Clean eating is one of the most common, yet widely misunderstood, concepts in the health and fitness industry. When discussing clean eating, people will commonly denote clean eating as consuming certain foods or eating in a certain way. For example, some people believe that clean eating is eating whole grains, lean sources of protein, fruits, and vegetables. Other individuals believe clean eating is avoiding processed foods or eating organic/non-GMO foods. Still, others think clean eating is following a specific diet such as veganism or Paleo. All of these ideas have merit on the surface, but all are false as standalone statements. Clean eating is a combination of things, including consuming quality foods, meal timing, calorie as well as macronutrient control, and minimization of low-quality foods. These things need to be considered as part of the whole picture, since focusing on one or two will not equal the best nutrition strategy. Addressing falsehoods Over the years we heard many random, unfounded, and/or uneducated statements. Here are a few:
I don't need to focus on nutrition, because I don't eat processed foods
I'm vegan so I know I eat right
I only eat organic, non-GMO foods, so my nutrition is fine
Let us comment on these statements. I don't need to focus on nutrition, because I don't eat processed foods Avoiding highly processed foods is a good thing. However, let us clear up some misconceptions. All foods are processed to some degree. Even that piece of fruit in the produce department was processed by means of being picked, ran through a sorting machine, and washed by another machine. Pasta is processed food as well—even the whole grain versions many people tout as healthier—since the natural ingredients are combined and transformed to create the final product. When considering avoiding processed foods, we want people to avoid (or at least minimize) items such as frozen meals, cakes, and similar items. These items generally have a number of added ingredients as well as preservatives you are better without, are low in nutritional value, and can cause gastrointestinal distress. Now, about the "I don't need to focus on nutrition, because I don't eat processed foods" statement. If someone does not eat processed foods, but still overeat calories, this is not clean eating. If someone does not eat processed foods but does not eat a variety of quality foods, such as lean protein, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, then this is not clean eating. If someone does not eat processed foods but skips eating all day only to binge eat at dinner, this is not clean eating. I'm vegan so I know I eat right Being vegan can be a good way to cut calories (since higher fat and calorie items are excluded by default), being vegan encourages consumption of nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, and being vegan helps someone be more aware of their overall nutrition. That said, being vegan does not mean someone eats clean. Yes, the points noted may help someone eat clean, but potential pitfalls are present. For example, to replace protein from meat, some vegans choose nuts. The problem with this is nuts are high in fat. We know more than one person that put on weight using a vegan diet due to the inclusion of high amounts of nuts. In that same vein, some people choose processed vegan foods to replace meat versions—think MorningStar veggie burgers, Tofurky Brats, etc.—to help up the protein. The problem is, these foods are often highly processed and may not have the best nutritional profiles. Veganism can be a step in the right direction for someone seeking to eat clean, but that individual must still consider food quality, meal timing, calories, and other factors, such as macronutrients. I only eat organic, non-GMO foods, so my nutrition is fine This statement may be one of the silliest ones we hear. Eating organic and non-GMO simply means the food was not modified during creation and that the items are pesticide free. These factors do not account for calorie control, meal timing, food selection, etc. Summary Avoiding processed as well as GMO foods, being vegan, or eating organic does not mean you are eating clean. Concepts such as calorie control, food selection, meal timing, and other healthy habits, such as avoiding binge eating, must be considered as well. Avoiding processed as well as GMO foods, being vegan, or eating organic can be part of the equation but are not the end all be all of clean eating. To clarify, we are not attacking these things, but instead, want to shed light on some common falsehoods. There are many others that could be addressed as well, but most of them fall victim to the same problems we listed above. What clean eating really is As noted above, clean eating is a combination of things, including consuming quality foods, meal timing, calorie as well as macronutrient control, and minimization of low-quality foods. We will briefly cover these topics. Before we do, we must note our perspective is one, though it is shared by many health and nutrition professionals. That said, other people will have different points of view. However, even differing points of view will, whether they state it explicitly or not, in some way control food quality, calories, and macronutrients. Consuming quality foods At Nathan DeMetz Personal Training we consider quality food to be lean protein sources, grains, and fresh fruits as well as vegetables. Frozen vegetables or other minimally processed foods can fall into this category as well. That said, we are no against the use of food items such as premade jarred pasta sauces, pasta noodles, and similar items such as yogurt. While consuming only fresh foods would be ideal, this is not practical for many people. Also, the more convenient the food, the more likely a person is to eat it. We commonly consume or recommend for others items such as boneless skinless chicken breast, lean cuts of beef, rice, potatoes, fresh peppers, fresh onions, fresh carrots, fresh bananas, etc. These are just examples, of course, and the list of quality foods goes on for a while. Meal timing Meal timing refers to how you spread food through the day. No singular approach to this exists. For example, some people prefer to graze through the day, which means eating meals every few hours. Other people prefer larger meals and may only eat three through the day, with breakfast early in the day, lunch at roughly middle of the day, and dinner toward the end of the day. Still, others may fast for part of the day—such as a 12- to 16-hour fast, and then eat in the other part of the day. The time during which the person eats may consist of grazing every couple of hours, having only three meals, or some other approach. Each of the approaches listed—as well as many others—work for the right person. The key phrase there is "work for the right person." What that means is the approach must fit the person's situation by working well with their goals, schedule, and other factors, such as dietary restrictions. For example, a person who had gastric bypass surgery will not be able to eat three large meals per, instead needing to eat smaller meals. In that same vein, such a person may not be able to fast for extended times, since he or she will not be able to eat large meals and may under eat. The goal is to find the meal timing that works for the individual. Again, the key phrase is "works for the individual." This means finding an approach that allows a person to reach his or her goals but that is also sustainable, as a sustainable approach is the only way a person will be able to maintain the approach long term for lasting results in health and fitness. Calorie/macronutrient control This topic should be the most straightforward, but for due to media hype as well as health and fitness professionals trying to sell the "next big thing,""that one weird trick," or "the last diet/training program" you will ever need, the topic is a confusing one for many people. Simply put, calorie control is necessary for loss, gain, or maintenance of weight. Macronutrient control—which is controlling intake of protein, fat, and carbs—is important for body composition as well as performance, and can be used to account for calorie control, since macronutrient equal calories (1 gram protein = 4 calories, 1 gram carbohydrate = 4 calories, 1 gram fat = 9 calories). If you do not control your food, you will find it difficult if not impossible to reach your goals. For example, if you want to lose weight, you must reduce your caloric intake. To do so, you must estimate calorie expenditure, determine the caloric deficit need to lose weight, and then stay at that caloric deficit for sufficient time. For example, if your caloric expenditure is 1500 per day, you need to be at less than this amount to lose weight, Ideally, we start with a small drop such as 100 calories, which puts you at 1400 calories per day. Now you must stay in that deficient long enough to lose weight. Reducing calories for one day will do nothing. One week might do something, but likely not much. To see weight loss, you must stay in a deficit for weeks, if not months, though this is just part of the equation. This is simple, really, and based in science, but many people still ignore this fact or think they can outwork a bad diet. No matter how active you are, if you still overeat, you will never lose weight. The reverse is true as well if you want to gain weight, but under eat you will never gain weight. Minimization of low-quality foods Again, this is one that should be straightforward but often becomes an issue because people do not want to minimize or eliminate low-quality foods. Eating junk for such as chips, cookies, and low-quality meats or excessively eating out and drinking alcohol will prevent you from reaching your goals. We are not haters of junk food, eating out, or alcohol, but we understand the impact each of these can have on goals. If you want to reach health and fitness goals such as losing weight, lowering blood pressure, or improving performance, you should temporarily eliminate the consumption of junk food, eating out, and alcohol. By doing so you will eliminate high food, low nutrient foods and have a better idea of what is in all of your food. We are not going to spend too much time on this today. We touched on this many times before, in newsletters, videos, social media posts, and direct communications with clients. And really, you do not need us to tell you to skip the alcohol, avoid the double bacon cheeseburger, forgo the cake, or eliminate the deep-fried foods—you know these things are going to slow or prevent progress toward reaching your goals. You can have these foods at times, but the items should not comprise the bulk of your diet, and if you have goals to reach, especially difficult, food dependent goals, then consider temporarily eliminating these low-quality foods. Summary Clean eating is one of the most common, yet widely misunderstood, concepts in the health and fitness industry. It does not have to be. clean eating is a combination of things, including consuming quality foods, meal timing, calorie as well as macronutrient control, and minimization of low-quality foods. Keep these things in mind when making food choices.
Nathan DeMetz holds degrees in Exercise Science, Business Administration, and Information Technology as well as certifications in strength and conditioning, sports nutrition, run coaching, and other areas. His credentials come from organizations such as Indiana Wesleyan University, Ivy Tech College, and the International Sports Sciences Association. Nathan has 17 years of personal and professional experience in the health and fitness world. He works with people from across the globe, including locations such as Kuwait, Australia, and the USA.