New clients will tell me all the time ‘I eat clean’ – yet they seem lost on why they aren’t receiving the results they’re seeking. Gareth does a great job on explaining WHY.
Why Eating Clean Is Not Enough
Many people seem to think that simply eating “clean” will produce the muscle growth and fat loss results they’re after.
And that “bad” foods will keep them from losing weight or slow their progress.
The common ideology is that there are bad foods which should be avoided (or at least limited) and good foods that you can eat.
Now before we go any further, let’s first propose the question…
What Is Clean Eating?
There are a lot of terms and guidelines thrown around of what people consider to be “clean eating”.
And depending on who you talk to – the definition of what is clean is variable.
For a typical bodybuilder – brown rice, oats, and sprouted grain bread are deemed clean. But talk someone who follows a paleo eating approach, and these foods are off limits because they avoid grains at all costs.
The thing is — there really is no way to define what’s clean and what isn’t.
Everyone will have their own definition.
And although I don’t like to categorize them — for arguments sake we will say ‘clean’ foods are generally characterized by some form of the following:
- single or minimal ingredients
- grown in the ground, or from the land, air, or sea
- minimally processed
- natural or organic
On the other hand, ‘bad’ foods might be characterized by:
- lots of ingredients
- highly processed
- man-made, or a once natural food that’s been modified in some way
Clean Eating Can Still Make You Fat
I’ve heard many people claim they eat clean or “healthy”, but still can’t seem to lose weight.
Truth is, you can eat all of the healthiest, most nutritious foods in the world, and still get fat.
How’s this possible, you ask?
Because calories and overall energy balance – not specific foods, are what control whether you gain or lose weight.
Allow me to illustrate…
Take the following foods, for example:
- Grass fed beef
- Organic free range eggs
- Gluten-free bread
- Natural fruit juice
- Coconut oil
- Chia seeds
All very good, nutritious, healthy foods right?
Well yes – this is true. But most are also very high in calories.
And if you eat too many calories from healthy foods, you’ll still gain weight.
Many people really fail to grasp this concept. They seem to think that as long as a food is “healthy”, it is good for them.
But it depends on the context.
Remember, if you’re not creating a consistent caloric deficit, it doesn’t really matter what you do… you will not lose fat.
So if you think you’re eating ‘healthy’ and still can’t seem to lose fat, you’re probably just eating too many calories.
Where Clean Eating Is Flawed
The basic premise of clean eating often promotes simply selecting “healthy” foods to make up your diet, and doesn’t account for calories.
The real problem lies in the lack of accounting for calories.
Most people are so concerned with supposed food quality, that they end up completely disregarding food quantity.
People make this basic fundamental mistake, and don’t see the progress they want and expect to make.
And they don’t understand why.
They simply look at the foods they’re eating and consider them healthy choices — without understanding how they fit into the overall diet as a whole.
Instead of looking at foods as either clean or dirty – we need to look at the overall diet as a whole.
We know that:
On the surface, calories determine whether weight will be gained or lost.
The breakdown of those calories also matter.
When we think in terms of body composition – macronutrient balance is critical.
If you were to just focus solely on hitting calories with no regard to macronutrient breakdown, this would lead to inferior results.
- Fall short on protein and you wont be able to support the building and retainment of lean tissue.
- Consume too little carbs and your training performance is likely to suffer.
- Too little fats and you’ll negatively affect hormonal balance and testosterone levels.
You cannot overlook the importance of getting proper nutrients for optimal health and performance.
If you’re new to macronutrients, you can check out my comprehensive guide here.
It’s Not All About Food Choices
What matters more — The calories you consume, or the specific foods you eat?
Hopefully it’s clear by now, that it is not just your food selection that determines whether your diet is healthy or not.
Obviously using some common sense, we can recognize that some foods may be better for health and performance than others.
Food “quality” is important, but quantity is much more important.
Let’s compare two people.
One person consumes a wide variety of wholesome, nutritious foods while including some, typical “junk” foods, within his/her macronutrient goals –they will lose weight as long as they maintain a caloric deficit throughout the week.
The other person eats “cleaner” foods, but eats too many calories throughout the week – but they will still gain weight, despite what looks like a “healthier” diet on the surface.
The truth is — it’s really not necessary to cut out any specific foods when trying to lose fat.
Because fat loss is not dependent on how healthy or clean you eat.
What’s much more important is the overall number of calories and macronutrients that you consume at the end of the day.
Also Read: A Beginners Guide To Flexible Dieting
Shifting Your Focus
A lot of nutrition really comes down to a numbers game.
If you have a definitive goal – whether that is to bulk up and add muscle or lean down and lose body fat – you need to be tracking and managing your food intake and net energy balance with at least reasonable level of accuracy throughout the week if you want to see real, consistent, and predictable results.
If your goal is to build muscle, you’ll need to consume a slight surplus of calories (more than you burn each day).
Also Read: How Many Calories Per Day To Build Muscle
If your goal is to lose body fat, then you’ll need to create a caloric deficit by burning more calories than you consume each day.
It’s really as simple as that.
Sure there are other smaller details that go into planning a nutritional plan for optimal results:
- Specific macronutrient combinations
- Meal frequency/timing that makes adherence easier
- Food sources that make up the bulk of your intake which you actually enjoy eating
The thing is though… none of those things matter if your energy balance is out of whack.
This comes back to the 80/20 rule, which applies to many things in life.
To put it simply – with nutrition and fitness, there are things that really matter, and a lot of crap that really doesn’t.
Unfortunately, the most important things are often overlooked, simply because they sound ‘boring’ and aren’t as marketable.
We need to learn to work hard at the right things.
And ignore the bullshit.
Is Tracking Food Intake Really Necessary?
Depending on how serious you are about attaining your goals, you may not be prepared to go all-in and track everything down to the last detail.
And that’s fine. It’s probably not necessary for a lot of people.
If you’re just looking to get in better shape, you can probably get away with simply sticking to what you consider healthy, high quality foods the majority of the time and eating a bit less.
Most traditional “healthy foods” are not as calorically dense, so sticking to these kind of foods means you won’t take in as many calories at the end of the day – making it easier to maintain a caloric deficit. It has nothing to do with the healthy foods containing any special, powerful fat burning properties, but simply the fact that you’ll likely take in less overall calories without having to track anything.
However, if you’re not happy with the results you’re currently getting and really serious about taking control of your body, then it’s time to start tracking your intake with a reasonable level of accuracy.
Proper nutrition tracking is not as difficult as it is often believed to be and I’ve covered that in a comprehensive guide previously:
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not advocating that you should just eat junk food. Your diet is still going to be composed of what are considered healthy foods.
But if you completely ignore energy balance, and simply wing your diet and eat what you deem to be “clean” or “healthy”, then don’t expect to see significant progress in terms of muscle growth or fat loss.