly about whether or not to have some melted cheese on their chicken and rice when in the end, it doesn’t really matter as long as calories are controlled.

This went on for a period of time.  I wasn’t making progress and was tired of spinning my wheels.  Luckily, I found a coach who pointed me in the right direction.

The truth is, people like me, and many others have been on both sides of the fence and not just the clean eating side.  I’ve went through periods of time where all I ate was sugary cereal, and white bread for my carbohydrate sources with no ill-effect.  Nothing.  I didn’t magically gain any fat or lose any muscle.  I’d say the only real difference I noticed was a slight increase in hunger just because there’s very little fiber in those food choices and they’re easier (for me) to overeat, etc.

So yes, I know what it’s truly like to be married to a false concept.  I also know what it’s like to break that bond.  The grass really is greener over here, by the way.  Read my meal frequency article to understand what I mean.

Clean Eating and Cheat Meals – Don’t Get Caught Up

Finally, the last concept I want to mention is the cheat meal situation.  A cheat meal is usually a food that you’ve been abstaining from for whatever reason. It makes it really easy to overeat on those foods when we decide to have them.

But what are you accomplishing as a result?

Since most cheat meals, by nature, consist of a boatload of calories you’ve been depriving yourself of for weeks and even months, it does nothing for your long-term strategy.  The reason is because for many, the few days after a cheat meal (sometimes resulting in a binge) usually consist of excess exercise and a lack of nutrients.  After a few days of deprivation, you have the urge to cheat yet again.

A different approach would be to regularly include off-limit foods into your diet so you never really have to go off your diet. You’d simply just enjoy your favorite foods more often.

“Food is neither clean nor unclean, but merely energy my body needs to function and survive.”

That’s it.  If you look at it this way, there’s no reason you can’t fit a brownie in for dessert a few times per week.  By going about it this way, you eliminate the desire for a full-on cheat meal and you’ll prove to yourself that the clean eating concept is a made-up belief all along.

It doesn’t exist.

What do you think?

1/6/13 EDIT: I’ve since turned off comments on this article. It seems after 250+ comments, a video update, and 2 other follow-up articles, people are still caught up on their own belief systems, and can’t seem to look past a headline that rustles their jimmies. If you’re too caught up in your personal feelings about clean eating, or what it means to you on an emotional level, you might need to reconsider your relationship with food.

If you’re still hung up and wanna send hateful comments, or call me a moron, you more than welcome to by emailing me. also, read this article by Alan Aragon on the topic.


September 9, 2010
292 Comments.

  • Kendra January 04, 2013

    I don’t think Clean Eating or any diets are necessarily bad. However, anything that drastically restricts foods or meals can result in obsessive thinking and behavior. Personally, clean eating has worked wonders for me (weight loss, clearer skin, more energy, even better vision). Clean foods are foods in their natural form or as close to natural as possible. I don’t call any foods “dirty.” They are either processed or not. I don’t see Clean Eating as a diet. If you eat mostly clean, you’ll still lose weight and see the benefits. Choose fresh versions of foods instead of processed versions. But nothing is off limits. You can still have a donut or a slice of cake. Just don’t make all of your meals processed. Shoot for eating 80% clean and it will make a huge difference. I don’t see how making healthier choices is a scam.

    • JC Deen January 06, 2013

      never said making healthier choices is a scam. I merely called the idea of clean eating a scam because it’s just a false belief. it’s different for everyone. and no, just eating ‘clean,’ whatever that means, does not ensure weight loss and that you’ll see ‘benefits.’

  • Piper January 01, 2013

    I admit…..I am a clean eater! I agree with the author’s premise that we shouldn’t be labeling things as “bad” or “dirty” but I think its important to be mindful of what you are putting into your body. Nothing is really bad in moderation but let’s face it….there are a lot of foods that you should avoid because they’re unhealthy. I try to avoid white foods (white flour and sugar) simply because they don’t have the nutritional value I’m looking for. Sticking with 100% whole grains and other brown food is giving me the nutrients I need. Eating items as close as possible to their natural state is healthier than eating highly processed foods. I haven’t completely eliminated any food items but by avoiding white flour, sugar, hard cheese, and processed foods I’ve lost 85 lbs in the last 12 months. I have an amazing amount of energy now and am far happier than I was when I was eating those ‘dirty foods.’ Clean eating isn’t a strict diet….its more of a philosophy you try and abide by. Not perfection, just effort. As someone who has tried multiple diets without much success clean eating is about aspiring to healthy lifestyle rather than trying to lose weight.

    • JC Deen January 02, 2013

      it’s a flawed philosophy. nothing inherently bad about hard cheese, sugar, and even white flour.

  • RedBeard December 23, 2012

    It seems as though a lot of people are missing the point of this article. I’ve beaten myself up over what I eat and how I train but the moral of the story here is moderation. Stick with what works for you but if you’re at work and the boss pays for a barbecue lunch with Mac n cheese and all the fixins, then go for it. A lot of “diets” call for a cheat meal anyway. So, as long as you indulge in moderation and stay within reason while meeting your nutritional standards, why not. I have recently overcome a plateau by easing up on my diet and just eating more food in general. My strength and size have increased while my body fat has remained in check. Bottom line, stick with what works for. Don’t take what this guy or any other person on the Internet says as gospel. Trust me you and your general mental well being will thank you for it.

  • Tish December 22, 2012

    I just read this today and loved it. I have been going crazy on learning to eat clean and I just need to go back to eating healthy for myself. One thing I can say has helped me is when I started the clean eating was eating often it actually helped me and I was able to lose weight. I can’t wait to get your newsletters and read those, it always good to get off the fad and find facts. Thank You!
    Tish

  • Mike December 19, 2012

    I’d like you to put out your diet for a typical week, I’m curious to see how much ‘dirty’ food you consider to be in moderation

    • JC Deen December 21, 2012

      I don’t know what “dirty” food is, therefore I cannot provide you with how much I consume. the whole idea of “dirty” and “clean” food is just silly.

  • SLJ December 18, 2012

    No offense, but you don’t really seem to have much of an idea of what you’re talking about. Clean eating is defined in varied ways for each person because of different health requirements. Some see clean eating as gluten-free or meat-free because that’s what their body requires to keep specific symptoms or allergies at bay.
    Can you answer one question for me? What about making a conscious effort to eat unprocessed food, no chemicals, and larger portions of fruits and vegetables is bad? Any educated nutritionist, doctor, food scientist, etc. will tell you that fresh fruit is better than fruit snacks, whole grains are better than enriched grains, organic is better than pesticide covered, mass-produced produce.
    It seems you didn’t understand what a clean diet was when you started experimenting with it. And just glancing at your website, I’d guess you have an addictive personality, meaning you probably obsess about anything you devote time to. Clean eating is about a change in eating habits to create a healthier lifestyle, not an obsession with a weight-loss plan to make you lose fat and gain muscle.
    You’re a moron and shouldn’t be discouraging what is a great lifestyle for so many people. And do you really need to post so much opinion about something that simply didn’t work for you but has helped so many others? Sounds like you’re still obsessed with clean eating, to me!

    • samantha January 05, 2013

      I agree with you, I just read this article and got dumber i think. All you have to do is look into the past of human kind say from the begining and see how much more of a ratio of people are skinny-to-fat and you will see that more and more people eat that crap food and more and more people are fat. Just because the author of this article was obsessed doesn’t mean anything, that is just the type of person he is. Clean Eating does not make people obsessive. I can’t believe i stumbled on this crap article.

      • JC Deen January 06, 2013

        If either you or SLJ, knew how to comprehend what you read or even knew how to click play on a YouTube video, you’d obviously understand I’m not against eating wholesome, fresh foods.

        I’m merely against the attitude and false beliefs that are associated with the so-called “clean eating.”

        • SLJ January 06, 2013

          And if YOU knew anything about clean eating, you’d know that it’s not about an attitude or false beliefs. I’m not sure where you got your information before you started clean eating, but I’d assume it wasn’t a great source. YOU are the one spreading false beliefs that clean eating is a negative thing. Again, you’re a moron!

          • JC Deen January 06, 2013

            you obviously haven’t been around many fitness people advocating fad diets or fat loss tips based around clean eating then. Clean Eating, as an idea, is ridiculous because there’s nothing clear on what it actually is. You have an idea of what it means to you. There’s nothing negative, in general, about food. it’s all in how you look at it and it’s effects. perhaps this will enlighten you on my stance. if not, then I’m afraid there is no convincing for you: http://www.wannabebig.com/diet-and-nutrition/the-dirt-on-clean-eating/

    • tom gillan December 18, 2012

      >Any educated nutritionist, doctor, food scientist, etc. will tell you that fresh fruit is better than fruit snacks, whole grains are better than enriched grains, organic is better than pesticide covered, mass-produced produce.

      clearly u have never heard of the crippling disorder of sugar and inlsulin called the diabeetus and if u had u would not be giving out this dangerous advices

      JCDeen I hope u will ban this person from giving dangerous medical advices on ur site such as telling people to eat sugars and incur a diabeetus storm upon there bodies

    • dehaj December 18, 2012

      sounds like you’re obsessed with being gay imo

  • Jen December 13, 2012

    Thanks so much for writing this article!! I am currently underweight & trying to gain weight the healthy way. I came across clean eating & thought it looked like the best healthy way to do this. But the more I got into it, the more restrictive it felt. And I can see how it could very quickly lead to orthorexia. I have struggled with eating disorder in the past and am victoriously on the other side & did not want to start another obsession, however it was deceptive because it makes you think you’re “doing the right thing” for your body & excuses it. And like you said, eating nutrient dense foods & everything in moderation is the key of course. This has given me greater insight on how to gain weight healthily but still enjoy life too :)
    One quick question- in many of the clean eating sites i have noticed they recommend a post workout meal of either muscle milk, greek yogurt, or cottage cheese. Does this really help post workout or is this another myth?
    Thanks so much again, I hope your article helps a lot of people!!
    Jen

    • JC Deen December 14, 2012

      post workout meals are never a bad idea, but there’s no reason that you must eat within the 15-20 minutes post workout. just have a regular meal, and go on about your day.

      • Jen December 15, 2012

        Awesome thanks!

  • Jenn December 09, 2012

    I think you are absolutely right! I have read the article twice and everything just makes total sense. Although I can respect the whole concept of clean eating, I also think its up there with Atkins and South Beach. It is in our nature to eat and to be honest, I’d take a mars bar over a bowl of steamed broccoli. It’s totally about balance, not restricting ones self from everything that is delicious, otherwise you are more likely to fail. I did Atkins in my early 20′s and I became sooooo obsessed with every gram I ate and everytime I had half a piece of toast, the guilt was so bad I couldn’t bear it. So I started diet pills too to curb the guilt. I could barely write my name from being so jittery but I looked damn good, going from 140-104 lbs without setting foot in a gym. But eventually I crashed and burned and went back ul to 125. Now I’m 30 and after going up to 220 lbs during my pregnancy, I have been determined to lose it (I am now 139 lbs after changing my eating and exercise habits). But I can’t just go from eating Dominos and Nutella for 9 months to just lettuce and tomatoes! I balance lean protein, some veg, while wheat/high protein breads with the odd cheesecake slice or beer. I don’t binge eat and I don’t feel the need to do anything extreme after eating something non salad related. I can totally see how sticking to such a strict diet guideline can actually cause an unhealthy state of mind and obsession so I just won’t do it.

    And the previous poster’s comment about very ones body being different is totally right! Some people will thrive on clean eating and some just won’t. Just like every other fad diet

    And for those that will comment that it’s not about appearance, it’s about lowering cancer risk etc: if I can’t have a mars bar and a 6 pack of beer, I don’t want to live so that’s not really much of a motivation for me. Balance is what is key, not restriction

  • Sue December 08, 2012

    This doesn’t seem like a productive article at all. It sounds like the author is a sore looser. I started clean eating and have lost 2 inches all the way around. I feel way better for it too. When the author stated “I have no idea where clean eating originated” – it made me take pause and think – so why on earth should I listen to anything you have to say. If you can’t take some time to do basic research (beyond just google) then you really shouldn’t way in on a topic. Eating lots of fruits and veggies, lean meats, and limited amounts of sugar, dairy, and carbs seems like common sense – I don’t know why your arguing (poorly) against it.

    • JC Deen December 10, 2012

      Solid points, Sue. I have no idea what I was thinking when I wrote this.

      • Alexis H December 19, 2012

        Interesting article. However, in my opinion every individual should really do more personal research and experimentation with what their own bodies require for optimal health. Also one should consider if maintaining that particular lifestyle is a realistic option. Clean eating may not be the best choice for everyone.

        On a different note, there is quite a bit of misleading information in your article about clean eating. (1)Refined foods, heavily processed foods, chemically engineered foods, and pesticide covered foods are not as healthy for the body as organic fresh foods. (2)Some foods that are other wise healthy may cause digestive issues when combined with others (Certain food combinations can cause fermentation in the intestines, gas, bloating, and prohibit digestion). (3)Some people are allergic or intolerant to certain ingredients and/or foods that may not bother some one else. Yes there are many variables to clean eating that may cause confusion but it doesn’t have to be complicated. Nor is there a need to obsess about it. My advice (not that any one asked for it or anything…. :/) would be to stop following fad diets and jumping of bandwagons, and do the work to find out what your body likes and you stick to that!

        • JC Deen December 21, 2012

          I don’t see where I ever said any of these franken foods were just as healthy? please point me to that statement in the article.

          can you provide data for number 2?

  • Denise December 08, 2012

    Very interesting! I’m happy I read your article and would like to know more about how you diet.

    Thanks!

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