One of the oldest dieting debates that has rumbled on for the longest time: How clean does your diet need to be? Should you avoid foods that’s aren’t considered ‘clean’?
For those who don’t know, a clean food is anything that is considered ‘natural.’ An easier way to think about this is foods that a cavemen would have had access to. Fruits and vegetables. Meats and fish. Nuts, seeds and simple carbs like potatoes (although some people you speak to wouldn’t even consider these allowed.)
So a ‘dirty’ food is anything that has been artificially produced, refined, processed or manufactured in a lab. Chocolate and sweets. Alcohol. Cakes and pastries. Even foods considered ‘healthy’ or ‘slimming’ (even though they’re not) such as cereals, pasta and fibre bars.
The premise of this debate is modern foods have been made in the last one hundred years or so and our ancestors didn’t have them. Which is directly linked to why we have such an unhealthy nation.
On paper this seems like a sensible idea right? I mean I constantly preach the message here in this blog to eat a diet comprised of whole or’ clean’ foods for the most part. Things that grew in the ground, picked from a tree, swum in the ocean etc.
But the key ingredient here is for the most part. I said nothing about only sticking to whole foods.
Good luck with that.
I’ve discussed why trying to follow a strictly whole foods diet is not going to work long-term. When I talk about long-term healthy sustainable weight management I’m not talking about something that will work for 12 weeks, 12 months or three years. This shit needs to stick for 10+ years.
So today, I’ll dispel certain myths on why only eating ‘clean’ is unnecessary. I’ll also go through some of the most common questions on the clean versus dirty food argument and give you my interpretation.
1. Dirty foods have loads of chemicals in them and so your body cannot properly process them. It will destroy your gut microbiome.
This is the biggest objection I get. The fear of ‘bad’ foods and what they do to your insides. Many of my clients report being scared of eating a slice of carrot cake as they fear it’s kill them because of the bad chemicals or something.
As long as you are following a diet that is around 80% whole foods and you’re not openly eating foods that you are allergic to, this really shouldn’t concern you.
In terms of chemicals. Funnily enough, everything is a chemical. You are made of chemicals. Water is made of chemicals. Your phone is all chemicals. Apples are made of chemicals.
Actually – a fun fact about apples. One of the chemicals present in an apple seed is cyanide. A chemical poisonous to the human body. So if you accidentally ate too many apple seeds you could possibly kill yourself. Many naturally made chemicals are harmful for the human body. Including some berries and mushrooms.
Try not to the let the irrational fear that something made is bad for you. If a guy in a white lab coat makes vitamin B12 and sticks it in a pill; it’s the same as the vitamin B12 in that chicken salad you’ve just scoffed down.
Not only that, you body is an exceptional filtering machine. We have so many stages in the digestion process that self-regulates what stays and what goes. From enzymes in your mouth, stomach acid, kidneys and a liver.
That small insignificant portion of your daily calorie intake won’t do a thing.
This goes out the window If you’re consistently eating the majority of your calories from ‘dirty’ foods however. Then you need to stop immediately and fix this because you might run into some of these problems.
2. If you consume foods high in sugar (fizzy drinks, chocolate bars, sweets, biscuits, cakes) they will spike your insulin, make you fat, sick and should be avoided at all costs.
There is some validity to certain parts of this statement, but it is not a complete reflection of the truth. I wrote about insulin and its role in weight loss here if you want to learn more.
I’ll happily support the notion sugary foods have a few problems, but it has nothing to do with the fact that they are high in sugar or spike your insulin.
The problem is they have zero nutritional benefits. They are not particularly filling and are extremely easy to over-consume. Not only that, but chocolate bars, cakes and pastries are packed with dietary fat, and dietary fat can be highly calorific. If you eat a diet that is overly calorific you gain weight. Simple.
To favour a diet in chocolate and crisps over fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, grains nuts and seeds will mean your vitamin, mineral and fibre levels will suffer. So I’d happily sit here and tell you to be wary of this sub-group of foods. As long as you understood the proper reasons why.
Sugar intake has actually been on the decline since 1999. Obesity rates have been increasing regardless. What was that about clean foods being the solution to diets again?
3. Calories don’t matter if you eat naughty treats. They are fattening and will ruin your goals.
Why can’t you eat treats on a diet? If you consume around 1,800 calories on your diet and have 200 calories left for the day, assuming you’ve eaten your body weight in vegetables and meat, then a couple of scoops of ice cream will not be detrimental to your progress.
In fact it will likely be a beneficial psychological factor because you have allowed yourself to enjoy foods that you like. The key to dietary adherence is opting for nutrient dense foods that increase satiety and stop excessive hunger levels, whilst at the same time creating an environment of variety, flexible decision making and enjoyment.
In many of my seminar talks, I will ask the following question to the audience:
If you needed to eat 1,800 calories per day to lose weight and you only had the choice to eat 1,900 calories of carrots or 1,700 calories of Mars Bars; which diet will result in fat loss?
Regardless of whether the food is ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’, the Mars Bar diet will win. Calories is king with weight loss. It doesn’t matter what the food is.
But of course following a Mars Bar diet WILL clearly lack sufficient nutrients (which would also be the case only eating carrots but that’s beside the point) and you will almost conclusively fail the diet because 1,700 calories of Mars Bars is not going to fill you up over 24 hours. So I don’t recommend you try that tomorrow.
Every diet consumed should be looked at within context. It would be a complete fallacy to slander a persons dieting efforts because you see them eating a few baby bells in the office on their lunch break, when you don’t even know what the other 95% of their diet looks like for the day.
If they are 100% on track to hit their protein targets, their fibre targets, their vitamin and mineral targets anyway, what’s the big deal?
Focus the main bulk of your diet on eating whole foods. Sprinkle in some treats to keep you sane.
To say you can’t have treats and must only eat clean on a diet is a one way ticket to failure. So I’ll continue to use this approach and my clients will continue to reach their goals.