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I have a problem when people tell me that they are going to reach their fitness/physique goals by “eating clean”. It’s not a problem because clean eating is inherently bad or wrong; in fact, I’m all for it. The problem arises when clean eating becomes an end in and of itself, instead of just one sub-unit of overall calorie control. However, the reason that the idea of clean eating for physique change persists is most likely due to the overwhelming empirical evidence witness daily throughout our lives: We tend to see that the people who “eat clean” are the ones with the best bodies.
Is this true? Is this a cause-and-effect relationship or just correlation?
Since it seems easy to me how people can interpret this as a cause-and-effect relationship, I won’t go into it here. But what if this is actually just a correlation? What if it’s actually a reverse cause-and-effect relationship?
Before we get into that, we need to establish just what I mean by “clean eating”. For this article, I’ll declare clean eating as eating only whole, naturally occurring, unprocessed foods; whole wheat and fruits for carbs; only healthy, monounsaturated fats like olive and canola oil and omega-3s; and protein (I won’t specify how to get the protein, since views are very mixed as what counts as “clean eating” in terms of protein).
Now, straight onto the point:
Is there any evidence that clean eating (using the above definition) has any effect on body composition:
Eh, not really.
Here and there, you will find evidence that a particular type of food (like MCT oil from coconut oil) will promote some type of fat loss, but an overwhelming amount of research throughout the decades points to a single overarching principle: Macronutrient amount and type play a significant role in changing body composition while macronutrient quality and micronutrients play a much, much lesser role.
(Remember, I am only talking in terms of body composition – muscle gain and fat loss – not in terms of health.)
Therefore, how many total calories you take in everyday and the type of calories those were in terms of macronutrient make-up (fat, carbs, protein) will determine how you look (along with exercise), not what kind of fat, carbs, and protein you had (for the most part).[I say "for the most part" because there are extremes. For example, if someone's carbs consisted entirely of fructose, that would not be so good. However, that would be extremely hard to do and not realistic at all, so "for the most part" really does apply to almost everything.]
Why then do we keep seeing that the people who are eating the cleanest tend to have the best bodies?
First off, that’s not always true, and now you know why. But yes, there does seem to be some sort of correlation here; however, it is easily explained:
- The people who care most about their exercise tend to also care about their diet. Since exercise changes body composition (especially resistance exercise), these people tend to have better than average bodies.
- The people who are most successful at “clean eating” tend to have good discipline when it comes to making choices about food and what to eat. Thus, these people tend not to over-eat and have better bodies.
- The guys who are into lifting weights tend to hear that clean eating will help them reach their goals. Since lifting weights significantly changes body composition, these people tend to have better bodies.
and on and on…
So, it’s not that the “clean eating” is directly causing these people to have better bodies. It’s actually that the people that develop the best bodies normally eat cleaner.
At this point, I must point out again that I am not against eating healthy foods. In the long run, I am 100% clean eating! You will probably feel better, be healthier, have more energy, live longer, etc.
The point is that eating clean will NOT affect how you look regarding muscle gain and fat loss. Total calories and macronutrient make-up will (along with resistance training, of course).
Is this an oversimplification? Yes, it is. Does that really matter? No, not really.
While you should always ensure that you are eating enough fruits and veggies to reach your micronutrient goals, worrying about eating only clean foods would give you such little extra results that you wouldn’t even be able to notice them.
Instead, focus on what is going to give you 95% of the results. Focus on how many calories you’re eating. Focus on how much protein you’re consuming. Focus on resistance training and your meals around training. Don’t let your carbs and fat get too low, and don’t let them get too high. These are the things that matter, and many of them will take some individual experimentation. However, do not worry about eating 100% clean.
Why am I focusing on this so much? Because people use clean eating to rationalize eating poorly!
Many people start off trying to eat clean in order to lose weight, but they end up never seeing results. This is because they are using clean eating to justify their poor food/portion choices. For example, having some Skittles is not going to break your diet. You can have 300 cals of Skittles, and as long as it fits in with your carb goals for the day, you’ll be completely OK. However, instead of choosing 300 cals of Skittles, a person may choose whole grain pasta, because it’s clean. However, since the only thing this person is taking into consideration is whether the food is clean or not, he ends up eating 800 calories worth of pasta. If he is trying to lose weight, then he would have been better off with the Skittles.
What I’m trying to say is that most things don’t matter as much as people think they do.
Knowing the un-importance of clean eating also allows people to enjoy (or at least, not hate as much) dieting. They will be able to eat more of the foods that they enjoy without feeling guilty about it, as long as they are keeping track of their fat, carb, and protein intake (and, ergo, calories).
This is substantial because many people feel that if they have any food that is not healthy, then they have completely blown their diet, and enjoy an all-they-can-eat buffet in response, which then actually does shatter their diet.
To find out more on how to actually have beneficial food choices, wait for part 2 of this series.