I am going to preface this article by stating that this opinion is not necessarily the opinion of all members of the LBEB team, this is my own opinion, backed up with philosophy and scientific research.
“Shop the perimeter of the grocery store”, “Eat clean, whole, unprocessed foods”, “You can’t out-train a bad diet”: These are mantras that you can see repeated over and over on nearly every corner of the fitness interwebs. They serve to inspire people to make healthy living and eating choices, but the problem with mantras like this is people tend to repeat them over and over, without knowing what exactly they are saying when questioned about them. I am going to discuss the issues I find with these mantras, and the lack of applicability they have to new clients and athletes.
The first issue I find with “clean eating” is the definition of “clean” itself. If you were to ask someone in the 70s and 80s what clean eating was, they would probably tell you that a diet low in MSG was clean. In the 90s, they would tell you that a low fat/cholesterol diet was clean. Now, a “clean diet” is one that is low in sugar and carbohydrates. What does this evolution of thought mean? It means that every so often, we need to find a food to demonize and blame for obesity, sickness, headaches, lethargy, and even autism. Unfortunately, MSG was shown to not present the adverse effects it was claimed to (Chinese Restaurant Syndrome), fat and cholesterol has repeatedly been shown as vital for normal body and brain function, yet proponents of a low carb or clean diet still operate under the pretense that THIS time, “dirty” foods really are the enemy, and are the reason for the obesity and sickness of the modern industrial world.
If you were to ask the average fitness enthusiast what a “dirty” food was, you would probably get a small selection of answers, one of them being “any food that has been processed and/or is devoid of nutrients.” A couple of obvious problems I see with this statement is the knee-jerk reaction to say that something processed is therefore unhealthy. They say to avoid processed foods, yet purchase things like butter in blocks from the dairy section, or coconut oil off the shelf in the middle of the store. Coconut oil doesn’t grow in a jar off a tree, freshly picked and shipped to you, and butter doesn’t come out of a cow in square blocks. They have both gone through a process of extraction and packaging to get to you, yet these are OK things to eat? I would like to meet the committee that decides what level of processing is acceptable and what level is not. Simply offering the blanket statement of “avoid processed foods” doesn’t do much to help someone that already has a poor understanding of nutrition.
On to the second point: avoiding foods that are “devoid of nutrients”. Now correct me if I am wrong, but I don’t think there are many foods out there that are devoid of nutrients, except water. Every food has some sort of nutrient to offer, that is why it is called food. Sure, a bowl of cinnamon toast crunch may contain mostly carbs but guess what? Carbs are a macronutrient, and we humans tend to need macronutrients to survive. This doesn’t mean C.T. crunch needs to be your only calorie source, but for someone like myself (I should be taking in 700+ grams of carbs a day), a bowl of C.T. crunch sounds pretty appetizing right about now.
Undoubtedly, there will be those that say “well I personally like to eat clean because it has helped me lose weight“, that is fine, I don’t have an issue with that. What I do have an issue with is those that choose to demonize certain foods as being unhealthy, and chastise others for deviating from a “clean eating” lifestyle.
I worked with Michelle while she lost her first 90lbs over the course of a year. She lost those 90lbs by eating what many paleo enthusiasts would call a “dirty” diet. Clearly it has worked out well for her.
When I start working with a new client or athlete, one of the first things we discuss is nutrition. I make a point to avoid saying things like “eat clean” because that is a meaningless phrase to them. Instead, I like to talk about what foods would be optimal for their type of training.
Excluding food allergies, I don’t have a list of bad foods that I tell them to avoid. Rather, I like to focus on total macronutrient goals for the day. If someone needs to have 250 grams of carbs a day, we discuss all the different ways they can reach that number: oats, rice, sweet potatoes, you name it. While I would prefer if the meal did not come in a pre-packaged box, is it the end of the world? Not in the slightest. As I have progressed, I have learned that macros are macros and however they want to reach those goals is up to them.
I have found that this approach makes for an athlete that is much less stressed about what they eat vs. some of their counterpoints repeatedly tell everyone how much they don’t care that they just ate a cupcake (HINT: telling everyone you repeatedly do not care means you probably care very much). I have no issue with someone promoting or eating a clean diet, but I would like to see those individuals come up with clear defining terms on what is clean, what is dirty, and why something processed is inherently bad for you. This goes back to my naturalistic fallacy article here. I would like to see what your thoughts on the subject are, post them to the LBEB Facebook.
Fulgoni VL 3rd, et al. Development and validation of the nutrient-rich foods index: a tool to measure nutritional quality of foods. J Nutr. 2009 Aug;139(8):1549-54.
Mozaffarian D, Clarke R. Quantitative effects on cardiovascular risk factors and coronary heart disease risk of replacing partially hydrogenated vegetable oils with other fats and oils. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2009 May;63 Suppl 2:S22-33.
Leenen R, et al. Relative effects of weight loss and dietary fat modification on serum lipid levels in the dietary treatment of obesity. J Lipid Res. 1993 Dec;34(12):2183-91.