Last Friday I laid in bed preparing for my daily nap. I grabbed my phone to set an alarm and I had a SnapChat from my good friend Ryan Steenrod of Rebell Conditioning in Chicago.
The photo revealed a nutritious lunch he was about to consume, with the caption “Eat healthy foods.”
I snapped back at him, “No!! that’s doesn’t work!!” with an angry face.
He quickly retorted, “Do tell!”
I started to respond and then we decided to FaceTime about it instead.
Henceforth I decided to write this article to tell Ryan and everyone else the three main reasons why “just make healthy choices” or “Eat clean” hasn’t worked for my clients.
Before I get started, so we are clear, the term “clean eating” for this article’s purposes refers the school of thought, or notion, rather that one must eat unprocessed, whole, sugar-free, dairy-free, egg-free, gluten-free etc. and that anything else is the devil.
Three reasons why “Clean Eating” hasn’t worked for my clients:
- Rabbit food consumption creates an unsustainable deficit
- Whole30 approved “paleo” foods (fats) pack on too many calories
- Restricting certain “unclean” foods leads to binging and “messing up” later
1. Rabbit foods and the unsustainable deficit
When people begin Whole30 type eating or “clean eating” they begin to incorporate more vegetables and greens, which is great!
They are filling, they provide crucial nutrients, they can be great sources of carbs, they make our gut bacteria thrive and help our digestive systems run well, to name a few benefits.
However, many people will eat countless vegetables and skimp on grains and starches. It’s something about the early motivated days of the diet wherein people decide they don’t need starches, where they go wrong.
For three days they have egg white omelets with veggies for breakfast, salads for lunch, (hopefully with protein, but not always), they snack on veggies and have protein with double veggies for dinner.
Now, these are all good things.
However, a lot of us go HAM in the gym when we first start a diet, because we are feeling extra inspired!
And the truth is, all of the veggies we eat, since we are “clean eating” are keeping our calories much lower than usual.
This means we are creating a very large caloric deficit, or, eating way less calories than we need to maintain our current weight… so few that the sparse amount of calories consumed is unsustainable.
We go from eating fried, bar foods one the weekend into a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday Thursday of hours in the gym with veggies and some protein at every meal.
Come Friday afternoon, we are starving.
Our energy balance is so far off we begin to daydream about ordering a pizza for lunch and dinner.
And, maybe you aren’t that hungry for dinner in the first week of your clean-eating diet.
Some people find this style of eating, coupled with crazy amounts of motivation to last for two good weeks until they want to raid their pantry.
So what happens next?
2. “Healthy Fat” consumption leads to a surplus in calories
Meet Dieter Joe.
Dieter Joe, (who eats clean everyday) starts to feel ravenously hungry or deprived after a week or so increased veggie consumption, and extra exercise.
Dieter Joe begins to crave higher calorie foods, like fats.
As a clean-eater, this isn’t a bad thing for Dieter Joe because there are Whole30 approved nut butters, oils and fatty snacks.
In fact, over the past few years the media has pushed “healthy fats” on us so much that as a culture we have almost been prioritizing fat more in our diets than protein.
Everywhere Dietier Joe looks, packages have “healthy fats” in bold, ingraining the “it’s OK to eat ___ because it has ‘healthy fats'” mantra into his brains.
After the hours of exercise fueled by kale and broccoli, Dieter Joe goes into his pantry and grabs the jar of nut butter, ravenously eating two heaping tablespoons (which can easily be 400 calories) if not more.
After the yummy, fatty snack Dieter Joe goes back to his high veggies routine, until the cycle repeats.
After about four weeks of the high veggie, high fat consumption, Dieter Joe comes to find out he really hasn’t lost any weight and can’t figure out why not only is he plateauing, but, he is constantly craving nut butter.
If you are experiencing a plateau like Dieter Joe, but you aren’t snacking on nut butter like Joe, where are you going wrong?
Meet Clean-Eating Kathy.
Clean-Eating Kathy has two to three eggs in the morning with some organic sausage. She makes sure to have sautéed kale in coconut oil and add half of an avocado on top.
Then for a snack she has a few handfuls of almonds.
At lunch she throws hemp seeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, tahini dressing, 3 ounces of chicken, avocado and almonds on her salad… #ALLtheSuperFoods.
In the afternoon she has some dried fruit and pistachios.
For dinner she has salmon with asparagus roasted in olive oil with a side of avocado or pesto.
Long story short, Kathy is eating smallish portions but consuming a whole lot of fat in her diet– far more calories than she needs to as a 135-pound woman seeking to lose fat.
Not only is she eating more calories than she realizes, but the entire time sheas been on this endeavor, the “clean eating-only” mindset is making her daydream about having pretzels, english muffins and wine that she fears will make her fat if she dares to eat them.
Her motivation and willpower stay strong enough, for four weeks until she weighs herself to find out that she has actually gained weight!
Not a drop of wine or sugar and she has gained weight!?
Might as well go snack on some bread and sugar because banishing it did not help her lose weight.
We will dig into this more later on, but want a hint as to what went wrong for Kathy?
She was consuming a diet of 60% fat, so eating less food but consuming more calories than she really needed, thanks to the fatty ingredients composing the majority of her diet.
One gram of fat is 9 calories, whereas 1 gram of protein is only 4 calories and one gram of carbohydrates is also 4 calories.
You can eat more (volume of) food when you’re eating carbs and protein than you can when you are eating fat.
A little bit of fat goes a long way!
Without knowing it, Kathy was eating more calories than she needed to maintain her current weight, let alone lose weight.
3. The restrictive mindset yields binges later
Think about what happens every time you tell a two-year old they “can’t” do something, play with something or eat something…
…all of the sudden they want to play with that toy, jump off that thing, eat that candy etc, just because it is a “no-no,” right?
Well, if the entire time you are “clean eating” you are constantly thinking about what you can’t eat midst searching/scanning food labels to find that food “x” is bad because it isn’t “clean,” your subconscious is consumed with all the foods off limits.
Whether you realize it or not, you are reinforcing the fact that you have an entire list of things you “can’t eat.”
No sugar, no dairy etc (unless you are allergic), means no birthday cake at parties, no booze at celebrations etc.
I don’t know about you, but I plan on eating cake at birthday parties for the rest of my life.
The reason this “clean-eating” style is not sustainable is because as soon as the person does decide to say “F it!” throw in the towel and have a piece of cake, they have no idea how to incorporate it into their day in a moderate way.
They only know of it as “bad” and figure they “messed up” so they might as well have three pieces of cake, planning to banish it for the coming weeks, after “this one time only” of eating cake.
And, Moderation seems like some far off dream planet that doesn’t exist.
So, the third problem with “clean eating” is that when we want to eat things that are deemed “unhealthy” and yet we have no idea how to include them moderately.
Adding to that, there is generally a sense of guilt surrounding the consumption of said, “unhealthy” food/treat.
Long story short, clean eating doesn’t not teach one portion control.
Why clean eating doesn’t help people lose weight.
As a fat loss coach, I rarely work with very “fat” people or couch potatoes.
I work with avid exercise enthusiasts. Active people. People who work hard and are trying to get leaner and feel better in their clothes.
I work with people who have the exercise routine down but can’t figure out why their “clean eating” habits aren’t working, and why they don’t feel as badass in their clothes as they do in the gym.
The biggest issue I have with “healthy eating” (speaking from personal experience and from working with over 250 unique individuals) is that healthy eating deals with food choices and not with portion sizes.
My clients come to me with zero idea of how much they should be eating to sustain their daily life tasks, let alone their crazy workout schedules.
And, in order to find a way to create a slight, sustainable deficit to lose fat over time, they must learn how to quantify what we are doing, and they first place we usually look at is where they can cut out fats so they aren’t consuming 45-60% fat in their daily diet.
Kind of like a financial planner helps someone save money for a car or a house, without feeling like they have to put 80% of their paycheck away each week.
So what does work?
Flexible dieting works, in my opinion.
The Dare to Eat program I created teaches flexible dieting, which, in term teaches people how to quantify what they are doing each day, whether it’s drinking wine, eating avocado or having tacos for lunch.
For this article’s purposes “flexible dieting” refers to the idea that firstly, it is “flexible;” meaning the foods you can eat are open, or free to your discretion.
After all, no food is “good” or “bad,” what matters is how may food you eat in sum.
For instance, in summer 2011 I spent six weeks in France and I lost six pounds eating bread, cheese and peanut butter (my lovely mother shipped it to me) and drinking wine.
I got super skinny because I was eating far less than I needed daily, “Ca m’et egale le type de la nourriture.” (It didn’t matter what type of food it was).
And then, in the spring of 2013 when I began a clean eating, “paleo” lifestyle, I gained 5 pounds because I put coconut oil on everything, olive oil onto chicken “because good fats,” and ate Kind Bars like they were going out of style.
The second part of the term “flexible dieting” is “diet” which refers to the fact that there is some type of restriction in place.
The restriction in place is sum total amount of calories the individual is seeking to consume.
This total number of calories is a *rough* estimate, serving as a guide for the person to plan their day.
The total can be found by way of working with a coach who will set the calories for the individual to henceforth track.
Please note that daily tracking for the rest of your life is *not* necessary but, tracking in the beginning of the process is integral for the individual to learn how to quantify what they are eating.
I recommending tracking calories for roughly two weeks, (at the very least), to see how you tend to ebb and flow throughout the week.
Some people eat less calories during the week than they do on the weekends, and this is OK.
All that matters for fat loss is how many calories you eat throughout the entire week.
For instance if you coach or online calculator suggests you should average 1650 calories per day, you could easily eat 1300 on two rest days/ busy work days, 1600 on three days when maybe you exercise maybe you don’t, and two days you might eat 1900 calories when you go out to dinner and/or you exercise intensely.
It is also important to note that if calorie counting is not the best strategy for you, a coach like myself can help you learn to quantify your meals, working to include some “treat” type foods by way of meal planning and accountability.
The overall takeaway here is that learning how to quantify what you are eating daily and weekly is a better way to lose fat than to simply “eating healthy foods,” because of the three down falls of clean eating mentioned above.
If you are curious about how to find the total amount of calories you should be eating, sign-up for my newsletter and you will get a copy of my FREE Fat Loss Jumpstarter e-book, which provides rough guidelines for how to find a strategic deficit on your own.
If you are interested in the Dare to Eat Program, I have two spots left for the month of April.
Please ask questions, leave comments and feel free to shoot me an email if you wish to further discuss! (firstname.lastname@example.org).