It’s trendy to sneer at “clean eating” these days.
In many cases, this is merely an attempt to virtue signal to the fitness intelligentsia. People trying to prove that they “get it,” and to lord it over everyone that doesn’t.
It’s also stupid.
The wholesale rejection of clean eating isn’t a disavowal of dietary ignorance and dogma—it’s a childish denial of our body’s most basic need for food: nutrition.
You know…stuff like high-quality protein, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats. The “little things” that we need to stay mentally and physically robust, and to fight off disease and dysfunction. Things that we won’t find in Fruit Loops, Pop Tarts, and Bluebell.
Remember that the next time you’re browsing the #IIFYM hashtag on Instagram.
This is why I’d rather be a “clueless” clean eater who’s obsessed with coconut oil and kale and afraid of gluten and GMOs than a rabid, incorrigible “IIFYMer” who refuses to “waste calories” on fruit and vegetables because it would mean less fast food and Oreos.
The former might never be as lean and muscular as the latter, but he also won’t be as likely to get sick and die.
This is why the meal plans of smart flexible dieters look a lot like those of the clean eating crowd. Colorful plant foods, whole grains, and nutritious proteins comprise the vast majority of the calories, and indulgences are an afterthought.
A focus on clean eating can benefit you in other ways, as well.
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Clean eating teaches you how to be a good intuitive eater.
If you ever want to maintain your ideal physique without having to plan and track everything that you eat, then then you’d better get used to eating a lot of relatively unprocessed, nutritious foods.
This is the “secret” to effortless weight maintenance, because most “healthy” foods tend to be lighter in calories and very filling and nutritious.
In short, they’re the types of foods that your body’s natural mechanisms for regulating appetite work best with.
Highly processed foods, on the other hand, tend to be very high in calories yet not nearly as filling or nourishing, which, in a sense, “short circuits” these mechanisms, making it much easier to overeat.
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Clean eating ensures that your body gets the at least most of the nutrition it needs.
“Healthy eating” alone isn’t necessarily enough to provide your body with enough of all of the micronutrients it needs to perform optimally (which is why I recommend that you take a good multivitamin), but it can get most of the job done.
The bottom line is clean eating significantly reduces your risk of chronic disease, which is one of the biggest reasons to fuss over all of this diet and exercise stuff in the first place.
Clean eating minimizes your exposure to various chemicals, hormones, and other substances that can be harmful to your health.
We’re exposed to an overwhelming number of chemicals every day through just eating, breathing, and drinking.
The list includes tobacco smoke, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, disinfection byproducts, plasticizers, heavy metals, parabens, surfactants, and phthalates, and many more.
Many people don’t realize how seriously this chemical load can affect our health.
For example, research shows that the daily exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals commonly found in plastic bottles, metal food cans, detergents, toys, cosmetics, and pesticides increases the risk of neurological and behavioral disorders, male infertility, birth defects, endometriosis, obesity, diabetes, and some cancers, and can even lead to diminished IQ scores.
The same study estimates that these chemicals are responsible for at least $340 billion in annual healthcare costs here in the United States.
Read that again. Billion, with a b, and that’s just one class of chemicals out of many that our bodies have to deal with every day.
Many of these conditions come on slowly, too. You may not notice the gradual decline until, one day, it’s apparent that something is very wrong.
We can, and should, attack this problem in two ways:
- Keep our body as healthy and functional as possible.
- Reduce our exposure to harmful substances as much as possible.
Number one is best accomplished by things like exercising regularly, not being overweight, not smoking, and drinking as little alcohol as possible.
Eating mostly unprocessed foods (choose organic produce for bonus points), and using “clean” cosmetic, grooming, and cleaning products are big for number two.
Clean eating can help you develop a healthy relationship with food.
A lot of what goes on in the fitness space isn’t healthy or desirable.
None of this is normal.
In fact, in some cases, what you’re looking at is a legitimate eating disorder that can ruin ultimately people’s lives.
Thus, if we want to look and feel great for the long haul, then we must cultivate and maintain a healthy relationship with food.
You know you’re on the right path if…
- You generally eat until full and stop.
- You don’t have overwhelming psychological or emotional desires to eat individual foods, or food in general.
- You don’t seriously struggle with cravings.
- You see food mainly as a source of nourishment.
- You enjoy eating nutritious foods that give you energy and fuel your daily activities.
- You don’t feel guilty when you eat the occasional “unhealthy” food.
I’d even go as far as saying if you don’t check most, if not all, of those boxes, then flexible dieting probably isn’t for you. Chances are, you’ll just wind up playing the “if it fits your macros” game I mentioned earlier.
Yes, any food can fit your macros, but how about cancer, heart disease, chronic fatigue, and the like? Do those fit your macros, too?
Now, clean eating isn’t necessarily the cure. In this context, it’s a double-edged sword.
Take it too far and you’re looking at orthorexia—an unhealthy obsession with eating “healthy” foods. Be flexible and intelligent about it, though, and you’ll naturally develop a positive eating mindset that is enhanced, and not perverted, by dietary flexibility and freedom.
The Bottom Line on Clean Eating
More and more people are ridiculing clean eating these days because it makes them feel better about their shitty diets.
Don’t listen to them.
Pity them, even, because people that neglect the nutritional side of dieting are going to have to pay that piper some day, and maybe sooner than later.
Here’s how it breaks down:
Clean eating guarantees nothing in the way of muscle gain and fat loss, because that dimension of dieting is ruled by calories and macros, and flexible dieting guarantees nothing in the way of nutrition and health, because the dimension is ruled by the quality of your food choices.
Thus, the middle of the spectrum is the place to be.
If you want the best of both worlds–a body that feels and works as good as it looks–then you need to be a “flexible clean eater.”
I kind of like that. Maybe it should become a thing. 🙂
What’s your take on clean eating? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
- Attina, T. M., Hauser, R., Sathyanarayana, S., Hunt, P. A., Bourguignon, J. P., Myers, J. P., DiGangi, J., Zoeller, R. T., & Trasande, L. (2016). Exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the USA: a population-based disease burden and cost analysis. The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology, 4(12), 996–1003. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-8587(16)30275-3
- Introduction 1 What’s New and Different? 2 Calculation of Urinary Inorganic-related Arsenic Species. (n.d.).
- Wang, X., Ouyang, Y., Liu, J., Zhu, M., Zhao, G., Bao, W., & Hu, F. B. (2014). Fruit and vegetable consumption and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: Systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. BMJ (Online), 349. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g4490