It’s no secret that losing weight has its challenges. In a world full of misinformation about nutrition and proven solutions, its good that something like clean eating/ dieting has helped many people. That’s not to say clean dieting isn’t without its flaws.
A lot of people will disagree- which is natural, and I welcome a healthy debate. I am by no means all knowing, but years in the fitness industry makes a person very observant, and I would be lying if I didn’t see some issues with clean dieting.
What we see as a result of unhealthy eating (obesity, chronic health problems, etc) are products of years of unhealthy portioning and caloric surplus over years of time, not necessarily the food itself.
I think the danger in clean eating is that conceptually it’s hard to argue against. No one would say that it isn’t important to eat whole, nutrient-dense, vibrant foods. Few could argue that reducing the abundance of food that can lead to chronic illness isn’t necessary for optimal health. It’s not the concept of healthy eating that is the problem, but the extremes that make it problematic.
When you polarize food into strict categories of “clean” vs “dirty” foods, nutrition becomes a philosophy of restriction and abstinence rather than moderation and portioning.
Not only is restraint a key feature of clean eating, it is also a general factor for disordered eating. Restriction creates a psychological barrier to food that, like a double edged sword, can cut both ways. It would be irresponsible not to consider the potential harm this form of restriction could have on susceptible populations. We can’t just take “healthy food” at face value and not look at their long term effect on weight loss; is it sustainable? Is it more effective than moderation?
What Really Defines “Clean Dieting”?
A big issue is that the answer to that question isn’t clearly defined.
In the realm of fitness, what’s considered clean depends on who you ask and what diet you follow.
Those following a paleo diet steer clear of grains and dairy, the keto diet restricts a majority of carbs, and yet all of their end goals are weight loss. It’s true that certain diets will naturally work better for each individual. However, not having a clear approach to clean eating/dieting makes it difficult to set up dietary guidelines from established nutritional principles. I think the common denominator that is the center of EVERY diet or weight loss endeavor (regardless of what is consider “clean”) is a caloric deficit.
Take for example a Harvard study comparing the results of low fat vs low carb diets over a year. Initially participants restricted fat and carb intake to super low levels (20 g per day), but were later instructed to role back restrictions to a level they could manage for life. Without counting calories and the sole instructions to:
– Eat as many vegetables as possible
– Choose high quality, nutrient dense food
– Prepare food for themselves at home
– Avoid trans fats, added sugars, and refined flours
– Get regular exercise
Guess what? After a year the differences between the two groups were minimal. Even after both groups dropped their fat and carb intake, both groups ended up eating about 500-600 calories less than before and wound up losing an average of 12 lbs irrespective of grouping.
This is what makes the industry so confusing at times. Both groups are considered “healthy” diets, but their results weren’t hindered by the foods each group considered “clean” foods. We are constantly searching for which diet or macronutrient restriction is best for weight loss, but the greatest key is not in dieting but in realistic lifestyle change.
The focus shouldn’t be on restricting/ removing “bad food” but on adding a larger percentage of whole, nutrient dense foods. This better ensures adherence over the long term.
Inflexible Eating And High Levels of Restraint Are Associated With Binge Eating
Another odd fact about clean dieting- it can lead to binge eating. I’m not trying to trash the concept of dieting or restrictive eating, but I do think it’s important to note that dieting and the overvaluation of weight and shape are important factors in developing binge eating disorders
When food is painted in the stark contrast of good vs bad, clean vs dirty, people’s view of food becomes over-critical. When this criticism is taken to the extremes of “eat only healthy and remove all ‘junk’ food” the body is deprived of what it wants which creates a tidal wave of consequences down the road in the form of binge eating.
Structural equation modeling found a simple but vicious cycle in explaining the presence of binge eating, namely:
Body dissatisfaction——- dietary restriction——— binge eating
It’s interesting to note that these things aren’t isolated occurrences. Researchers found that girls between the age of 5 and 9 years old were had the highest rate of eating in the absence of hunger when the experienced greater degrees of restrictive dieting (1). In many cases this carries into adulthood. We’ve all heard countless experiences people had with overeating and binge-eating after an extended period of dieting. Sometimes people gain the initial weight back or gain more in the process!
42 obese, non-binge eaters were assigned two groups, a weight loss group of restrictive dieters and one designed to eliminate dieting known as the “undieters”. Participants took part in an ostensible ice cream taste test with or without a preload, both before and after the weight control intervention. At posttest, after 8 weeks of the dieting interventions, restrictive dieters increased and undieters decreased their intake following a preload (2).
Weight loss over time becomes a fight against the body’s biological response to resist further weight loss. With constant loss endocrine adaptations that increase appetite and decrease satiety, clean restrictive dieting becomes more difficult to manage over months and years.
What a restrictive diet doesn’t consider is the body’s primal disposition for survival.
Not only are brain’s endorphins fired up after long breaks from sugar, salts and fats, it’s programming from a by-gone era is to store these nutrients up to protect itself from starvation.
While It Can Work, It’s Needlessly Inconvenient
Full commitment to clean eating means missing out on special occasions and dining out with loved ones because what’s on the menu is off limits. A lot of enjoyment and experiences can be missed out for the sake of eating healthy, though science shows us that it’s ok to be flexible with your diet, enjoying a variety of food (including some junk food) and still lose weight just as well if you’re in the same net caloric deficit over time while eating enough protein.
In a randomized controlled trial two groups were given the same diet, one being allowed to eat bread, and the other restricted. Many clean eaters who follow a carb- restricted diet would assume the group without bread to perform better, this however wasn’t the case. After 16 weeks both groups lost virtually the same amount of fat, but the group instructed to refrain from bread had far more subjects drop out that the group with bread (21% and 6% respectively) (7).
Diets can be effective, but in the long term the more food you make off limits, the harder it is to maintain this behavior consistently. This leads into the next point that:
Clean Eating Is Not The Most Effective Method Long Term
In a meta analysis of over 29 studies long term weight loss studies, more than half of the lost weight was gained after 2 years, and by 5 years more than 80% of lost weight was regained (6).
The more food you keep out of your diet, the harder it is to adhere to
Research found that flexible control groups were closely associated with lower BMI over a year and better for weight loss maintenance over a three year period when compared to rigid control.
In fact several studies indicate dieting is a consistent indicator of future weight gain.
When observing lifestyle factors and their relationship to weight changes in more than 19,000 healthier adult men over a four year period, a study found that “one of the best predictors of weight gain over the four years was having lost weight on a diet at some point during the years before the study started” (5).
This is important to note because the fundamental principals behind weight loss and weight management are different. In a university of Helsinki long-term study, researchers found that even more essential to successful weight management is refraining from dieting and observing regular eating habits for both men and women (3).
Essentially clean dieting is putting a band-aid on a much deeper issue. The fitness industry has been too short-sided in its solutions for people’s problems. It’s much more attractive to sell clean dieting as a quick solution for weight loss, but the big picture goal is to keep the weight off which requires a different approach found in weight maintenance. No one wants to lose weight only to gain it back again, yet this is what we see constantly in yo-yo dieting. Dieting in my opinion is cyclical, but not sustainable- a distinction few in the health/fitness industry mention. Take bodybuilders for example, they zero in on clean eating and restrictive dieting to get into shape for competition, but in the off season gain weight (some of which is body fat). The goal is to remove weight
As the researcher and nutrition therapist Ulla Karkkainen explains;
Generally speaking, weight management guidance often boils down to eating less and exercising more. In practice, people are encouraged to lose weight, whereas the results of our extensive population study indicate that losing weight is not an effective weight management method in the long run, Even though dieting may seem a logical solution to weight management problems, it can actually increase weight gain and eating problems in the long run.
I would suggest a more flexible approach: instead of focusing on removing unhealthy food, focus on adding more nutrient dense choices to make up the majority of your diet.
It sounds like the same goal of clean eating, but the distinction is important. With the inclusion of more fruits, whole grains and healthy fat, removing snacks or unhealthy foods that make up the minority of your diet becomes far less necessary.
Now with the addition of more nutrient dense food, you’ve also got to add the most important factor for weight loss and maintenance- a caloric deficit. Every diet or instance of weight loss has only ever succeeded due to a caloric deficit.
To lose weight consistently, it may help to track caloric intake and macronutrients like protein with fitness apps like myfitnesspal.
For long term weight loss and maintenance- cut yourself some slack. It is better to work with your body than against it. Eating whole, nutrient dense food is important, but removing “unclean” food completely from your diet may do more harm than good in the long run .
There are many small adjustments to ones nutrition and lifestyle such as exercise and portion size that can justify flexible eating as a means to weight loss. What’s important is using a method that ensures weight loss in the long term, not just in the here and now. While restrictive dieting accelerates results short term, success doesn’t have to mean you remove food you enjoy COMPLETELY from your diet.