The Case For Clean Eating

The Internet is full of assholes. From the annoying family member who can’t quit posting stupid political meme’s to that dumb ass from high school who somehow still hasn’t figured out how to string together a coherent sentence.

There’s a special breed of asshole on the Internet though, and that asshole resides here, in the world of fitness.

Spend any amount of time on the little fitness corner of the Internet and you’re bound to run into them. Dig into the world of fitness more, and you’ll notice that there seems to be a never-ending war going on in the world of fitness.

On one side we have the clean eating zealots. They fly a flag of chicken and broccoli, and argue that calories don’t matter at all. Instead you should just worry about if you’re eating whole foods, and if those whole foods are clean.

On the other side the moderation, or IIFYM, crowd flies a flag of Pop-Tarts. They like to argue that when it comes to body composition calories are the biggest key above all else, and that everyone should embrace the wonder that is moderation.

People from each camp like to spend their time bitching at each other about who has the best strategy, and why their strategy is best. They’ll do anything to declare victory, including pointing to a pro bodybuilder who uses their method or bastardizing a statement made by some scientist.

In the recent past most of the evidence-based community, a term that is more ambiguous than it should be, has declared IIFYM as the clearly superior dieting strategy when it comes to overall health, body composition, and performance.

Is it really that simple, though? And can a case be made for eating clean, whatever it may mean? I’d argue not only can a case be made for clean eating, but also that everyone should do it from time to time.

What does clean eating even mean?

This is a favorite debate from the moderation crowd, which at first sounds like a fantastic point. It’s a deeply philosophical question on par with what is the meaning of life.

In reality though, it’s an intellectually lazy question whose only purpose is to make the questioner seem smarter than everyone else.

We all more or less have a pretty good fucking idea of what clean eating means. Don’t eat processed junk food. Instead:

  • Eat plenty of lean protein.
  • Eat lots of colorful vegetables.
  • Eat your fruits.
  • Eat some whole grains.

If your first question to that is something along the lines of, “What about white or brown rice? Which one of those is clean?” I would say you should probably pull your head out of your ass.

If you’re a fitness enthusiast, athlete, or coach you should damn well know that they’re both perfectly fine.

Why is clean eating hated?

Clean eating originally started catching shit because if taken too far it can lead down a slippery slope towards orthorexia, an eating disorder that involves avoiding foods completely because they are unhealthy.

Before we go any further: The last thing I want to do here is trivialize an eating disorder. Disordered eating is a very real thing, and something far too many people suffer from. If you have emotional issues with food, the beginning stages of disordered eating, or something similar then chances are this article isn’t for you and that you should seek out help before things become worse than they already are.

The rise of orthorexia was especially apparent in the fitness industry when it became commonplace for figure competitors or general fitness enthusiasts to start tying their emotional well being to the quality of the food they ate.

The very people who looked like the picture of health were usually hiding a very unhealthy secret obsession with food, and typically placed the blame on their clean eating tendencies.

Eat one slice of cake, which obviously isn’t clean, and spend 3 hours making up for it on the treadmill. That was the rule, and a sad rule at that.

Another one of the major arguments that people like to make against clean eating is it denotes a food as either good or bad. And since foods can’t run out and go on a murderous rampage, this is wrong.

I agree that foods shouldn’t be denoted as good or bad, but I do think there is something to be said for recognizing which foods are more likely to support your goals versus function as a hindrance to said goals.

So clean eating is bad, but IIFYM isn’t?

IIFYM proponents are almost always former clean eaters who lament the days of their past when they were woefully ignorant. They didn’t count calories; they just ate clean.

Now they live a life of balance, happily counting their macros, doing very little cardio and enjoying every Pop-Tart down to the last bite.

Yet what so few IIFYM proponents seem to talk about is the fact that IIFYM itself can, and often is taken just as far as clean eating.

Macro tetris.

Brownie tetris does seem like one hell of a time.

IIFYM is built on the very premise of balance. But can it really be considered balance if you starve yourself all day long so you can binge on an entire pizza later that night?

Or maybe you don’t save your macros, but you eat ice cream for breakfast because your macros allow it. And then you have cake the following lunch. Is that really a diet that supports a higher-level physique or performance goal?

Or is that just a way to justify your issues with junk food by cleverly manipulating your food intake to allow for more sugar than advisable?

That doesn’t sound like balance. That sounds like the beginnings of an eating disorder in itself.

The price of IIFYM.

The fitness world is built on helping people look better naked. A noble goal, and the very reason I have a career today. But sometimes looking better naked comes at a cost.

We’ve seen enough evidence to prove that people can get absolutely shredded while eating doughnuts and pizza; and props to the people who do that. I personally have dieted a number of times and still made doughnuts, beer, pizza, and other junk foods into my macros.

But for some people the price of looking great isn’t always worth it.

Thanks to the meteoric rise of diets like paleo there are thousands of anecdotal reports across the Internet speaking to the changes people see in their skin, general health markers, gut health, etc. when switching to a diet that removes almost all processed foods.

Now, generally when statements like this are made the evidence based community likes to swing their science boners around and tell everyone how the most recent studies show that paleo/vegan/insert diet of your choice doesn’t alter inflammation markers any more than a more moderate diet.

While this may be true, it should also be understood that we’re just now beginning to comprehend the power of our gut biome, and the extent to which it impacts every aspect of our health.

There may be aspects of diet, health, and the reactions our bodies have to food that we simply don’t understand yet. And for many people who suffer from autoimmune issues, cystic acne, gluten intolerance, and other ailments a diet like paleo may be the last resort that offers a solution.

Ironically, these people who follow such strict diets not only wind up feeling better and solving ailments that have afflicted them for years. But they also wind up looking better.

Obviously people who look absolutely shredded following IIFYM have done a fantastic job, and there is no discounting the amount of work they put in. They still have to bust their ass, train hard, and eat at a calorie deficit.

But sometimes we need to take a hard look and consider if health consists of more than posting shredded selfies onto Instagram. What if there are thousands of IIFYM proponents with GI issues, acne issues, and other health problems that are only further exacerbated by their diehard allegiance to doughnuts and Pop-Tarts?

Why you should be eating clean, sometimes.

In today’s world where we prefer information in 140 characters or less we’ve forgotten the value of the struggle.

Struggle and suffering is a necessary for growth, and not something to be avoided. We grow up admiring stories of athletes, successful businessmen, and other great figures in history who made outstanding things happen by grinding away and embracing the suck.

If you’re looking to make great things happen, you have to go to great lengths. I’d venture to say there’s a damn good reason some of the most successful bodybuilders of all time stuck to what would be considered a clean diet.

I think that’s why we all have something to gain from eating clean for short periods of time. It isn’t easy, it isn’t fun, and that’s the point.

I’m not saying your diet needs to suck all the time. It shouldn’t. But there’s value in being incredibly strict on yourself for short periods of time. By building discipline and resisting temptation you set yourself up to become a better businessman, parent, and human.

Champions like Arnold recognized there was a mental edge to be gained by putting yourself through periods of intense dedication and discipline. When you go through your own Hero’s Journey from a fitness perspective, you stand to gain in every other aspect of your life.

If you’re able to endure suffering of a strict diet and training program, you’ll be better because of it. You’ll handle adversity better than you did before, and come out on the other side a physically and mentally stronger individual.

If you can’t because it’s just too difficult, maybe you need to grow a pair and go to a third world country or take a look at the people serving our country. A strict diet and training program isn’t that difficult in the grand scheme of things.

Since when is becoming physically and mentally stronger a bad thing?

This isn’t a rant on millennials, the very generation to which I belong. This is an observation about society as a whole, more specifically, the fitness community.

We’ve become far too obsessed with making things work for us, instead of working for something. Making macros work for you is great, but maybe you should recognize there’s something more to be gained by embracing the suck for a while.

Moderation is great, in moderation. Moderation is the middle ground. But in order to find the middle ground, you have to also find the edge.

Moderation isn’t for everyone.

This is an aspect that’s rarely talked about, and when it is the IIFYM proponents practically crucify those who say it isn’t for them.

Not everyone prefers to play macro tetris so that they can fit pizza and beer into their nightly diet. It may sound crazy, but there are actually people who prefer to eat a diet of almost exclusively whole, nutrient dense foods. You know, the clean ones.

They prefer to do this because they like how they feel, they like how they perform, and they like how they look.

Can you have all of those things and enjoy junk food in moderation? Of course you can. But you may need to take a hard look and figure out what moderation really means.

Eating shit foods every single day just because you can fill out your macros that way isn’t moderation. That’s an issue with junk food. And when others decide they don’t want to be eating junk food, then good for them. They don’t deserve to be crucified on your cross made of Pop-Tarts and Twizzlers.

Your diet isn’t your identity, and if you’ve found a system that is sustainable and allows you to make improvements in the gym and mirror, that’s the most important thing.

Don’t be an asshole and shove your diet down the throat of others. Especially if they’ve made a conscious decision to eat clean for a while. Because while you’re debating semantics, they’re passing you by. In the gym and in life.

So, what should you do now?

If I’m not your coach then I can’t give you accurate advice as to what sort of dietary approach is going to work better for you. Starting a diet isn’t something that people should take lightly, which is unfortunately is exactly what happens most of the time.

First and foremost, you need to know what type of dieter you are. I wrote about this for AskMen, and this isn’t a new concept. But there are essentially two types of dieters.

  • Rules dieters, or abstainers:

These dieters prefer rules. They like having a specific framework to stick within, and the rules provide these people freedom. It’s much easier for these people to eliminate certain foods from a diet.

These dieters can count macros and calories, but they can just as easily stick to a certain list of foods to fill out their diet, since the foods they would be counting are typically considered clean.

These same dieters tend to do poorly when told to eat things in moderation, as they typically do much better when going balls to the wall on a diet and then saving splurges for special events like a cheat day, wedding, etc.

  • Freedom dieters, or moderators:

These dieters are the exact opposite. They prefer a general guide in how to eat, almost always abhor the idea of tracking, and do perfectly fine when told to “eat low carb.” They automatically start eliminating most processed sugars and refined carbs without a problem.

For these dieters, they struggle with the idea of a strict set of rules, and it actually causes stress, which can lead to nasty periods of binge eating, and subsequent guilt.

These dieters don’t always count macros or calories, but if they don’t have any underlying issues with food then they have no problem working a glass of wine, a slice of cake, or some other treat into their daily macros; because the base of their diet is still built almost entirely on whole, nutrient dense foods.

You need to figure out which type of dieter you are before you ever begin a program.

  • Do you function better with a set of strict rules? Then you’re probably a rules dieter, and clean eating would be a good solution for you.
  • Prefer freedom and handle moderation perfectly fine? You’re a freedom dieter. You have no issues with moderation, and if tracking doesn’t impact your mental health, then IIFYM probably works best.

It’s worth noting that in both cases, both sets of dieters can track macros and calories and still excellent results. The adherence to the diet just differs depending on the person.

Once you’ve figured out which type of dieter you are, find a diet and stick the fuck to it. The worst mistake you can is hopping from diet to diet. Find something that works for you; that supports your health, performance, and physique goals, and then bust your ass. That’s the most important part.