TL;DR There is no objective definition of ‘clean food’ or ‘clean eating’. It doesn’t exist.
How many times have you people saying that they’re eating ‘clean food’?
‘Clean Food’ is a buzzword that’s rife in fitness circles at the moment, and while you could just dismiss it as another vacuous hashtag, it’s ubiquity can be confusing for those that don’t know any better.
So what is clean food? Well, it isn’t anything.
That’s right, ‘clean food’ is NOT a thing. Sorry.
What is ‘Clean Eating’?
But what do people THINK clean food is? Let’s consult Twitter;
What are the key themes here?
Fruits and Vegetables – If we’re saying fruits and vegetables are ‘clean foods’ we need to define why. Is it because of their nutrient density? Many fruits and vegetables contain key micro nutrients for general health, but so do lots of different meats, and nuts, and oils, and plenty of other non-plant based foods.
‘Whole Grains’ – The general consensus seems to be that ‘whole grain’ carbohydrates are ‘cleaner’ than their non-whole grain counter parts, but why? It might be true that they’re more nutrient dense, and have a lower G.I rating, meaning they’re potentially more satiating, but does this make them ‘cleaner’?. Not necessarily.
Protein – Most protein rich foods also contain fat, and therefore fat, even saturated fat which is commonly demonized by the media, is also ‘clean’ by association. So is protein and fat are clean, as well as ‘whole grain’ carbs, then the majority of all foodstuffs on the planet are ‘clean’
Of course six Tweets aren’t representative of what most people view ‘clean food’ as, In my opinion, most people think ‘clean food’ is;
‘Clean Food is anything that’s Unprocessed’
The problem with this line of thinking is that any food you buy in a supermarket is processed in one way or another.
Granted, your washed and bagged salad may not be as processed as your sugar coated cereal of choice, but it would be a fallacy to say that it’s sold purely in its natural form.
The other thing is that processing can take a few different forms, most notably chemical processing and mechanical processing – chemical processing is obviously much more damaging to the nutrient content of a given food, while mechanical processing simply refers to chopping or shredding – but the fact remains that it is still processing.
The other problem with this approach is that many ‘unprocessed’ advocates will use whey protein – which is heavily processed.
‘Clean Food is Low in Calories’
I think this is an approach many people take when looking to lose weight, and while eating food low in calories (so long as you create a negative energy balance) will help achieve weight loss, if this means prioritising foods that are low in nutrients, then this approach won’t be sustainable.
Also consider that some foods considered to be ‘clean’, e.g. fruit (particularly high sugar fruit) may not be as satiating as other options (e.g. protein-rich foods) and therefore not optimal for a weight loss diet.
‘Clean Food is Anything other than Carbs’
Of course this is ridiculous. Many people forget that vegetables are predominantly carbohydrate-based, and that many carb-rich foods (e.g. sweet/white potatoes) boast favourable micronutrient profiles.
Carbs can also be useful if you’re trying to lose weight or build muscle because they’re the body’s preferred fuel source (in most cases) for intense exercise.
‘Clean Food is whatever’s Fashionable at the time’
Just like everything else in life, foods go in and out of fashion. Butter decreased in popularity because people thought it made you fat, but now people are singing the praises of Almond Milk, Coconut Oil, Quinoa and Kale. Don’t get me wrong these are all great foods to include in your diet, but they don’t necessarily offer anything ‘magical’ that other, similar alternatives don’t.
A few years back it was Acai Berries – the problem is people think these foods are miracle cures for general health or weight loss and invest heavily in them, while neglecting the rest of their diet. Kale, Acai Berries and Almond Milk won’t do you any favours if the rest of your diet sucks.
But if you don’t trust my opinion, what about Google? Google’s always right.
Let’s address each of these points individually;
1. Like I said, virtually all foods you buy at the supermarket are processed in some way. ‘Single-ingredient’ foods is probably a better term, but again, many would say whey protein is clean, and that’s processed, and has more than one ingredient
2. Refined/processed – same thing
3. So basically ‘eat a balanced diet’, this is good advice for both performance, aesthetics and overall health, and always has been. Just because you eat a balanced diet, however, doesn’t mean it’s clean – you could eat a highly-processed diet that was perfectly balanced.
4. What does ‘watch out’ even mean? If it means ‘avoid’ or even ‘limit’ it’s potentially crap advice – depending on your goal. There are many unprocessed (clean?) foods that contain fat (nuts) or sugar (fruit) so should we ‘watch’ those??
5. Meal frequency has NOTHING to do with the quality or ‘clean-ness’ of your food, completely separate issue
The other two principles were;
6. ‘Don’t Drink Your Calories’ – potentially good advice if you’re talking about high-calorie juices and coke, but what about fruit or veg smoothies? They’re a convenient way to get a huge variety of micronutrients in one hit
7. ‘Get Moving’ – Good general advice but NOTHING to do with ‘eating clean’
WHY Are You Eating ‘Clean’?
The problem is, people seem to love telling everyone that they’re ‘eating clean’, and that ‘everyone needs to eat clean’ and that ‘eating clean will solve the world’s ills and defeat ISIL’, but perhaps worse than the ‘eating clean’ platitude lacking any concrete meaning, it can be quite misleading and most people don’t actually know why they’re doing it.
Are you ‘eating clean’ to lose weight/fat, or improve health? Because, depending on your interpretation of ‘clean’, you could be sabotaging your own end goal.
Let’s say you want to lose weight, so you start replacing some of the refined carbohydrates in your diet with nuts (because refined carbohydrates aren’t clean and nuts are unprocessed, so they are clean, right?). Using our basic knowledge of nutrition, we know that gram for gram, fat is much more calorific than carbohydrate, in fact, it’s over twice as calorific.
Let’s say that you were eating 300g of refined carbohydrate per day, that equals 1200 calories.
You replace this with 300g of unprocessed ‘clean’ nuts. Bad news, because that equals 2700 calories.
If you add 1500 calories to your daily intake over a significant period of time, you’re highly likely to put on weight.
Let’s say you don’t care about losing weight and you just want to optimise your overall health, so you eat foods with a high nutrient density. While this might include lots of green veg, you’ll probably also want to increase your consumption of foods that are calorie-dense; i.e. fatty fish, nuts and even dark chocolate.
The issue here is unless you closely monitor your calorie intake, it’s very easy to over-consume and put yourself into a calorie surplus. If you do this over a long period of time, you’ll put on weight, and aside from the fact that 99.9% of people don’t want to get fatter, additional fat can be bad for your health.
Again, you’ve undermined your original goal.
Still think ‘eating clean’ is the way forward?
Clean Eating VS IIFYM
IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) is diet trend that has taken off the last few years. The philosophy is that you can pretty much eat anything you want, as long it meets your calorie and macro targets for the day/week.
Of course this goes against the ‘clean eating’ mantra of prioritizing unprocessed, natural food, because, well, you can pretty much eat anything you want, and yes that does mean if you want to get your carbohydrates from Fruit Pastilles, and your Protein from cheap sausages, and your fat from glugging down processed Vegetable Oil, you can.
There are two main problems with IIFYM
1. You need to be ultra pedantic about counting calories because it’s VERY easy to overeat these kinds of calorie-dense foods
2. If you take IIFYM to the extreme (basically eating crap all the time) you probably won’t fee; great, and your overall health could suffer.
‘Clean Eating’ is generally a better choice for weight loss if you don’t want to calorie count because it’s quite difficult to overeat vegetables, protein and unprocessed carbohydrates, however, there are still pitfalls, as per the example above.
Clean Eating/IIFYM Hybrids
Clean eating and IIFYM are generally opposing philosophies, but I have noticed a trend recently, mainly on Instagram, where people are coming up with concoctions that they they brand ‘clean’ but actually have characteristics of IIFYM.
An example of this might be protein brownies.
This could be a regular brownie recipe, but with added protein powder, or a ‘healthier’ recipe that substitutes certain ingredients for others, for example, wheat flour might be swapped for coconut flour.
But is a protein brownie really ‘clean’? If we’re saying that clean food is unprocessed, then the answer is no, because protein powder is processed. And if they’re made with Coconut flour rather than wheat flour, does that make them cleaner? Health-wise, it might have a slightly more favourable micronutrient profile but it doesn’t mean it’s any less calorific.
Another popular substitute in ‘clean treat’ recipes is Agave Syrup in place of honey, again, the perception is that it’s somehow ‘healthier’ or ‘cleaner’, but this assumption isn’t grounded in reality.
Let’s consult Instagram and the annoying ‘clean treats’ hashtag.
That bowl of sludge, delicious as it looks can’t be classed as ‘clean’ can it? It might fit into the posters Macros but does that make it clean? C’mon, it has a fucking Kit Kat in it, are Kit Kats unprocessed?
In this sense, ‘clean’ is just a byword for ‘fashionable’, so the question is, do you want to look cool in front of your Instagram followers, or do you actually want results?
‘Clean eating’ or ‘eating clean’ are totally arbitrary terms that don’t actually mean anything.
Establish your goal first, then build your diet to achieve that goal, rather than mindlessly jumping on the latest nutritional bandwagon.