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One thing I have learned from joining various diet forums and net based support groups is that people behind a keyboard become great, brave, judgey bullies about diet and weightloss theory when they get to comment from a safe and virtual place. Log on to any diet app with a chat function and you will find the boiling war that is Clean Eating vs IIFYM. Just the term ‘clean eating’ causes tidal waves of derision from the If It Fits Your Macros crowd with such mockeries as ‘if I wash this bagel under the tap I can eat it’ and ‘I like my french fries dirty’ and the like. This mockery is based in the defence of eating whatever the hell these people choose as long as it doesn’t take them over their daily calorie expenditure and fits in with a rough guidance of how many carbs, fats and protein make up those calories. This is 100% OK and a process which gets many people through their desired weightloss journey and subsequent maintenance time. Get down with your bad selves, macros counters. However, clean eating continues to grow as a craze/fad diet/lifestyle choice and instgrammers everywhere want to show you how sharp it has made their abs and how trouty their pout is now, so what the hell are they actually talking about?
Well I’ll tell you. The term ‘clean’ is a rather preachy way of defining an eating plan based on natural, unprocessed foods. Basically you can eat plants or stuff with a face. Potatoes? Fine, they are plants. A 200g bag of kettle chips did not grow out of the ground, so they’re no good. A rump steak has been cut off a cow, which has a face, so that’s ok. A Cumberland sausage is packed with cereals and may well have once had several faces so not allowed. Apart from having a highly sanctimonious general outlook on how you eat, going clean is actually quite restrictive as it takes out pretty much anything but pure meat and fish, vegetables, nuts, whole fruit, eggs and milk plus some oils like olive oil. Although some clean freaks seem to ignore the fact that yoghurt is a processed form of milk and sneak that in too. Sound fine to you? Yeah, it’s ok if you have a constant supply of fresh and high quality seasonal produce, plus time to prep and home cook all your meals.It is surprising how often people confuse going clean with ruling out carbs though, an easy enough mistake when considering that a truly clean plan will cut out bread, pasta, white rice, couscous, sugar, syrups and sweets. In truth you get plenty of sugar going clean from fruits and vegetables which are all allowed in any quantity as is honey or agave syrup on most plans.
So how does clean food equate to better health and weight loss? In the most part, by restricting high calorie foods which you then have to substitute with more filling, lower calorie bulk in order to feel satisfied.
A good example is the ‘Paleo’ method- which works on the concept of going back to a Paleolithic era diet when humans may or may not have been healthier (depending who you talk to, the medical records from those days are somewhat sketchy). The basics are that if you can’t hunt or gather it, you don’t eat it, and in some ways this is ultra clean as it takes the ‘processed’ defintion back as far as to things that need excessive cooking or farming methods that were just not around in those days. This rules out beans, grain products like barley, processed meats and dairy- leaving your carb intake to come solely from fruit and veg with a lot of hunger balancing protein. Most paleo plans aren’t big on white potatoes or corn either leaving you to lower calorie yams or sweet potatoes. How does this magic formula work for your waistline? It is not rocket science. It is not really even chemistry. Once again, it is maths. Paleo, like basic clean eating, immediately bans a lot of high calorie foods such as bread, cereal, rice, cheese, butter, bacon, pate, beans and vegetable oils. You can still have a baked sweet potato with your dinner, but no butter on it. You just saved around 90 calories. You can have that veggie soup for lunch but lose the roll and butter, maybe 200 calories there. Swap the bread for a load of carrot sticks and you are still saving. Weekend fry up for breakfast? Switch to eggs and avocado and a grilled tomato save yourself maybe 400 calories vs a traditional full english with bacon, toast, sausage and baked beans. Yes, you are cutting out processed foods. Yes, you are really cutting out calories too.
I once read an amusing forum post on how eating clean lets you eat as many calories as you want and still lose weight. Oy, but that was a bloody take down. As we all know, calories are calories and too many of them will stop you from losing weight. What this ill informed and virtually flagellated poster meant was that if you stay totally clean, it’s hard to eat in a huge excess. Even if you eat an entire lettuce, a whole cucumber, a couple of tomatoes and a tin of tuna for your lunch salad, you aren’t going over maybe 400 calories. Add in 2 boiled eggs, still under 600. A tablespoon of olive oil to dress it and 650 but seriously can you eat all of that before you feel full? As an average middle aged male existing on about 2000 calories a day dinner should clock in at about 7-800 calories. Turn that into chicken and broccoli and that sheer physical amount of food will make most people be full before they are finished. Of course, you do have to stop eating once you are full. So if you go clean you don’t necessarily have to count your calories as tightly as someone who incorporates all the filthy evil into their tummies but the principle is the same- if you lose weight it is because you are eating less than you burn off, not because unprocessed food is magical.
Another, lesser proven, angle to the clean diet is that you are avoiding many additives, preservatives and not entirely tested chemical wonders that come into the process of, er, processing food. Who cares, right? Well this is all about GI levels and how some food can make you hungry which we can look at another time. In short, the more you strip something down (particularly carbohydrates) the more they mess with your hunger levels. The easier something is to digest, the less filling it is. Think about it, what’s easier to eat all night: lumps of baked potato or that bag of kettle chips we were talking about earlier? Not only is the food essentially already a bit digested for you, it has all manner of other wonderful things added for flavour, colour, longevity and texture. Some stuff we know of, like salt or vinegar, water or potato starch. That’s ok, right? Also stuff like high fructose corn syrup, soy lethicin, maltose, dextrose, aspartame and monosodium glutamate. Those are ok, are they? Anyone without an advanced organic chemistry degree know how these things work in your body or affect your health? In fairness we don’t know for a fact yet that these things are harmful but there is growing evidence that consumption of many food additives and process ingredients can monkey with your hormones and affect both hunger and fat storage triggers if you eat them in volume and often. Again, if you want to learn more about this I point you towards Master Your Metabolism by Jillian Michaels.
So we ask, are processed foods making me fat? Well, yeah maybe they are and in more ways than one. Will giving up everything in a packet make you skinny? Not if you drink a litre of olive oil a day instead. If I try to cut out processed food will I find it easier to lose weight? Maybe so. I know for a fact that I feel better, sleep better and bloat less if I stay off the cereal bars, crisps and package dinners regardless of if I am losing weight or not. But I’m someone that can happily eat half a roast chicken for tea which is a calorie breakdown regardless of how organic and un processed it is, so I still count when I can.
Going clean tends to be higher fibre and protein rich, which is great. But it can also be expensive, high fat and frankly bloody impossible if you are caught on the hop without a packed lunch or eating at the home of someone who you don’t want to offend. I know it is boring but again we circle back to balance and moderation and maybe if you make every effort to chow down on whole veg and lean meat and fish most of the time then a beer and pizza blow out with the girls on a Thursday after yoga isn’t going to make you blow up and put weight on. I for one will always chose to forgo daily cornflakes, crisps and icecream if it means I can get in a couple of pints and a large Hawaiian at the weekend without losing sleep over it.