One of the most popular approaches to dieting for athletes in this day and age is clean eating. However, so many dive into this way of eating without consideration which can lead to some key problems for long term nutrition success.
In today’s blog post, I will explore the clean eating trend and explain the clean eating myth that ALL athletes need to know before relying on this strategy to reach their peak potential. You’ll also learn why I personally HATE clean eating as a diet.
If you have spent any decent amount of time trying to diet to lose weight and/or build muscle, you would have heard about the whole “cleaning eating” strategy. You might even already be doing “clean eating” - or you may be thinking about doing it. If so, keep on reading to learn about the clean eating myth.
I was recently speaking to a new client and they were telling me how they were eating healthy (they were “eating clean” in their own words), but they were plateauing and weren't getting the results they were hoping for. They didn't know what was going on - in their mind eating healthy was the key. They literally told me how they were “eating a bunch of vegetables, eating lean proteins, cutting out chocolate”, but they still weren't getting results.
Their reliance on clean eating as a strategy meant that they got stressed when the results didn't really go according to plan and this is very common among athletes who start clean eating thinking it’s a magic solution.
Newsflash: clean eating is not the solution you need.
It’s super popular to say that you're eating clean and it's become synonymous with good eating. Truth be told, I get the original premise of the whole clean eating movement - to eat more whole foods and eat more healthier foods. I understand this and appreciate that but in my opinion, over time it has become a crappier part of current dieting culture - where it is about restriction, food quilt, and lack of food flexibility.
As you can tell, I do NOT like “clean eating” - neither as a dieting approach or concept. I just don't like using it when talking about nutrition and I don't like recommending it for my clients. Clean eating (I feel), has become a problem in the sports nutrition space.
So you may be wondering why I specifically don’t like it. Well here are the reasons why I don't like it AND why I want you to stop using it as a term and approach:
Number one: Clean eating means something different to every single person
There is no set definition for clean eating. It doesn't mean anything beyond what the individual in question actually believes it to be - whether it’s low sugar, no GMO, no meat, dairy free, vegan, or [INSERT DIET HERE]. All these things have been linked to clean eating by someone in the past at some point or another. It is easy to see that clean eating doesn't have a set definition. It just means what you believe it means and what you feel is healthy for you. This is a key reason why I do not like clean eating - because it's not really a set strategy as it’s so arbitrary.
Number two: You can eat any foods and still get results
You do not need to be eating clean to get results and that is a big part of why I do not recommend it. People think that it's the be-all & end-all and think that it's the only solution that will definitely work. The reality is that it’s not and because it's so restrictive (aka not fun), it's just not a good strategy in my opinion.
Of course I'm not saying prioritize unhealthy foods because it's more fun. There has to be a balance but that balance is not achieved by restriction in the form of clean eating. Instead you should focus on strategy, moderation, and adaptability with your sports nutrition approach.
Number three: There are no definitive “bad” and “good” OR “clean” and “unclean” foods
Seeing food as good vs. bad creates a divide between you and food. This can potentially create an unhealthy food relationship and that is a key reason why I do not enjoy clean eating. It quite simply creates a dichotomy of good and bad that can breed food guilt or unnecessary worry around food choices that impacts your lifestyle. This is not the way it should be with nutrition. Instead what you want to do is look at food as “food” and just prioritize more healthy foods in your diet.
Life is not about living on chicken, broccoli & rice but it’s also not good to live off chocolates, donuts, and pizza. Obviously health is important as health is wealth so make sure you're eating mostly whole foods. However, you don't have to restrict yourself in the form of having to “eat clean” to get results. This can create a divide between you and the foods you love - which is unnecessary.
Number four: It doesn't promote food awareness
Following clean eating diets tells you what you can and can’t have based on what is deemed clean vs. unclean but this doesn't create food awareness. Food awareness is needed to know what works well for your body & what's optimal for your goal. Specifically, it doesn’t help you address caloric needs and what calories you need to achieve a certain result because ultimately that's what is going to determine your physique change - calories in, calories out.
Basically I'm not a fan because clean eating doesn't really develop food awareness in the first place because it focuses on generalizations around what you should and should not eat without consideration of the individual and caloric balance. Of course, you can still eat clean and have food awareness but this is rarely the case.
The whole premise behind eating clean foods and that it will streamline results is not the reality most athletes fall into when they undertake this diet approach. You can eat all the healthy food in a world but if you’re in a surplus then you won’t lose weight. At the end of the day, it all comes down to caloric balance and if you don't have that awareness because clean eating is your only strategy, you won’t succeed.
So you can see from just these four reasons alone why clean eating is not really going to be the greatest solution for you to use and why I personally do not like it and avoid using it with clients. It's just not a good viable strategy for long term nutrition success for the athlete. Instead of overly restricting the food choices you have you should focus on a balanced, strategic approach with a good dash of flexibility so you can have food freedom and actually enjoy your life as an athlete.
All in all, clean eating is a well meaning dietary approach that has become an unnecessary restrictive approach to eating with more negatives than positives for most people. That is why you may want to speak to a Sports Dietitian and reconsider your nutrition approach - you want to have something that is enjoyable to a degree and sustainable.
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.
Interested in learning more? Then simply email me at: email@example.com
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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.