When Clean Eating Works And How It Could Be Holding You Back

Foods that are unrefined and minimally processed have been put upon a pedestal and termed as ‘clean food’. In some ways this is absolutely deserved. Fruits, vegetables, unprocessed meat, whole grains etc all fall under the clean eating umbrella and even someone with little knowledge of nutrition knows that eating nutrient dense foods is beneficial to your health. However, there seems to be an almost religious reverence to the approach of ‘clean eating’ in the fitness industry and that is seriously overblown.  In short, some fitness celebrities have imposed rather magical qualities on these food items such as the ability to burn fat from consuming them or their ability to grow muscle without bodyfat in a caloric surplus. These claims are simply incorrect.



When it comes to fat loss the approach of clean eating shines because these food items are largely very filling and low in calories.
Let’s look at the caloric content of 100g of the original item versus 100g of it’s ‘clean’ swap

100g sour cream – 190 cals VS 100g plain, 2% fat,  greek yogurt – 75 cals

100g white sugar – 387 cals VS 100g stevia – 0 cals

100g Instant Maple Brown Sugar Oatmeal – 395cals VS 100g plain oatmeal– 350 cals

100g whole milk  – 61 cals VS 100g unsweetened almond milk – 16 cals

100g fried chicken breast  – 231 cals –VS 100g grilled chicken breast – 151 cals

100g spaghetti noodles, cooked – 158 cals VS 100g spaghetti squash, cooked – 27 cals

100g mayonnaise – 680 cals VS – 100g mashed avocado – 170 cals

100g chow mein noodles – 475 cals VS 100g zucchini ‘noodles’ – 15 cals

100g soda  (cola) – 37 cals VS 100g flavoured seltzer water– 0 cals

100g vegetable oil – 884 cals VS  100g apple sauce 80 cals  (common baking swap)

Looking at these differences you can get a pretty good idea of why ‘clean’ items are excellent choices when wanting to lose weight. You can reduce your caloric intake with little to no thought by implementing some of these swaps. Notice that it is not the food itself that is burning fat. It is the food’s ability to help you adhere to a caloric deficit. [1] When you eat at a caloric deficit you are not proving your body with enough energy to maintain itself so it has to use some of it’s reserves in order to provide energy to support it’s basic processes, fuel your daily activity and other to-do items like hair and nail growth and the upkeep of your reproductive system. Those reserves come from things like stored glycogen and stored fat.

There is no magic involved. There are receptors in the stomach that respond to stretch or pressure. When your stomach is expanding from a meal these receptors send that information to your brain and it contributes to your readiness to stop eating. [2] This happens with every meal. The difference lies the fact that high volume, low calorie food items (think vegetables, lean protein and fruit) will have your stomach receptors talking to your brain about how full it is when there are less calories in your stomach. If you were to eat something  high calorie but low volume (think, cookies, fried chicken wings, high fat sauces) you’d likely consume more calories before the receptors get busy signalling the brain about the amount of food in your stomach*. So it’s not because the higher calorie options are inherently fattening but because they are more prone to put you in a caloric surplus if you are not careful with the amount you consume on a daily basis. You can reduce your calorie intake easily by choosing these lower calorie, filling options that allow you to eat less calories without feeling starved. This is one of the main reasons why sticking to ‘clean’ items on a diet is recommended and eating high calorie, low volume items is discouraged.
*Gastric distension from food volume is not the only regulator responsible for satiety but it does play a role in meal termination. I will be discussing this more in upcoming articles.


Now that you understand this you can guess why obsessive ‘clean eating’ can be a hindrance when it comes to wanting to gain muscle. In order to grow you have to provide your body with enough calories to maintain itself and then some extra in order to add some mass. Due to the filling nature of the majority of ‘clean’ food items it can be difficult to eat a caloric surplus without feeling over-stuffed and bloated. No lean protein in the world can grow muscle when there is not enough calories to maintain the body with energy to spare. For anyone struggling to increase their intake I suggest that you reconsider your approach to food selection if you are only allowing yourself to choose items that have been glorified as ‘clean’.

Disclaimer: I am not saying that if you want to gain muscle you have a free pass to only eat junk food. Food items that fall under ‘clean eating’ standards are very nutritious and so it makes absolute sense to include them in your daily menu. However, if you feel as though you cannot explore food items outside of unrefined, minimally processed options then that is something else entirely. If you are nervous about diversifying your food selection I have done a three part series on food anxiety here but if you simply feel that you shouldn’t I’ll end this with 4 things you should probably know:

1)   The majority of lifters are not interested in gaining bodyfat in their attempts to grow muscle but you’re not going to gain less fat by only eating clean. Whether or not you are eating a large variety of foods or strictly ‘clean’ food items, if you are at a surplus you’ll be gaining both fat and muscle regardless. It is the excess calories that are responsible for the fat gains.  The same works in reverse for dieting. You are not going to burn more fat from eating clean than you would if you incorporated refined food items so long as you adhere to the same deficit.[3-4]

2)   Your unshakable need to eat only foods considered ‘healthy’ might be the doorway to bigger problems. ‘There has been a growing interest among clinicians and researchers about a condition where people restrict their diet based not on quantity of food they consume but based on it’s quality. Bratman coined the term ‘’orthorexia nervosa’’ to describe people whose extreme diets – intended for health reasons – are in fact leading to malnutrition and/or impairment of daily functioning.’ [5] Though this is not as life threatening as it’s BFFs anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa they often go hand in hand. These food obsessions can worsen over time and often we do not see their impact until they have escalated to the point where more serious damage is done. It also doesn’t have to escalate into anorexia/bulimia in order to have a negative impact on your life. There is no shame in falling victim to this pattern of thinking as it is quite easy to do. In fact, there is even a study that concluded that Instagram use is linked to increased symptoms of orthorexia. [6] However, if you are finding yourself a unable to relax and take a bite of a bagel it is something that you might want to consider taking an honest look at and taking strides to break any unwarranted fears of eating a wider variety of food.

3)   Simple sugars are not the enemy you may think it to be. Bad information has lead people to believe that spikes in insulin from eating simple carbs promotes fat storage. This has been proven to be false as the body can still store fat when insulin levels are low. [7] Again, it’s the calories not the food itself. You’ll find many athletes and fitness celebrities swearing the evils of sugars online but the science doesn’t support the level of avoidance promoted in the name of ‘health’. On the flip side, I can even give you an argument as to why consuming simple sugars could be beneficial! Researchers have found that high concentrations of glucose in the body (which occurs after eating simple sugars) causes your gonadatropin-releasing hormone cells to fire at a faster rate which leads to increased production of follicle stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormone – hormones necessary for a healthy reproductive system. [8-9] If you look hard enough the internet can expose you to the demonization and glorification of nearly every food imaginable.  Even broccoli and kale. If you use common sense you will know that moderation is perfectly healthy and too much of anything can have negative repercussions. The main problem with refined sugars is that they are devoid of nutrients. Knowing this, common sense would tell you that you do not want the majority of your calories to come from such sources because then your body will be deficient in the vitamins and minerals it needs to take care of itself. However, including these types of sugars here and there in your diet will not negatively impact your progress or your health especially if you are active. [10] A lot of the ‘fructose will make you sick and fat’ drama came about from misrepresented study information, some done on rats and some done in doses that exceed what one could realistically consume unless you live on soda sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. Long story short, it’s been largely debunked. This subject could be an article in itself but that’s already been done so I’ll just direct you to a great summarization of the subject by Alan Aragon for those who are interested.

4) Stress is obviously unhealthy. If you are continuously stressing your diet then you are likely already opening yourself up to the risk of disease down the line [11] I have no study evidence to show whether or not avoiding stressing your food selection while eating in moderation leads to better health and longevity over obsessively stressing about clean eating but I certainly know the negatives of stress. I also know which approach  to diet leaves more room for real life and living it. There has to come a point where you learn to let go of your need to control every aspect of your diet. Otherwise how much time are you wasting stressing the small stuff instead of enjoying the small stuff?


[1] Rolls BJ, Ello-Martin JA, Tohill BC. What can intervention studies tell us about the relationship between fruit and vegetable consumption and weight management? Nutr Rev. 2004
[2] Cummings, David E., and Joost Overduin. “Gastrointestinal Regulation of Food Intake.” Journal of Clinical Investigation 117.1 (2007): 13–23. PMC. Web. 30 Oct. 2017.
[3] Strasser B, Spreitzer A, Haber P. Fat loss depends on energy deficit only, independently of the method for weight loss. Ann Nutr Metab. 2007
[4] Bray GA, Smith SR, de Jonge L, Xie H, Rood J, Martin CK, Most M, Brock C, Mancuso S, Redman LM. Effect of dietary protein content on weight gain, energy expenditure, and body composition during overeating: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2012
[5] Dunn TM, Bratman S. On orthorexia nervosa: A review of the literature and proposed diagnostic criteria. Eat Behav. 2016
[6] Turner PG, Lefevre CE. Instagram use is linked to increased symptoms of orthorexia nervosa. Eat Weight Disord. 2017
[7] Evans K, Clark ML, Frayn KN. Effects of an oral and intravenous fat load on adipose tissue and forearm lipid metabolism. Am J Physiol. 1999
[8]Zhang C, Bosch MA, Levine JE, Rønnekleiv OK, Kelly MJ. Gonadotropin-releasing  hormone neurons express K(ATP) channels that are regulated by estrogen and responsive to glucose and metabolic inhibition. J Neurosci. 2007
[9] Nicola J. Rinaldi, PHD ‘’No Period. Now What?’ – Chapter 9 – Putting Recovery Into Practice
[10] The effects of four hypocaloric diets containing different levels of sucrose or high fructose corn syrup on weight loss and related parameters
[11] Schneiderman N, Ironson G, Siegel SD. STRESS AND HEALTH: Psychological, Behavioral, and Biological Determinants. Annual review of clinical psychology. 2005

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