Clean Eating Is Nonsense – Here’s a Better Way to Think About Food

Image: veronicascornucopia

On a near daily basis I find myself linking to JC Deen’s article, “Clean Eating is a Scam and Why you Need to Abandon It. I consider it a must read for those tempted by, but scared of eating that NY cheesecake in the Starbucks display. You can imagine by the provocative title how many feathers he ruffled when it was published two years ago.

Today I’m really happy to share this guest article by JC for you, clearing up the misconceptions of Clean Eating, Dangers of IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros), and guidance on how to use the IIFYM principles to still enjoy the foods you love while dieting.

Enter JC Deen…


Why ‘Clean Eating’ Can Be Confusing, And An Alternate View… 

Nutrition. It’s one of the most important pieces of this body-transformation puzzle. While we know restful sleep, and training are as equally important, I’ve not found people getting hung up on those two variables as much as nutrition.

But what does solid nutrition actually mean?

It’s hard to define, right?

Just like an intelligently programmed training routine, and sound sleep and rest periods are hard to define. Without context, or a frame of reference, it’s nearly impossible.

And this is my gripe with the whole clean eating mantra that people cling to on the regular.

It’s not that I don’t believe in and preach a diet that is generally full of whole food to all my clients and readers. It’s a problem with the syntax, and perception, and preconceived ideas, and false, often self-righteous beliefs surrounding an idea such as clean eating.

Let’s dig in.

The Problem of How To Define Clean Eating

Fried Insects – Clean food?          Image: lisadrew15

First of all, without reading any further, how would you define clean eating? It doesn’t matter how you define it, as this is not a trick question.

Just define it in 2-3 sentences.

Pause and do this.

Okay, so if you did the exercise, you have a mini-framework to base your feelings/beliefs on. If you don’t have a definition, that’s good, too.

Before I go into supposed ideas that represent the idea of clean eating, please understand that you may or may not agree with them due to how you’ve defined this for yourself. That’s perfectly okay, but try and realize there are no surefire ways to define such a term without context.

Okay, so here’s a list of what some people might throw into their definition of eating only to be deemed clean.

  • no artificial sweetenersEvil Sugar Lustig
  • artificial sweeteners allowed in moderation or in place of sugar
  • no sugar
  • no canned foods
  • no gluten (despite no known intolerance)
  • no dairy (despite no known intolerance)
  • no cheat meals, ever
  • a cheat meal once per week
  • a cheat meal each day
  • no fructose whatsoever (goodbye nutritious fruit)
  • no liquid calories
  • only allowing themselves to eat organic food
  • no boxed foods
  • mostly veggies in place of starchy carbohydrate
  • no fatty meat
  • no red meat
  • veganism
  • vegetarianism

Okay, I’ll stop. You get the point.

Above, I’ve listed some possible ideas that people will associate with their clean eating ideals. As you’ll see, some of the ideas clearly conflict with others. Therefore, the problem lies in creating a baseline of understanding, because well, clean eating can’t truly be defined.

What is deemed clean to someone else, might seem incredibly toxic to another person.

For instance, someone who has been led to believe the propaganda on fructose being poison, might throw out all varieties of fruit along with all the canned soda and cake mixes.

The problem? They’re limiting their options for nutrient-dense food when removing an entire class of sugar due to nutritional alarmism.

Another example is the current popularity with eliminating things such as gluten, or lactose (dairy products) for fear of issues they cause despite the evidence of real symptoms.

In reality, only a small percentage of the population is truly affected by celiac disease. Last time I checked, I believe it was around or less than 1 percent. As far as dairy goes, I realize the percentage is bigger, but as I always say “if you can eat it with no issue, then keep it in your diet.”

Why Fad Diets Are Not The Answer

Banana diet

South Beach, The Banana Diet, low fat, Paleo, and low carb are rarely ever an ideal solution for anyone.

Paleo – allow me to pick on it for a minute.

While I love the idea of eating nothing but whole foods, I dislike the idea behind Paleo, which is to eat like our ancestors ate because that is healthier for us.

It’s hard to define what paleo man ate. It depends on the region. There’ve been conclusions suggesting paleo man ate a lot of animal flesh, nuts, roots, tubers, some dairy, etc. I realize this is going to vary depending on which Paleo ideology you abide by, but here’s what it’s important to realize – people back in the day had it much worse than we do now in terms of food supply.

I always say this: “if paleo man found a Big Mac, I’m sure he’d eat it, because he hooongry.

They ate what they had, or they didn’t survive. So as you might imagine, we evolved to eat a variety of foods, and as a result, people were able to survive on a little protein, and tons of whale blubber, or on nothing but fruit and insects.

Does that mean it was optimal, according to what we know about nutrition these days? 

Before eliminating foods based on the idea that someone, somewhere in the world thousands of years ago didn’t eat it, consider if the reason was due to lack of tools to harvest, or geographical location.

Low Carb

It’s clear, through science, that the brain needs carbohydrate to function normally. So why do we have low carb zealots preaching carbs to be an unnecessary nutrient?

Technically they’re right, but only because of the body’s amazing ability to convert protein (lean body mass, and the food we eat) into sugar for essential functions, like, umm, fueling the brain among other needs.

And let’s not forget about the importance of carbohydrates and fueling intense exercise, yet we have a ton of folks super adamant about combining a low carb diet and Crossfit.

This is what always baffles me. Someone is going to suggest you skimp on your carb intake, even to the tune of suggesting less than 50-100g per day over an extended period, because of the supposed negatives they’ve been led to believe through various sources.

So remember,if a particular diet is suggesting you eliminate any food group in excess, your BS-o-meter should go up.

IIFYM – The Basics

Aside from the notion of clean eating, there’s another idea called IIFYM, which stands for If It Fits Your Macros.

The idea behind it is that as long as you hit your macro nutrient targets, it doesn’t matter what type of food it is when it comes to your aesthetic goals.

So, let’s say you want to eat ice cream, brownies, barbecue pork, and a loaf of wonder bread during the day. Great – just make sure your hit your macro targets with said food, and you’re good, according to the IIFYM fan boys.

Now, I’m totally okay with this method with one caveat:

You don’t take it to an extreme of eating nothing but heavily processed food when you have the options of eating whole, nutrient-dense food regularly.

Does this mean you shouldn’t have a day every now and then where you eat nothing but crap all day long? That’s for you to decide. Personally, I don’t see it as being that detrimental in the long run.

The Dangers of IIFYM

asd

…or is there more to it?      Image: sabotagetimes

However, it’s this type of mindset that can get people into trouble, both nutritionally and mentally.

On the nutritional side of it, we have to think about deficiencies that might be present if we opt for a diet of boxed food as opposed to the nutrition provided by a well-rounded diet of fruits, veggies, starch, dairy, various fat sources and lean protein.

The mental struggle that might occur is getting used to such foods as a convenience or staple. We all know it’s much easier to grab something and go, rather than to prepare an actual meal.

Things that come to mind here are chugging a protein shake, eating a spoonful of peanut butter, and a few rice cakes.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this staple every once in a while, it should never be a long-term substitute for a REAL meal, in my opinion.

For those that have a hard time consuming large volumes of food, IIFYM is often a savior because it means they can hit their baseline of healthy foods for the day, and top it off with something that is more of a treat such as ice cream, cake, or whatever suits the individual to reach their calorie goals.

For some, this also means hitting their protein requirements with some extra protein powder when they’re too full from whole food protein sources.

Clean Eating – Just A Belief, Nothing More

There is nothing wrong with creating a framework that suits you. If that means avoiding certain foods that cause you to bloat, or feel bad, that’s fine. You can call it clean eating, happy eating, active eating… I don’t care. The name is not important.

My advice is to be more mindful of the idea that clean eating is just a belief (with many variations) held by those who want to label their dietary habits, for whatever reason that might be.

And because it’s just a belief, realize that no one has the answer, as the framework is based on individual ideas, and experiences.

You’re better off avoiding fad diets and developing a plan that allows you to be flexible with your dietary approach.


Practical Guidelines for Clean Eating and IIFYM

Understand both ideas can be carried to extremes.

The IIFYM approach can quickly turn into an excuse to stuff yourself full of as much junk as possible, which can be hard on your health, as well as possibly creating some very bad habits with your tastes and food selection.

The standard clean eating approach, if taken too far, has proven to become obsessive for some. Preoccupation with food, meal planning, and obsessing over the tiniest details just add more unnecessary stress to your life.

Here’s how I approach the IIFYM concept for myself and clients:

  • I stick to a 90/10 rule of making up the majority of my diet with simple, whole foods, and the remaining 10 percent with whatever I want.
  • This can mean a treat every single day, or one to two days per week of eating more liberally than normal.
  • You can skew the numbers any way you’d like. Some do 80/20, or 70/30. Personally, I’d not waiver past the 80/20, but that’s my preference. Make it work for you.
  • The food choices you make are up to you.

My suggestion is to realize first and foremost that our diets should be focused on whole foods above all else, especially if the goal is a healthy body and sound mind. [Andy: Things your great-grandmother would recognise as food.]

Just realize that any food that is normally deemed good can  be very bad in excess. Green veggie kale, for example, may have a high nutritional profile, but it’s also a goitrogen, which when consumed excessively can suppress the thyroid.

In lieu of that, also understand labeling your food as clean really holds no true meaning. Change your focus from clean to wholesome. Or just cut the name-calling altogether.


*********************************

jcdeen_fitness_oI’ve followed JC Deen for a couple of years now after finding his site a breath of fresh air. I appreciate his No-BS Approach and mindful articles on fitness. JC is a trainer and also takes online clients, and you can find out about his coaching services over on his beautiful looking blog JCDFitness.com.

I’d like to thank JuiCy on behalf of the RippedBody.com community for his time. He will be on hand to answer any questions you have in the comments and I’ll get stuck in too.

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About the Author

Andy Morgan

Hi, I'm Andy, co-author of the highly-acclaimed 'Muscle and Strength Pyramid' books and founder of RippedBody.com. This site is my sincere effort to build the best nutrition and training guides on the internet. Some readers hire me to coach them, which I've been doing full-time, online, for the last seven years. If you're interested in individualized, one-on-one coaching to help you crush your physique goals, let's start the conversation. (You can read more about Andy here.)

81 Comments

  1. […] The reason for the inability to sustain your weight wasn’t the low meal frequency, it was trying to eat all those calories from ‘clean foods’. Which if you prefer to do so then by all means, please do that and just spread your meals further out around the day and eat more often. However, I think clean eating is an unnecessary restriction on life. There is a good guest article on the site about this, and if you’d like my recommendations, give it a read. -> ‘Is clean eating a scam?‘ […]

  2. Mia says:

    Just found this great website – very informative! I’ve been very ‘health conscious’ for a couple years now, but I never seem to get my body to where I want it to be.
    I’ve always heard about counting macros, but I’ve never actually done it. As a beginner to IIFYM, would you suggest I focus on protein intake and ensure that’s sufficient and then focus on fats and carbs? Also, is it imperative to weigh all foods for accurate calculations?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Right, use the simplest method you possibly can to get results first, then add in layers of complication later when it becomes necessary. Go with a protein and calorie target first. Thanks for the question, Mia.

      Guide to counting here.

  3. Vladimir says:

    Hello gentlemen,
    thanks for sharing so much information about this topic!

    I have a question that bugs me. I have read many articles presented on Andy’s site, some of them repetitively as the amount of information is enormous :).

    Let’s say I counted my calories as well as macros to fit my current situation. And there is a one inconsistency i can’t seem to connect dots about. I have a split for training/rest day in nutrition plan. As you surely know, there is a variance of high-carb/low-fat and vice versa.

    Now, assuming I want to have a cheesecake and do it IIFYM style. A cheesecake (or any similar treat) is usually both high in carbs and fats as well, thus it will hardly fit my plan on either training or a rest day because it will either break the amount of fat or carbs for the days respectively. I, perhaps, I am going too much into detail (and stress about it), however I don’t see the pattern on how to follow IIFYM. The reason being is that the variety of foods that fit the numbers narrows down rapidly. For instance even oats, a high-carb source, has sufficient amount of fat, if you eat a portion like you need (~100g).

    Thanks for your thoughts on this, I truly appreciate.

    Vladimir

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Vladimir, thanks for taking the time to comment. Glad to hear you’ve found the site so helpful!

      You’re right. The cheesecake won’t be able to fit into your macro targets, so you can take a step down in the hierarchy of nutritional importance for the day and simply make it fit your calorie budget.

      The Pyramid of Nutritional Priorities

      Did you read this guide yet? I think you’ll find it exceptionally helpful.
      The Complete Guide To Setting Up Your Diet

      1. Vladimir says:

        Sure I did and it was very helpful as well! Especially the calculator listed :).

        Uhm, so just to nag a bit ^_^, then IIFYM (in daily scope) is not so accurate term, is it? Assuming it will not be a justification for “eat a cake everyday”, but at times there is this persistent feel that you gotta treat yourself… Based on what I already read, it would make sense to fit it into weekly budget of Macros, thus subtracting surplus carbs from training day and surplus fat from rest day. It’s just thinking out loud.

        How important is to focus on daily budget rather than weekly? Is a *week* a base amount of time?

        Thanks again Andy.

  4. Matthew Cocking says:

    Okay I have a theory. It could be rubbish however i wanted to ask to check on your stance. It says that the reason behind not eating all boxed food and processed food when doing IIFYM is due to the lack of nutrients in the foods. Okay that is understandable. So, not that I would advise it in any way, but could you technically take a multivitamin to cover all of your major nutrient requirements and then eat processed rubbish up to your IIFYM requirements because you have all bases covered?

    I look forward to your response.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Matthew, great question. Actually I covered exactly this in the article on micronutrition in the Pyramid of Importance diet set-up series:

      A Multivitamin is Not a Substitute for Fruit and Veg

      Unfortunately.

      Up until my mid-twenties I considered them a pain in the arse to cook and expensive to buy. My tastes in food have changed and I quite enjoy vegetables now but back then I believed there was an option of taking a pill instead. As for why not, this deserves a direct quote from Alan Aragon:

      “It can’t be over-emphasized that a poor diet with a multi is still a poor diet. There are a multitude of biologically active and beneficial compounds within the matrix of foods that are not in – and may never make their way into – a multivitamin/mineral supplement.

      It’s important to think of micronutrition not just in terms of essential vitamins & minerals, but also in terms of phytonutrients & zoonutrients; compounds that are not classified as vitamins or minerals but can optimize health and prevent disease. This is why attaining a variety of foods both within and across the food groups is important for covering all the micronutrient bases.”

      1. Apologies for the double post here, however I did think of one more question on this topic. Although my original thought of all micro-nutrients coming from a multivitamin was rubbish (as I expected) what is your opinion on multivitamins as a whole? I ask this because I religiously take a multivitamin every single morning as part of my supplementation routine (along with a vitamin D tablet) and have found that the few times in the past couple of years that I have stopped taking said multivitamin, I have fallen ill with a cold or another sort of unfortunate illness. Is this just coincidence, or will the multivitamin be playing a part in my general health and well being?

        Thanks again

        1. Andy Morgan says:

          Probably just a coincidence, but it will play a part in general health and well being. Previous comment not withstanding.

      2. That sounds fair enough to me!

        I have only very recently come across the philosophy of Intermittent fasting and I have to say I love it. I’m very thankful for the information guys like you provide us with on the subject all being from experience. I am only 20 and will be taking all of this experience on board as though it was my own.

        I am looking forwards to the odd guilt free McDonalds in the safe knowledge that it all goes towards the end goal rather than setting me further away from it.

  5. Matt J says:

    “2. It’s often just simply due to a lack of activity and muscle loss from youth. The vast majority of inactive people are 15% or higher.”

    So the lack of activity is creating the calorie surplus, then? From everything that I’ve read here, there’s an energy balance and you’re either over or under. Regardless of the reason for the calorie surplus, you either have one or you don’t, right?

    Cheers,

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      No, the decrease in activity is causing the muscle loss. Use it or lose it. People tend to get less and less active as they get older. Muscle wastes away, fat accumulates, even if bodyweight is the same. The extreme form of this is Sarcopenic obesity – people at normal body weight but very high fat levels due to a very low amount of muscle mass.

  6. Matt J says:

    Great article. Had some questions for you Andy. Apologies if these are answered elsewhere, but I’ve never really gotten straight no BS answers on these from anyone:

    – So using IIFYM, you can basically eat any foods in any quantity providing you hit your macro numbers at the end of the day? So so-called “bad foods” are created equal, as long as you hit your macro totals?

    – If someone’s carrying excess body fat (say 15%), does this mean they must have been eating in a calorie surplus?

    Thanks!

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Matt.
      1. No, because then you’d be ignoring important micronutrient considerations.
      2. It’s often just simply due to a lack of activity and muscle loss from youth. The vast majority of inactive people are 15% or higher.

  7. Liss says:

    Regarding low-carb: as an ethnic (polynesian) woman who is highly predisposed to T2 diabetes, it is really difficult to be constantly told that I need to consume a high-carb diet in order to be healthy. The only way I was able to manage my high blood-glucose levels was to reduce the carbs (refined or complex) in my diet. Exercise does help lower blood-glucose post meal but its not always convenient. Many of my family are diagnosed with type 2 before 40 despite the fact that most of us lead very active lives (touch, rugby, netball and league are favourite pastimes). Many of my family members never make it past 55 (also because of T2 diabetes) and this is common amongst Maori. Prior to colonisation, the average Maori diet was typically high in protein and fat consisting mostly of seafood and poultry. We didn’t have a lot of starchy carbs, and no wheat nor rice in our diet. Obesity, heart disease and diabetes are now a huge issue for Maori and I believe this is largely due the Eurocentric dietary guidelines we are provided by Drs and nutritionists. Respectfully, I think that you might do well to consider the role genetics and inherent disease (or predisposition) play in one’s decisions regarding “clean” eating and diet. Personally, I do not think there is one diet that fits all, there are just too many variables to consider. In saying that, nothing could convince me that sugar is healthy.

  8. Matt says:

    Hi Andy,

    I’m a huge pan of peanut butter (Skippy All Natural) and use it as as a source of fat intake. Can you explain why you would not suggest consuming it daily?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Matt. You can, as long as it hits your macros, and as long as it’s not in such a quantity that it throws off important micronutrient considerations for the day. This is an issue when cutting. More here:
      #3 Micronutrient Considerations & Water

  9. Matt says:

    Reminded me of this:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wd8tZiHexPc
    Best watched in private to avoid laughing out loud repeatedly in public 🙂

      1. Toby says:

        Hey Andy, i’ve been doing leangains for awhile now, had some great results….But i’m finding the high fat days hard to pick foods that don’t make me feel like im going to end up having a heart attack one day. I find myself eating bacon, eggs, and pork frequently on these days which ends up being 4 days out of the week…Do you have any suggestions for the high fat day. Thanks for any help you can give

        Toby

        1. Andy Morgan says:

          Hi Toby, dairy, butter, avocado. I think this is more of a problem of mindset rather then reality due to years of having it beaten into us that saturated fat was bad. More on this in the FAQ, I think the first answer regarding top 10 myths.

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