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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.
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?
Up at 7 to do my cardio.
Breakfast right after.
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.
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.