The Myth of Clean Eating

The Myth of Clean Eating

What does it mean to “eat clean”?

The origins of clean eating can be traced back to the 1960s where many people connected their morality to their food choices.  Living clean might mean no drugs, no smoking, plenty of exercise and sleep and generally LOTS of great choices for keeping yourself healthy.

Likewise, food was categorized in this way.  If you’re living clean then it makes sense to “eat clean” as well.  The basics of a clean eating diet are pretty darn good though: whole foods, lean protein, vegetables and staying away from refined carbohydrates, excessive fats and processed foods.  No one is going to say those tenets are off track.

Bodybuilding, whether we know it or not, has popularized many of the trends that come and go.  Bodybuilders historically tend to be didactic in their approaches with a strict way of eating, a limited choice of foods eaten day in and day out and specific phases for leaning out, maintaining and gaining muscle mass.

If you talk to any bodybuilder or fitness enthusiast, they can probably tell you what clean eating means to their community as a whole.  But here’s where the information gets muddled.

Different People, Different Definitions

For a bodybuilder, the old chicken, rice and broccoli is a huge mainstay.  Maybe some tilapia, asparagus and sweet potatoes.  Or oats, protein powder and egg whites.

For a Paleo dieter, the path diverges a bit.  Where the old-school bodybuilding favors lean proteins, low-fat carbohydrate sources and steamed veggies, the Paleo dieter might be open to more egg yolks, fatty cuts of meat and oil to cook their vegetables but shy away from oats and rice.

For someone focused on organic, free-range and sustainably sourced foods they might be more concerned with the oats being gluten free, the eggs being cage free and the meat being grass fed.

Each group has their own definition of what eating clean is and why their approach is the healthiest.  The truth is always somewhere in the middle and we need to be able to take the best ideas from each group and allow some flexibility in how we apply them.

What does clean mean?

For me the most glaring problem is once again, creating a tribal mindset that you belong to “this thing” and everything that comes from your group is good and all other approaches are bad.  When you identify as “X” and in this case a “clean eater” it automatically puts you in the position of being closed-minded to other ideas.  And identifying in a tribal manner means that even if ideas from your tribe are clearly wrong, misleading, hurtful or just plain silly – you’ll defend them because an attack on the tribe is an attack on YOU.

The mindset can become that foods are literally thought of as clean or dirty.  As if the act of eating a certain food will then make your body clean or dirty.  So a heaping piece of pizza leave you feeling lethargic and thus “dirty and clogged up” whereas an apple helps you buzz through your day and is a “clean burning fuel”.  P.S the fact that I have to use quotes so much to discuss these things should be a red flagJ

Applying this mindset means we now categorize all foods.  You might not call them good or bad but calling one group clean means another group has to be unclean by default.  Hmm, sound like the beginning of disordered eating to you?  It does to me and I would know because I used to feel the same way back in my early twenties.

But seriously, what does clean mean?

Taken literally, we could make the statement that  white rice is not clean but all vegetables are.  Seems like a fair enough statement because white rice has had the bran removed making it slightly less fibrous than brown rice and slightly higher on the glycemic index.  Plus, all white food is evil, remember?  I certainly do from plenty of magazines, ads and low quality health reports.

On the other hand, vegetables are clean.  They’ve got vitamins, nutrients, fiber, maybe even some protein and antioxidants.  Low in calories and not many are white, except for the sinister parsnip and white potato AKA the devil’s potato since it is GASP, white.

But if we’re applying the clean vs unclean mentality, white rice is actually WAY cleaner.  It’s had the bran and hull removed so any pesticides, bacteria and dirt on the surface are removed with it.  Plus it’s a pure form of starch, easily digested and if you cool it down, creates some resistant starch which is great for your gut microbiome.

Vegetables are usually pulled from the earth, whether it’s tilled dirt or sandy soil.  Vegetables are so dirty when harvested they need to often be triple-washed and people STILL get sick from eating them.  Dirt is loaded with bacteria, a lot of which is good, but if you fertilize, spray with pesticides or simple pluck the bugs off, they receive a lot of exposure.

The Environmental Working Group releases a list you’ve probably heard of called The Dirty Dozen each year which lists the 12 fruits/veggies highest in pesticides. noted that

“The Dirty Dozen is a list of the fruits and vegetables that were found to have the highest concentrations of pesticide residues still on them, and EWG notes that across the thousands of samples tested, some still tested positive for pesticides after they were washed and even peeled. Some — like strawberries, apples, and peaches — had pesticide residue on up to 98 percent of the samples tested. Even more shocking are the findings that hot peppers and leafy greens all contained samples that were tainted with insecticides not just dangerous for pests, but to humans, too. They're not on the Dirty Dozen, so even produce that's not on the list can still contain dangerous chemicals.

In terms of unclean, I’d take rice any day over a vegetable. But when I write it out hopefully you can see how absurd that sounds and that there is no guarantee that any food you eat is 100% clean in any manner. 

Does clean mean no chemicals?

Sure, I am all for less pesticides.  I know our country has had a huge rise in pesticide use this past century and we’ve got plenty of video footage showing the government spraying kids in pools with DDT before we knew it was super harmful. Check it out here.

But what about using some isolated chemicals to help preserve a food or alter its texture?

If the average person saw that beef jerky was cured with sodium chloride, they might not know it’s just salt.  Or if you see abscorbic acid in pizza dough you might not know it’s Vitamin C.  Sure, they’re chemicals but we generally view them as safe.  And while I absolutely do not love all the gums and thickeners like Xantham or Guar, or texture enhancers like adding gluten to a food not all chemicals are harmful.

Since everything is chemical based in our world, we need to stop listing everything we don’t understand as a chemical and thus, harmful.  Here’s what in BLACK coffee:

Now, there’s plent of research showing health benefits from drinking coffee. Many of those health benefits come from the chemicals listed below.  If we categorize something without understanding it we unwittingly demonize a food and miss out on the benefits.

Making a case for common sense

Great, so you're eating clean.  Breakfast is egg whites and avocado.  Lunch is a salad and chicken.  Dinner is salmon and asparagus.  But what about wine?  Or beer?  What about your son's 12th birthday party where the cake isn't "clean eating approved" so you can't have a slice.  Or do you just watch as he eats it and judge him for not being as willful as you?  Maybe you order a clean eating approved cake made with avocado and cocoa powder, coconut oil, agave nectar, almond flour and yep, it's clean but everyone thinks it sucks.

Trust me, I know.  I used to avoid sweets like the plague.  Try being the person who tells your mom you can't eat the cake she made you for your 22nd birthday because it has sugar in it.  Try being THAT assho**!  I sure did.

And what did it get me but a feeling of guilt every time I ate something not ony my approved list of foods, for many years.  

Lets all calm down

I picked on a certain way of eating here, I understand that.  And there are certainly much more damaging and misleading nutrition dogma out there.  But it is important to not only highlight the obvious quack diets like the cabbage soup diet, Warrior Diet or basically any detox diet; but also to highlight how a simple and seemingly benign categorization of a style of eating can STILL lead to a disordered way of thinking about food.

Instead of searching out a label to follow, why not modify your nutrition to your goal?  This means you automatically make good, informed decisions based on what you want to accomplish and this helps guide the choices you make.  Science lends the most credibility here and makes excellent suggestions. 

If you hire a contractor to build a house, does each contractor only build ONE style of house.  “Oh, sorry I only build A-Frame houses”.  No!  The contractor uses the information you give and desired outcome to choose the method and application that fits what you want. Science does the same for nutrition and training.

This is why when accounting for protein and equal calories, people can lose bodyfat on high carb diets or low carb diets.  All the other stuff like organic, clean, Paleo etc are fine and good but they don’t supersede the major factors like calories, protein and metabolic rate.  You cannot violate certain principles and instead of putting us in a box, this allows MUCH more freedom in how we go about accomplishing our goals.

At The Strong Kitchen, we serve mostly wheat and dairy free items with many Paleo-friendly options.  Most of the tenets of Paleo are quite healthy sensible and sustainable.  But the focus is providing whole-food meals that can accomodate many different dietary preferences, not an adherence to what is the Holy Grail of nutrition. Clients often wonder why I don't put a lot of wheat items into their meal plans as well; this is not an aversion to wheat but rather getting them to shop, prep and cook more whole foods so they understand their importance.  But if it means freedom, ease of use and adherence you can bet your butt I am going to let them have Ezekiel bread, couscous or pasta because it keeps them on the plan.

When in doubt: calories first, protein second then eat in any style that gets you the results you want and makes you feel the best.