If you’re someone who keeps up to date with the current science and practice of nutrition, you’ll know that the debate between Flexible Dieting (aka IIFYM, or If it Fits Your Macros) and Clean Eating for weight loss or general fitness has been pretty active of late.
Traditionally, Clean Eating has been the staple approach for anyone who’s trying to lose weight or who’s interested in maintaining good health and fitness in general. Recently, however, a charge has been led by highly qualified industry icons such as Dr. Layne Norton against the validity and even the rationality behind Clean Eating. And their influence is spreading quite rapidly.
These individuals argue that Clean Eating is not only unnecessary, but also psychologically detrimental and unsustainable, and therefore does more harm than good. Nevertheless, it’s still very common to hear top fitness models and competitors regularly preaching about the importance of Clean Eating.
Who’s right and who’s wrong?
So then, who’s right and who’s wrong?
Is Clean Eating really a valid nutritional strategy for weight loss and fitness, or should it be tossed into the round file along with all the other familiar weight loss fads, myths and bro-science nonsense?
Well, like so many other questions involving fitness, the answer to this is, “it depends”.
As a Figure competition coach, my loyalties lie squarely with Flexible Dieting, and this is what I prescribe to my Figure girls for their nutrition. I believe that Flexible Dieting is without a doubt the most effective approach to nutrition and dieting, whether it’s for competition or just general weight loss and fitness.
Nevertheless, I also believe that Cleaning Eating, too, is valid, and that it does have its place . . . IF it’s used correctly. Unfortunately, it often isn’t.
Extremist Clean Eating
One of the main reasons why there’s so much confusion about (and, I believe, opposition to) Clean Eating is that there’s no official definition of what exactly it is. As a result, its opponents generally tend to make their arguments against the most extreme interpretation of what Clean Eating is.
In their defense however, it should be said that there is in fact no shortage of people out there who actually do follow this extreme Clean Eating philosophy. So it can’t really be said that their arguments are unfair.
Unfortunately, this extremist Clean Eating approach is all too common among bodybuilders and coaches. And sadly, you’ll also find it in various weight loss diet websites and publications.
It advocates adhering religiously to a shortlist of so-called “approved” clean foods. This list will most likely sound quite familiar to you. It includes foods such as chicken breast, turkey breast, lean meat, tilapia, orange roughy, tuna, egg whites, protein powder, sweet potato, brown rice, wholegrain bread and pasta, broccoli, asparagus, spinach, nuts, and a handful of other candidates.
There are two major problems with this extremist Clean Eating approach of limiting yourself to a small selection of food choices.
Firstly, by depriving yourself of a healthy variety of foods you seriously limit the variety of important nutrients that are made available to your body. Just because this small group of foods appears to be healthy, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will provide everything your body needs.
And secondly, it’s very psychologically fatiguing to have to consume the same old foods over and over each week. This makes sustaining the diet more and more difficult, increasing the probability of either quitting or developing some kind of eating disorder such as impulsive bingeing.
Proper Clean Eating outline
So having established that following the extremist version of Clean Eating for weight loss or fitness is highly undesirable, what kind of Clean Eating is beneficial then?
Well, again, there is no official definition for clean eating, but the 7 points below outline what I personally believe to be a sensible and healthy Clean Eating approach.
- All fruits and vegetables, as close to their natural form as possible. Some fruits need to be peeled – oranges and bananas for example, and some vegetables need to be cooked – spinach and potatoes, for example. But other than that, they should be consumed in as close to their natural state as possible. Blending is OK, as is any process that doesn’t remove fiber and nutrients from the foods as juicing in a juicer does, for example.
- All grains and grain products, as close to their complete and natural form as possible. Processing of grains generally removes the fiber and many of the nutrients, so processed grains such as white rice, for example, should be avoided in favor of their natural counterparts. The same goes for grain products such as cereal, bread and pasta. You should focus on those that use the whole grain, not just the pulp (center) of the grains.
- All types of nut kernels (nuts without the shells) and legumes (beans).
- Lean, unprocessed meat protein sources, such as chicken and turkey breast and lean red meats. The reason you should opt for lean sources is not that fats are bad for you, but rather that fatty meats are high in calories and it’s therefore very easy to overdo it. The other point is that most animal protein sources are high in saturated fats. Although recent evidence is mounting that saturated fats are not as unhealthy as once believed, I believe it’s still prudent to limit them to about 25% of your fat intake. By opting for lean meat sources, you allow yourself to have more control over the quantity and type of fat consumed via other foods.
- All fish and seafood. Fatty fish such as salmon and trout are great food sources as they are high in Omega-3, which is very important for a healthy diet. In fact, if you’re not eating these types of fish you should be supplementing with fish oil capsules.
- All dairy and poultry products. Again, be wary of the high fat content products such as cheeses, so that you can control your fat and therefore calorie intake. Focusing on low fat cottage cheese is a great way to do this.
- “Good” processed foods. Not all processed foods are unhealthy, for example, I have already mentioned whole grain bread, pasta and cereal. Other examples of good processed foods are bran cereals, psyllium husk and protein powder.
Always be sure to check the nutrition label to confirm that a processed food is in fact good, as they can often times be loaded with sugars or other undesirable ingredients.
As you can see, the sensible approach to Clean Eating is nothing more than focusing on foods that are as natural and wholesome as possible, nothing more. There are no “magical” or “approved” foods that you need to limit yourself to, so you therefore have a huge variety of foods available.
When is Clean Eating a good choice?
As I mentioned earlier, in my opinion Flexible Dieting is the most effective nutritional protocol there is for weight loss and fitness, however it does have some drawbacks which may not suit some people.
The main one is that your calories and macros need to be counted and tracked for each of your meals, which makes it somewhat tedious and labor-intensive. Even with the assistance of modern calorie-counting software and phone apps, you still basically need to weigh everything you eat and drink.
For some people, this simply isn’t an acceptable option. They just don’t have the time, the discipline or the patience.
A great alternative, in that case, is Clean Eating.
When relying on Clean Eating for weight loss, by not actually counting calories and your macros you necessarily lose some level of effectiveness in your diet, however in many cases (but not necessarily all) it’s still good enough to get results.
Simply eating clean foods won’t ensure that you don’t over-eat, however – you can still gain weight while eating clean. Nor does it guarantee that your diet is well-balanced. But by exercising awareness of your portion sizes and your approximate proportions of protein, carbohydrate and fat, you can absolutely lose weight and maintain good fitness through Clean Eating.
The advantage of adhering to Clean Eating is that by doing so you ensure good overall nutrition while improving your chances of getting your diet right, without having to consciously measure everything you eat.
You reduce your chances of over-consuming fats, which are very calorie-dense, and increase your chances of achieving good blood-sugar control and getting sufficient fiber in your diet, both of which are very important for weight loss and good health.
So while Flexible Dieting provides no restriction on what foods you can eat and a high level of control and effectiveness in your diet, Clean Eating sacrifices some of that effectiveness as well as some freedom in food choices in exchange for convenience.
In other words, it forces you to be stricter with your food choices to compensate for the convenience of being able to put less effort into managing your diet.
But over the long-term, this can potentially be a problem.
Being deprived of the choice to have your favorite so-called “naughty” foods, or treats, from time to time can make adhering to eating clean very difficult for anything longer than a short period of time. And sustainability is a very important factor in any dietary plan.
This is why most people who follow Clean Eating diets generally incorporate some regular cheat meals into their programs.
Flexible Dieting proponents claim that cheat meals are an unhealthy dietary strategy as they can often lead to an unhealthy relationship with food and even full-blown eating disorders. While this is certainly a possibility if not managed properly, by being sensible and disciplined in the way you implement your cheat meals you can largely avoid these potential pitfalls.
We’ve previously written two blog posts on the proper implementation of cheat meals into a diet plan, which are well worth reading. You can access them by clicking on the links below:
Which approach is best for you?
Much of the current opposition to Clean Eating seems to stem from the fact that so many people take the concept to unhealthy and unnecessary extremes, either because they don’t know any better or for a number of other reasons.
The fact is however, a sensible and well thought-out approach to Clean Eating is a valid option for anyone intending to lose weight and/or maintain good fitness and health, but who don’t necessarily wish to count calories and weigh their foods each day.
While it is, of course, possible to implement calorie counting (and therefor weighing of foods) into a Clean Eating diet, in my opinion it would be preferable for someone prepared to do that to simple adopt a Flexible Dieting approach instead.
At the end of the day however, the choice of which approach to take can only be made by you as an individual, based on your goals, your lifestyle, and your own personal preferences. After all, unless you’re involved in competition, any approach that works to some degree and is sustainable will eventually lead to success.
Have you personally had any experiences, good or bad, with a Clean Eating diet, and how did it work for you? What challenges did you find difficult to overcome? I’d love to hear your input in the comments below!