Clearing the clutter: Does clean eating exist?

6 Oct




Nutrition misconceptions are becoming more prevalent in the fitness industry. The fitness industry is filled with coaches and “experts” making blanket statements, extreme generalizations, and using illogical reasoning to support nutrition and fitness claims.

Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of knowledgeable coaches and individuals in this field who provide and promote sustainable, evidence-based information.

There are no “gurus” in this field. I am not a guru.

The word guru carries a connotation of “all-knowing.”

And there is always more to learn.

The folks in this industry who are constantly learning more and advancing their knowledge base, while acknowledging acquired foundational principles and mechanisms related to all things physiology and logic are most primed to dispense credible information and guidance.

Perhaps folks are torn between what to interpret as factual, what is the truth, and what is rubbish. Nutrition “buzzwords” flood our food industry and the passing of bad information from person to person is common.

Just because Mary Jo is following the gluten-free diet per her trainer’s recommendations does not mean you should jump on the gluten-free bandwagon.

Nutrition is not a trend.Nutrition is a science.

Are you ready to check out?

Just the other day I was standing in the grocery store check-out line. I usually eye the tabloids and “health” magazines for some comical entertainment. It is not uncommon to see magazine headlines promoting  ridiculous claims of a celebrity losing an astronomical amount of weight in a matter of days accomplished by eating XYZ food or following XYZ diet.

As I continued to load my groceries on the conveyor belt, the cashier scanned my groceries.

I had my usual groceries on the belt – mostly nutrient-dense foods. My “staples” as I like to call them – including chicken, eggs, tuna, oatmeal, rice, bread, potatoes, fruits, and veggies.

However, I also had foods I enjoy on a daily basis – frozen yogurt, cake pastries, sugary cereal, pizza dough, and dough for making cinnamon rolls.


Cake pastries and lowfat frozen yogurt.

The cashier continued to scan my groceries and gave me an inquisitive look when she started to scan my “fun food.”

She then asked, “Is this food for someone else?”

I replied, “No, it’s all mine.”

She then asked me why I was purchasing “good foods” and “bad foods.”

I started to explain to the cashier about how I follow flexible dieting, a nutritional approach where food preferences are honored and calories are accounted for which enables me to reach my body composition and performance goals without sacrificing the enjoyment of food.

The experience I had at the grocery store was just one of the many instances where the principles of flexible dieting have been explained to another individual. Face value, people are going to bark at the sugar in the frozen yogurt or the processed cake pastries.

But what does the science say?

Are there good foods?

Are there bad foods?

Clean Eating

Perhaps the biggest myth embedded in the fitness industry is that specific foods are bad for you and should be avoided.

The “clean eating” approach is an example of deep-rooted dogma that ignores the foundational principles of thermodynamics, energy balance, and personal food preferences.

Most diet books or diet “gurus” focus on elimination of specific foods because they are “bad.”

But in what context are these foods “bad?”

The leanest guy at the gym will tell you he doesn’t ever eat XYZ food.

The fittest woman at the gym will tell you she eats “clean” five days out of the week and then has a cheat day on Saturday.

Ask ten people what clean eating is and you will get a different response from each person. There is no operational, working definition of “clean eating.”


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Homemade pizza. But wait. The dough is made from white flour. Should I be concerned?

Let’s take a look.

Steve is a competitive bodybuilder in contest prep. Steve is unaware of flexible dieting. Steve has a diet that consists of primarily chicken, sweet potatoes, egg whites, brown rice, oatmeal, and broccoli.

Steve labels red meat, white potatoes, egg yolks, white rice, enriched cereal, and fruit as “dirty” or “bad.”

Vegetarians might define animal meats as “bad.”

Paleo followers will label grains, legumes, dairy, and some starches as “bad.”

An absence in the contextual and operational framework of “clean eating” makes objective comparisons to other dietary patterns nearly impossible.

With that being said, comparing the principles of a “clean diet” with other eating patterns holds no water.

The problem with attempting to make a comparison between “clean eating” and other diets stems back to the concept that there is no clear-cut, concise definition of what “clean eating” is.

white rice vs dirty

A close-minded view some folks may have towards rice. Brown rice is “clean” while white rice is “dirty.” Calorie for calorie, both are the same. Micronutrients and fiber composition may differ between the two, but both can be incorporated into a balanced diet.


Energy Balance and Metabolism

There is not a single food that will help you lose weight.

There is not a single food that will make you gain fat.

Fat loss and fat gain are both dictated by total calories consumed in relation to calories burned.

Pointing the finger at a specific food and saying “XYZ causes fat gain” is missing the boat. We should consider the entire caloric intake in relation to expended calories before making rash assumptions.

Foods that have been arbitrarily and historically labeled as “clean” such as oatmeal, chicken breast, brown rice, tilapia, and sweet potatoes are much more difficult to overindulge on when compared to other foods that may contain more sugar or fat grams per serving.

Excluding certain foods from the diet because the individual may binge on these foods is a school of thought perpetrated by clean eaters. This notion implies that you will overindulge on these foods when consumed.

This is a very imperceptive and limited school of thought that fails to recognize mindful eating, moderation, and flexibility in the diet.



Waffles topped with greek yogurt, low sugar maple syrup, and cinnamon.


The Importance of Context

Estimated caloric needs are going to differ between individual to individual.

Tricia, an endurance athlete training for a triathlon, is going to have a greater estimation of energy needs than Jim, a sedentary bank teller.

With that being said, let’s say Tricia’s estimated caloric needs based on her intense training and anthropometrical data puts her at 6,000 calories per day.

Tricia’s trainer told her to eat “clean.”

How feasible is that going to be for Tricia?

It would be advisable and more advantageous for Tricia to focus on calorie dense foods — while continuously striving for nutrient-density and balancing her micronutrient and macronutrient needs.

Jim, on the other hand, recently began an exercise regimen – working with a certified personal trainer and dietitian.

Jim is slightly overweight and has had battles with balancing portions and serving sizes in the past.

He has had trainers in the past place him on overly restrictive diets of exclusion with no luck.

Jim’s estimated needs and training experience is much less than Tricia’s. With that being said, a focus on nutrient-density while focusing on diet flexibility on a much smaller scale than Tricia is most advisable for Jim.


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A food scale and measuring tools that will enable Jim to hold himself accountable for energy and macronutrient intake, while learning the art of recognizing serving sizes.


The 80/20 rule would be a great rule of thumb for Jim to follow – meaning 80% of the time, Jim is to select nutrient-dense foods to hit his caloric and macronutrient needs. The other 20%, Jim selects foods he enjoys that may not be entirely nutrient-dense.

What good does this nutritional approach do for Jim?

Given Jim’s past experiences, this practice instills the principle of balance and moderation for Jim and teaches him the art of balancing food selection and macronutrients – while allowing Jim to enjoy food, maintain mental sanity, and dismisses him from overly restrictive diet practices.

Conclusion: Cleaning up the Confusion

Moderation, flexibility, and balance construct the foundation of a strong nutritional approach. Excluding foods from the diet without a surefire rationale compromises freedom and liberation in the diet.

When too much analysis into specific ingredients and food items is present, individuals oversimplify nutrition by focusing on the parts and not the whole.

Proactive promotion of a practical total nutrition approach which emphasizes sensibility, individualization, and energy balance within the context of goals and lifestyle fosters an environment that welcomes healthy eating behaviors and longevity.


One Response to “Clearing the clutter: Does clean eating exist?”

  1. melvinjensenakis October 15, 2014 at 2:36 pm #

    Reblogged this on Ibex Wellness and commented:
    Great article on nutrition. Its all about the big picture!

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