Most everyone has heard the term tossed around by this point. If you want to lose weight, you have to eat clean. 10 Tips for clean eating! Or the 80/20 clean eating split.
But, here's the thing: clean eating is more subjective than you think. And, guess what? You can gain a ton of weight eating clean, if you are persistently overeating. So, what is clean eating and how can you apply it to your health?
Clean eating is, above all, eating unprocessed (or very minimally processed) foods in their natural state.
In order to eat clean, you should be consuming meat, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains in their purest edible state. You should avoid refined sugars and saturated fats (aside from the naturally occurring saturated fats in meat.)
Sometimes, this gets confused with "whole foods." For instance, breads, butter, cheeses and dairy are considered "whole foods," but they are not necessarily "clean foods." They have been processed and usually contain additives, preservatives and saturated fats.
So, a "clean" meal might be a bit of wild-caught salmon with some fresh, steamed broccoli and plain brown rice, while a "whole foods" meal would be that same salmon, with a bit of fresh dill cream sauce and garlic broccoli fried rice or a bit of fresh-baked whole wheat bread and butter. Does that make sense? The clean eating doesn't allow for extra fats, processing and dairy, but a whole foods diet does.
Some clean-eating proponents are also against conventionally-grown produce and they are GMO phobic. They adhere to all "organic" foods that contain no genetic modifications, meats that have no hormones or antibiotics, etc.
Is clean eating necessary for weight loss?
Not at all.
Remember calories in vs. calories out is your weight. It doesn't matter if you are on a clean diet, junk food diet, or potato-only diet. Your weight is dependent on the amount of calories you consume versus those you expend, and your bodies ability to adapt your metabolism to your consumption and activity level.
However, weight shouldn't always be the primary focus. Your health largely depends on your consumption of healthy foods that contain proper macronutrients, micronutrients, and fiber. Clean-eating is one way to make sure your body gets more of the essentials and less of the empty calories and junk.
So, why eat clean... or not?
The benefits of clean eating are many:
- Usually less calories consumed per meal because of the lack of sauces, butter, and other extras.
- Higher consumption of whole-grains for fiber, and plant-based foods for micronutrients, means a healthier body.
- Very simple diet = very simple to follow.
- Easy to calculate your macros and calories.
So are the pitfalls:
- If something is "clean," it may be overeaten for supposed health benefits. (aka giant smoothies with 10 cups of mangoes and bananas, or larger portions, because it's "healthy.")
- Very simple diet = very boring and hard to stick to after a while.
- Usually cuts out an entire food group (dairy.)
- Too strict of a diet often causes epic binges that cancel out all your hard work.
- Food phobias that occur if you fall too far down the rabbit hole of "good" and "evil" food choices. If you are afraid of everything in a box, or standing in the produce aisle having a panic attack over conventionally-grown apples, perhaps beginning to feel like everything you eat has cancer-causing potential, or it is void of all nutrients after one day off the vine, you need help. You have to nourish yourself and not be held hostage by arbitrary "purity" standards.
In conclusion, clean eating is...
A good idea to base much of your food choices on, but it is not the be-all, end-all of a healthy diet. While there are many nutritional benefits, it generally eschews dairy and can get downright tedious and unsettling at times. (Especially if you are reading a bunch of "natural" and "organic" websites.)
Personally, I try to eat clean meals during the week because it is very simple and easy. I add Greek Yogurt, a bit of butter here and there, occasionally cheese, and whey protein supplements to get my dairy in. But I don't eat all organic and I have no fear of the GMO. My concern is getting a nutrient-dense diet, but not so strict that I am dying for a bit of ice cream or a piece of bacon. Who wants to live life like that?
As with exercise and leisure, you are likely to have more success if you strike a balance. Food is primarily fuel, but it is also comfort. Eating is emotional and social, too, and that is okay! Definitely work clean eating into your life. Your palate will begin to appreciate it. But don't go so nuts as to be the Thanksgiving buzzkill who can't eat anything. Nobody likes that motherf*cker. (S)he's just as bad as political relative and "my acupuncturist says..." relative. Got it?