Clean Eating Sucks

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clean eating sucksThe term clean eating makes me cringe. At first it makes you feel superior while you reach for a virtual pat on the back. “Wow, you eat clean all of the time? You’re so good!” After the thrill wears off, you’re left feeling judged followed by shame.

Why is Clean Eating so Seductive?

Perfectly posed, flawless photos of barely clothed self-proclaimed fitness gurus have taken over instagram. They lift, jump around and tells about their meals of fish, chicken, broccoli, and sweet potatoes. No words are necessary. Their social media accounts scream “you could look like this too if you stay disciplined and eat what I eat!” It’s sales 101. Who wouldn’t want to be part of this exclusive group? The clean eating community provides more than just a sense of identification. It also gives people a little boost. Hey, what I’m doing is better than what you are doing. Clean eating seduces people with community, a common bond and a feeling of control. In a world where so many things are out of our control, we often reach for something, anything, we can control to decrease our anxiety.

What’s Wrong with Getting Sucked into Clean Eating?

“I eat clean most of the time,” an athlete recently told me, his sentence trailing off in volume as his eyes looked downward in shame. “But, sometimes I eat wings, fries and a few beers with the other guys,” he confessed, as he glanced up waiting for his penance. One small step away from the rigid rules of clean eating and you’ll feel like a failure. Any deviation can lead to a landslide – bingeing on forbidden foods. The authors of Intuitive Eating call this the What the Hell effect. The moment a forbidden food is eaten, overeating takes place.

How are these people in shape? For some it’s a cycle of diet, extreme exercise and bingeing. I bet more than 90% of the women and 70% of the men don’t feel great about their body (1, 2). They are fishing in the vast social media ocean for likes and positive comments. Many also engage in disordered eating and exercise (over exercising, using cleanses, laxatives, diuretics or fat burners, dietary restriction etc.).

How Can You Loosen Your Grip on Cleaning Eating?

Last week I ate lunch with one of the baseball players. He had a few cookies on his plate. One of our new players (who hasn’t figured out yet that I’m not the food police) came in and said “are those cookies good for your body?” His response was classic, “they’re good for the soul,” he said with a warm smile as we continued our conversation.

Instead of trying to “eat clean,” consider eating healthy foods most of the time while eating “play” foods, foods that are good for your soul, when you want them. Allow yourself flexibility with eating. People who allow themselves some food flexibility are less dissatisfied with their bodies and weigh less than those who don’t. Don’t judge yourself and never allow others to judge you based on what you are eating.

Eat the real thing. If you are craving a freshly baked gooey chocolate chip cookie, have one. Don’t try to get by with a low fat kale cookie made with cocoa powder (unless of course you’ve found one that is delicious). Eat what you are truly craving. If your anxiety hits the ceiling as you worry about your weight, remember it’s one cookie or a few cookies. Another gem from Intuitive Eating:

If you get pleasure and satisfaction in eating you won’t eat as much.

If you have issues with the scale, set it aside (the attic is a good place) and focus on how you feel. There are foods that may taste good in the moment but if you have too many of them, you might not feel as good. Let feeling help drive your food choices.

Moving Away from Judgement and Shame

I have probably tagged some posts on Instagram with #cleaneating. After all, I’m in the business of selling better performance, in sport and in life. I want to reach as many people as possible. But, I don’t want you suckered into a life filled with strict rules, judgment and shame. You also don’t need to live unto to someone else’s standards of an “ideal body.” Doing this will compound negative feelings about your body. Any time you feel a little down remember what your body has done and can do for you. It’s time to look past those finger pointing, clean eating photos and, like Hilary Duff (below) tell them to #kissmyass.

1 Eur Eat Disord Rev 2013;21(1):52-59. 

2 Research on Males and Eating Disorders

Count Macros, Eat Doughnuts & Get Ripped

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If you’re counting macros (grams of protein, carbohydrate and fat), are you stuck with a boring diet full of egg whites, chicken, brown rice and broccoli or, can you indulge in doughnuts and other foods typically considered “off limits” and still get ripped? A recent study from the University of South Florida examined both approaches. I think you’ll be happy with their results.
Doughnuts and macros

Macros Study: Flexible vs. Rigid Dieting

In this study,  27 resistance trained men and women (this is huge because many studies use untrained subjects – the kind that have never seen the inside of a gym so almost any intervention is guaranteed to produce results) about 25 years of age were placed on either a Rigid or Flexible 10-week diet phase based on macros and a 25% decrease in calories:

  • Rigid Macro Counting (termed “exclusive” in the study) included a pretty basic diet (given they were 25-year-olds on a limited budget) including foods such as eggs, egg whites, protein shakes (they were given preparation instructions), oats, berries, 99% lean turkey breast, chicken breast, fish (they were given specific options), brown rice, potatoes, choices of different vegetables, oils (added if need be to increase fat intake).
  • Flexible Macro Counting (termed “inclusive” in the study) –  the study subjects could eat whatever they wanted as long as it fit their macros. They were given no food restrictions and could therefore incorporate more variety into their diet.

All continued on their regular training program.

Results

Both groups lost weight and body fat  with no differences between groups in weight loss, body fat mass loss and body fat % decrease. However, in the 10 week post diet, the flexible diet group gained a significant amount of fat-free mass compared to the rigid group (+1.53kg vs. -0.59kg respectively) though there was no difference, between groups, in resistance and aerobic exercise (I suspect the rigid group when crazy shoveling in junk food but the study didn’t collect food records +  most people lie on food records anyway when they feel ashamed about what they ate). No other changes were noticed in the 10 week post diet phase.

Take Home Message

Does this mean you can go gangbusters on gummy bears and doughnuts? Not exactly.  After all, if you’re cutting calories it’s pretty difficult to incorporate high calorie foods that aren’t very filling unless you don’t mind the distraction of hunger pangs later the day. However, it does mean you can loosen up a little on rigid dieting. As stated by study author, Bill Campbell, PhD, CSCS, FISSN, Associate Professor – Exercise Science, University of South Florida. “If you are the type of person that has cravings for certain foods, you may be able to consume them in limited quantities during a diet phase within the flexible dieting strategy – this is very appealing for some dieters. Others prefer to have a meal plan created for them with specific foods that they are to consume during their diets – in this case a rigid/exclusive diet is more appealing.”

Keep in mind macro counting (flexible or rigid) is a tool to get to a quick end destination – shedding fat. It is far from a comprehensive nutrition program that takes into account plant-based compounds, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients important for good health. It won’t cure disease and may not make you feel better and it shouldn’t be done for long term because at some point you should be done with counting stuff and be able to eat primarily when you are hungry and stop when you are full while eating a diet that fits your health goals, taste preferences, and lifestyle.

If you’re interested in more information about macros, physique and fitness nutrition, follow the study authors on social media:

Bill Campbell on instagram: billcampbellPhD and Facebook

Lorin Conlin, IFBB Bikini Pro, MS Research Assistant – Physique Enhancement Laboratory, University of South Florida on instagram: @laurinconlin and Facebook: FB page Laurin Conlin IFBB Pro