Flexible dieting and clean eating are two very popular diets or approaches to nutrition in the athlete world. So which diet is better for athletes? What are the benefits and issues with both of these diets? Which one should you consider doing? These are very common questions I want to help answer for you!
In today’s blog post, I will explore both flexible dieting and clean eating by comparing both diets and telling you the key pros and cons of each. Read on to learn who wins this head to head. I want to help you make more informed decisions around your nutrition and offer a transparent perspective on both of these popular dietary approaches.
As I mentioned, flexible dieting and clean eating are two very popular strategies or diets in the athlete world. However, in many ways, their ideologies go against each other. While they both aim to create a healthier lifestyle and more impactful diet change, their framework is quite distinct from each other as you will learn about today.
I personally use a flexible approach to nutrition and truthfully, I do not like nor do I recommend “clean eating” to my clients. Nonetheless, for the sake of transparency and to give you a good perspective on both, today I will share with you the pros and cons of each - all from the perspective of an experienced sports dietitian.
If you are trying to lose weight, build muscle, fuel better, or achieve greater sporting and/or gym performance; then you will want to know the ins and outs of different diets so you can choose the right pathway for yourself.
Without further ado...
What Is Flexible Dieting?
Flexible dieting in a nutshell is a dietary approach that promotes food flexibility and that all foods fit. Typically this is achieved through some form of food tracking and building awareness around calories and/or macros. While there are different methods of implementing it, typically it should involve the mindset that there are no “good” or “bad” foods - there are just “foods” and what matters is your strategy.
With my clients, I personally use a principle I call Strategic Flexibility - to help my athletes maximise their results from nutrition while creating a sustainable lifestyle that is enjoyable (CLICK HERE to email me for more info on how I can help you harness Strategic Flexibility).
What Is Clean Eating?
Clean eating is a diet that is a lot more strict than a flexible approach to nutrition. The diet dictates that you need to only eat foods deemed “clean” - which typically means whole foods such as fruit, veg, meats, grains, and dairy. However, the definition of “clean” has NO set definition so clean eating can actually be anything and is hard to define - one of the major issues I have with the diet. Generally, it involves avoiding ALL fun foods and eating ONLY whole foods.
As you can see, the premise of clean eating is that there are dirty foods you need to avoid to be healthy and get results - and therefore defining foods as good or bad.
Pros of Flexible Dieting
No unnecessary food restrictions (aka all foods fit) - With a flexible diet approach, you can truly eat anything and still succeed and achieve your goals (as long as you do it correctly and have a strategy). All foods fit! Simples.
Reduces guilt around food - When you aren’t made to feel that certain foods are bad and should be avoided, then it reduces the likelihood you’ll develop food-related guilt and a poor relationship with food.
Promotes lifestyle compatibility - Lifestyle Compatibility is a term I developed to describe a diet change that fits an athlete’s unique preferences and lifestyle so that efforts are sustainable and practical - and avoids quick fixes and temporary diet change. Flexible Dieting empowers you to tailor your nutrition to your preferences which is a big plus.
Focuses on strategy rather than fear - In the nutrition space, there is plenty (too much actually) of fear-mongering being used due to misinformation or in attempts to sell supplements and diets that don’t have your wellbeing in mind. Focussing on strategy is ALOT better and much more effective for athletes looking to squeeze more results out of their nutrition. Stop the fear, embrace the strategy!
Optimises awareness around food and accuracy with your nutrition - Food awareness is one of the most underrated aspects of nutrition success. Awareness precedes change after all - you need to know where you are, where you need to get to, AND how to bridge that gap. On the other hand, flexible dieting embraces the science of calories and macros and if you are tracking then you create a lot more accuracy which helps boost your overall strategy.
Cons of Flexible Dieting
Can lead to food obsession (if done incorrectly or in susceptible athletes) - While flexible dieting aims to create food freedom and eliminate the notion of good and bad food dichotomy, there is still a risk that it goes too far and leads to obsession. This obsession can in turn create less flexibility in an athletes life and in some situations can lead to disordered eating habits.
Has been used as an excuse to eat poorly - In the same way that the flexible nutrition approach can create food freedom, it can also create TOO MUCH freedom. What I mean by this is simply the situation where an athlete realises that calories matter even if they eat poorly - leading to using flexible dieting as a way to eat mostly “fun foods” which is not good for health. That is why I use an 80/20 rule - 80% whole food and 20% fun foods.
Time-consuming tracking your food - Food tracking can be a great tool to harness to maximise your nutrition and create a very accurate and strategic plan. However, it can also be time-consuming which is especially the case in the first stages of food tracking when you’re a beginner learning the ropes. It does get easier but it’s still something to consider.
The learning curve can be greater for some athletes - Flexible dieting typically involves the aforementioned food tracking. Therefore athletes who start need to learn the process and the science behind it all. This means that there is a definite learning curve when you embrace the flexible nutrition lifestyle. While learning is never a true issue, the fact that you need to have patience and go into it with a ready mindset means that this consideration can be seen as a negative for some.
Pros of Clean Dieting
Promotes whole food intake - Clean eating promotes strict adherence to a whole food diet which can be seen as a positive thing for the simple reason that more athletes should be embracing whole foods. Our diets should be based on whole foods primarily as that is how we achieve wellbeing. It’s pretty self-explanatory - more healthy foods = good.
A simple methodology to implement - In contrast to flexible dieting where there is a learning curve and a more complex process, clean eating in many ways is very simple. You know what foods you can and can’t eat which is pretty fool proof. For a lack of a better phrase - it’s easy peasy lemon squeezy!
Limits the consumption of alcohol intake - Any reduction in the consumption of alcohol is a positive thing for athletes. Athletes underestimate the impact alcohol has on recovery and fuelling due to the strong culture of drinking and sports - especially here in Australia. Therefore, the fact that clean eating minimises the consumption of excessive amounts of booze is seen as a good thing in my eyes.
Minimal learning curve - There is a minimal barrier to entry as I mentioned above which is due to the learning curve being quite small. You simply need to know what you can’t eat and avoid that and you are “clean eating” - which can appeal to some people for obvious reasons.
Cons of Clean Dieting
Can lead to disordered eating - Due to the restrictive and strict nature of clean eating, the risk of developing disordered eating behaviours or thought patterns around food is greater. I won’t go into the complexities of this today but just understand that the more strict a diet, the greater the risk of developing a poor approach to food and nutrition.
Impacts food relationship - This leads on from the above point in that clean eating can be detrimental for your food relationship because you can start to have unhealthy obsessions and/or develop skewed views of different foods.
Promotes food fear - Again leading on from the previous point, if you develop a poor food relationship then you may very well develop a fear of certain foods. So in a way, this con goes very much hand in hand with the above point but I wanted to reinforce both separately as there are nuances to it for the individual athlete in practice.
Usually not sustainable long term - Strict diet = less enjoyable = more overwhelm = wanting to quit = not sustainable. Pretty self-explanatory but a very important point nonetheless! When you look at the research, its very evident that the most successful diets are those that are sustainable.
Can lead to episodes of binge eating - When you are super-duper strict with your diet then you are more likely to binge eat if you fall off track. For example, if you are very strict and eating “clean” and then decide to have 1 chocolate, you may feel guilty and binge because you think “I’ve failed anyway”. On the other hand, what can also happen is that you develop a deep craving for the food you told yourself NO to and this leads to you reaching breaking point...and then breaking (because you are human after all!).
Is simply unnecessary - I won’t talk about this much because quite simply it is a matter of “being this strict is not necessary to achieve success”. So why would you do a diet that is not fun and hard to do when you don’t even need to be that strict to reach your peak potential. Food for thought.
Now you know the pros and cons of both flexible dieting and clean eating. I personally only use flexible nutrition out of the two unless there is a very specific and clinical reason for using a strict dieting regimen. For most athletes, having what I call strategic flexibility is a great way to create results & sustain them while enjoying life at the same time. Do not underrate the power of implementing a more balanced and compatible nutrition plan. Clean eating is just too strict and unnecessary for my liking - regardless of how well-meaning the premise behind the diet is.
Now I want you to tell me in the comments - what are you currently working on achieving with your nutrition?
So if you are ready to take your nutrition to the next level and elevate your performance in a way that doesn’t make you want to punch your dietitian, then let’s chat.
I have developed a 90 Day Macro Sherpa program that is a 1:1 nutrition coaching experience to help start bridging the gap between where you are now and where you want to be as an athlete.
In this program, I'll personally coach you using my flexible nutrition system to help you harness the power of calories and macro strategy to regain your competitive edge - think of it as a bespoke sports nutrition solution that empowers you to eat better to achieve better.
Interested in learning more? Then simply email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or to apply now to see if you are a good fit, simply CLICK HERE and start the process for reaching your peak potential.
Hi there! My name's Aleksa Gagic - i'm a Brisbane Dietitian & Nutritionist. The aim of this blog is to provide value and spread quality evidence-based nutrition information to counter the BS floating around.