Clean eating is becoming an increasingly popular trend in today’s society. However, many who eat clean are often confused by the lack of progress. The purpose of this article is to expand upon the concept of clean eating and to create a dietary approach that’s more efficient and sustainable long-term.
Clean eating – What is it?
If you ask ten people, who would consider themselves clean eaters what the term “clean” means, you will get some different answers. The answers may include responses such as no processed food, low-fat, low sugar, low calorie, low glycemic index, only foods our ancestors ate and a variety of other answers.
However, as you start to question their definition of “clean” more specifically, the definition often starts to fall apart.
For example, many protein bars are high-protein, high-fiber, low-fat foods made from things like dairy and grains. However, these are processed foods. Is this clean?
What about popcorn? A standard serving of plain popcorn has similar fiber and protein contents to a potato with a lower glycemic index. Is popcorn a clean food?
What about high-calorie baked goods made for those following a “Paleo” diet? Theoretically, these stem from ingredients our ancestors ate (although I doubt they were baking bread and cookies with them in their caves), but the calorie and fat contents are often high. Are these clean?
As you can probably see by now, this line of questioning eventually results in a minuscule list of foods that are acceptable to eat. Moreover, that small list differs from person to person.
Flaws of the clean eating approach:
In addition to not having a concrete definition, the concept of clean eating suffers from a number of flaws.
“Healthy” and “Clean” differ depending upon an individual’s goals
If you ask most people if a potato is a healthy or clean food, they would say “yes.” However, that may not be the case for people with diabetes due to the carbohydrate content or an individual with renal failure due to the potassium content.
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What about milk? Most would say milk is a clean or healthy food. However, what about those who are lactose intolerant or those consuming whole milk (which is high in calories) while attempting to lose weight?
What about ice cream? Most would say “no”; however, for someone with a high metabolic rate trying to gain weight eating exclusively high fiber carbohydrate sources could make consuming enough calories painful and lead to GI distress. Therefore, fitting in foods like ice cream may be advantageous.
An adequate diet ultimately depends on upon an individual’s situation, preferences, and goals.
Clean Eating is typically a Rigid Dieting Practice
People who eat clean have a very black and white approach to dieting typically. There is usually some list of foods (depending upon their definition of healthy or clean) that are good and a list of foods that are bad.
However, the strict dietary practice that involves elimination of foods and food groups have been shown to be less successful. Rigid dieting is associated with overeating and eating disorders while more flexible approaches to dieting have been associated with a lower BMI [1, 2]. Moreover, a recent study found that thinking in black and white when it comes to foods impedes the ability to lose weight and maintain a healthy body weight long-term .
Therefore, for a dietary approach to be successful long-term, it needs to be more flexible than viewing foods as “good” or “bad.”
Focus on Food Source, Not Calorie Content
Those who follow a clean eating approach base the success of their diets on their ability to consume clean foods while avoiding non-clean foods. Such an approach occurs without regard to calorie content.
Many foods that are typically considered clean are high in calories. For example, nuts contain upwards of 200 calories per 1oz serving. Compare that to 1oz sweet potato (approximately 25 calories) or 1oz blueberries (approximately 15 calories) and it is clear that calorie content of clean foods may differ greatly.
Similarly, a highly frequented restaurant recently began advertising that all of their foods would be clean by year’s end; however, many of the muffins, cookies, scones, sandwiches, paninis and even salads on their menu are 400-500 calories or more each.
Ultimately, body weight change comes from the balance between the number of calories consumed and the number of calories expended. With many foods commonly viewed as clean containing a large number of calories, it’s not surprising that many wonder why they aren’t losing weight and progressing towards their goals when following a clean eating approach.
Energy balance (not the food source) determines body weight change. Therefore, examining the calorie content of a diet is vital.
IIFYM (if it fits your macros) is a more flexible approach to dieting that is becoming increasingly popular. It focuses more around the “how much” an individual is eating than the “what.”
What most people associate IIFYM with
It is a common misconception that IIFYM means eating as much “crap” as you can fit in, while still hitting your numbers.
This misconception is perpetuated by IIFYMers posting pictures of some the fun and creative foods they eat throughout the day such as pizza, pop tarts (often thought as the unofficial food of IIFYM), ice cream, “flex bowls,” and many other tasty treats.
Based on what the general public observes of IIFYM, it perceived that IIFYM = eat pure crap (and maybe take a multi or drink a protein shake).
However, this could not be further from the truth.
What IIFYM is
While many advocates of IIFYM do eat foods that clean eaters would not consider clean, what many do not realize is that those “bad” foods only make up (or at least should only make up) a small portion of an individual’s daily intake.
Most people that follow IIFYM eat primarily a variety of nutrient-dense food from all food groups. Their diets are typically full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and low-fat dairy, all foods that typically are considered clean by many clean eaters.
Eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods should be the focus on any sustainable nutrition approach. This consumption prevents vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Many who follow IIFYM also track fiber to ensure adequate intake.
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However, one major difference is that those who follow IIFYM do not have any food or food group restrictions. They will fit in other foods that they want in addition to the nutrient-dense whole food they are eating. The flexible dieting approach is about moderation, rather than an all or none strategy.
It’s best that 80-90 percent of food consumed be nutrient-dense foods while the other 10-20 percent are discretionary macros to do what an individual wants, so long as they are hitting their macros each day. By staying within their daily macronutrient numbers each day those who follow IIFYM can eat the foods they enjoy in moderation (even if they are not typically considered clean) and still make progress towards their goals.
My Experience with Clean Eating and IIFYM
If you are still with me, you are probably wondering why you should listen to my recommendation to modify your clean eating approach using IIFYM.
It turns out that clean eating was a huge failure for me, but a more flexible IIFYM approach has been a massive success.
Nearly 15 years ago as I was getting into the sport of natural bodybuilding, I followed what would be considered a clean eating approach. There were certain foods that I ate and a large number of foods I thought I could not eat if I wanted to be a successful bodybuilder.
I used a clean eating approach heading into my first competition in 2004 where I took last in my teen class and next to last in novice. After putting everything I had into contest prep only to not place as high as I had hoped, this crushed my spirit. I then spoke with the judges following the show, and the consensus was that I needed more size to be more competitive.
After this, I started to “bulk” using a clean eating approach. Foods I viewed as clean included things such as chicken breast, tuna, protein bars, protein powder, oatmeal, potatoes, nuts, different kinds of nut butter, veggies, low-fat/fat-free dairy, and occasionally some whole grain bread or cereal. I ate large quantities (5000+ calories/day) of these few foods for 2 years.
After 2 years, my weight shot up from 145lbs to 210lbs, and it wasn’t pretty. I couldn’t figure out why I gained so much body fat since I was only eating a handful of clean foods.
IIFYM and Flexible Dieting came into play
At this point, I did my research and began to learn about macronutrients, flexible dieting, and IIFYM. I realized that I had gained weight because my caloric intake was too high regardless of the food sources I was eating. More importantly, I learned that I could eat a greater variety of foods. Moreover, that increasing my food variety could improve my health, improve my relationship with food and provide a more flexible and ultimately sustainable approach for me long-term.
Approximately a decade later I still use an IIFYM approach and have achieved more than I could have ever imagined in the sport of natural bodybuilding, even winning a professional natural bodybuilding contest this past spring.
Contest placing aside, IIFYM has given me a much healthier and more sustainable relationship with food than clean eating. I have no doubt it will do the same for you as you begin to increase flexibility in your dietary approach through IIFYM.
Take Home Points
Clean eating has no set definition. What’s considered a clean or healthy food differs from person to person based upon their situation, preferences, and goals.
A common flaw of a clean eating approach is that there is often no regard for calories or macronutrients. Clean eating strategies are often strict dietary approaches that are not sustainable long-term.
IIFYM should not mean eating pure crap. Most that follow an IIFYM approach primarily eat a variety of nutrient-dense food while fitting in other foods (typically not thought of as clean) in moderation.
Moving from clean eating to IIFYM can result in a more efficient approach because of the caloric intake being a vital part of it. Ultimately, energy balance (not the food source) determines body weight change. Also, IIFYM can provide a more flexible and sustainable approach long-term that can improve an individual’s relationship with food.
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- Stewart, T.M., D.A. Williamson, and M.A. White, Rigid vs. flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in nonobese women. Appetite, 2002. 38(1): p. 39-44.
- Smith, C.F., et al., Flexible vs. Rigid dieting strategies: relationship with adverse behavioral outcomes. Appetite, 1999. 32(3): p. 295-305.
- Palascha, A., E. van Kleef, and H.C. van Trijp, How does thinking in Black and White terms relate to eating behavior and weight regain? J Health Psychol, 2015. 20(5): p. 638-48.
About the Author
Peter Fitschen has a Ph.D. in Nutritional Science from the University of Illinois as well as a BS in Biochemistry and MS in Biology with a Physiology Concentration from the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength and Conditioning Association and also a professional natural bodybuilder who has competed in natural bodybuilding since 2004. Peter works as a physique consultant through his company, Fitbody, and Physique LLC.
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