What is clean eating and do we really need to call it that?

What is clean eating anyway?

The name makes sense right? I mean, the opposite would be dirty eating and that doesn’t sound very appealing now, does it?

But clean eating and dirty eating don’t really mean anything. They’re arbitrary names that help us to make sense of something. People don’t like uncertainty and giving things names like this helps to decrease uncomfortable feelings around it.

The issue with trying to define clean eating is that it will vary based on who you ask. Some of you might consider brown rice clean and white rice not. You may consider 93/7 ground beef clean and 80/20 not.

Vegans will have their own definition of clean eating. Paleo followers will have another. The Keto crew will define clean eating differently as well.

  • Do you have to eat organic to be eating clean? What if it’s an organic brownie?
  • Are some processed foods clean and others not? Think before you answer this. Almond butter is processed but so are cookies.
  • Grass-fed and natural. Does this guarantee clean eating?
  • Artificial sweeteners. Clean or not?
  • What about alcohol? 
  • The same goes for coffee. But is the coffee from one palace cleaner than another?
  • Let’s not even talk about sugar. So is fruit cleaner than table sugar and why if it is? 

Oh man, and what about bread? I can see people freaking out right now. 

Clean eating is just another way to create rules and dietary allowances around what you can or can not at. What’s good and what’s bad?

Clean eating is basically stricter eating.

My point is that it’s hard to assign facts to clean eating. Clean eating alone doesn’t help you lose weight, solve any medical problems, or make you have more energy. It’s mostly opinions, personal preferences, and beliefs. No one can agree on what clean eating actually is, and honestly, I’m not convinced it matters.

In today’s article, I’m going to show you why the “idea” of clean eating is great. But also why simply eating clean won’t solve your problems. We’ll talk about how to define clean eating for yourself, and what to focus on instead for sustainable weight management.

An important note.

The majority of people that read this blog are interested in losing fat, building muscle, and keeping weight off long-term. We’ll be looking at clean eating through that lens.

What problem do you want clean eating to solve? 

clean eating

What do you want from clean eating? What problem are you hoping it will solve?

This is an important question to ask yourself. Not only if you’re thinking about “clean eating” but when you’re thinking about making any sort of change in your life.

Maybe you believe eating clean will help you lose weight and keep it off. Or that eating clean will make you healthier overall. But wait, what about this guy that only ate pizza, this guy that only ate ice cream, professor Haub who ate Twinkies or Jordan that ate a Big Mac every day.

Before I get a nasty email. I’m not saying that food quality doesn’t matter. It absolutely does. What I’m saying is that we obsess too much about WHAT we’re eating and turn it into an all-or-nothing thing. We’re either eating clean 100% or YOLO, and eating our face-off. Learning how to balance the good stuff with the not-so-good stuff is important for our sanity and sustainability.

All of these people lost weight and apparently got healthier or maintained their “healthiness”, and I think we can agree that these foods wouldn’t fall into the clean eating approach.

Hell, maybe it goes much deeper than that. Maybe you feel like eating clean will help you feel happier, athletic, more confident, and comfortable in your own skin. 

The idea of clean eating is saying that there’s something wrong with the way that you’re eating, and this is the way to solve it. But eating clean alone doesn’t solve these, or any other health, fitness, or lifestyle problem. It just makes them feel further away.

Instead of focusing on clean eating, try this.

Most people work with me because they want to lose some fat, build some muscle (but not too bulky), and get stronger. All because they want to look and feel better and have more confidence in their skin. 

A misconception is that by simply applying eating clean you can lose fat, increase muscle growth, and look and feel better. Yes, eating clean can help but it alone won’t guarantee any of those things happen. Eating clean, or simply making higher-quality food choices more often is only one part of the equation.

Many people still believe that you can’t get fat eating clean, assuming that calories don’t matter and that eating clean alone will help you lose fat or build muscle better or faster.

The futility of dieting and ongoing debaters of diets distract people from what really creates sustainable weight loss. Being in a consistent calorie deficit over time, and balancing whole foods with the not-so whole foods so you don’t go bat shit crazy.

With all things being equal, creating a consistent calorie deficit over time is the most important factor in losing weight and keeping it off. Again, I’m not saying food quality doesn’t matter, it does. Studies like this one show how important “clean foods” such as fruits and veggies are. 

“Clean” whole foods like this are important for things like improving satiation, and overall health, providing us with vitamins and minerals, and managing cravings. I covered this more in-depth here, here, and here. Oh, and here too.

Clean eating can help with this because it addresses calorie density with foods. Calorie density can simply be summed up as more food with fewer calories.

More specifically, it’s the number of calories in a given weight of food. A food high in calorie density has a large number of calories in a small weight of food (i.e. olive oil). A food low in calorie density would have a small number of calories in the same weight of food (i.e. broccoli).

Choosing foods lower in calorie density is important because these foods are satiating and fill our stomachs without adding tons of calories to our diet.

How calories fill up the stomach
Photo credit: Examine.com

Generally speaking, vegetables and fruit are the lowest in calorie density followed by whole food starches, animal proteins, and finally liquid calories, nuts, seeds, and oils. Highly processed foods like cookies, candy, ice cream, and fries would also be calorie-dense foods.

Now, this doesn’t mean we can never eat these foods. It just means to be aware of them, eat them in moderation, and adjust their consumption of them based on our current goals.

Is eating like this a good or bad idea?

I get the appeal of calling food medicine, referring to it as fuel, and labeling it as good or bad (healthy or unhealthy). I’m just not sure if it’s necessary or helpful.

Clean eating and other terms like this are another way to moralize food choices and what we eat.

Food and nutrition have become as polarizing as politics and religion. It’s hard to have a conversation about it without someone getting defensive, upset, or going into a tangent about why they’re right and you’re wrong.

You're dumb

The best part about this is that people making the most noise and doing the moralizing don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.

Shit, does this article now make me one of those people ?.

There are too many rules, and more and more nutrition rules coming out every day. We make these rules or decisions based on things we don’t even understand. One book is read, we watch one documentary, or see an IG influencer with abs and an ass, and treat it as gospel.

We fall prey to Information overload and shiny object syndrome. All in an attempt for faster, better, and healthier. When most of us just need to be a little bit better and strive for good enough versus perfection.

We’re trying to hack and optimize when most of us don’t even have the basics down.

Psychology of clean eating

Food is intimate.

We put it inside us (so many jokes can be made right now) so eating like this makes sense on the surface. Why would anyone want to put anything dirty in their body?

I love this example from James Heathers. Imagine for a second someone gave you a sweater to put on. It’s a nice sweater, not really your color but comfortable and it fits nicely. You put it on and decide to wear it. Then they tell you the sweater belonged to Hitler. How would you feel about it? Would you take it off? Most people would.

Same sweater. But this time they tell you it belonged to Mr. Rogers. How would you feel about it now? Maybe a sense of pride, you might even feel like a better person. You’d probably think it was pretty awesome, rad, and keep wearing it.

This is known as the contagion heuristic. The contagion heuristic is a psychological process leading people to avoid contact with people or objects viewed as “contaminated” by the previous contact with someone or something viewed as bad – or, less often, to seek contact with objects that have been in contact with people or things considered good (i.e Hitler vs Mr Rogers. Clean eating vs. Not clean eating.)

This is important because it’s used to make money. Terms like clean, fresh, natural, and organic are used on packages to elicit an emotional response. 

Marketing like this creates a health halo. The health halo effect refers to the act of overestimating the healthfulness of an item based on a single claim, such as being low in calories or low in fat (1). When something is labeled as healthy, clean, etc.. we assume everything about it is better for us. This extends beyond buzzwords too. Salads and smoothies often have a healthy halo around them.

But regardless of how healthy, gluten-free, or organic a food is, if you eat too much you’re going to gain weight and create health problems. 

Some things to consider with clean eating

What if you’re eating clean but you’re eating until uncomfortably full? Or if you’re practicing eating clean but using it to cope with stress and boredom? 

What if you’re eating clean but it’s so restrictive that it keeps you from socializing and maintaining relationships?

If you look at eating clean this way does that change the way that you see it? 

I don’t want to beat a dead horse but sometimes you need to so the point comes across clearly.

beat a dead horse

The idea of clean eating is great. But like most things, context matters. And if eating clean is becoming an unhealthy obsession that affects why you eat, how you eat, and your relationships – is it still a healthy practice? 

Putting clean eating into perspective

Clean eating encourages you to eat higher-quality food more often and that matters. Most of us can agree that eating nutritious food is good for us. But it can also be tough.

It’s not always going to be delicious It’s probably going to mean spending more time prepping food and grocery shopping.

You’ll have times when finances are tight and you need to budget and this may affect how you shop. You are going to want to eat out, socialize over drinks, and get ice cream on a date. You’re going to prepare meals and forget them as you rush out the door one morning.

All of your meals are not going to look like the recipe you found on Instagram. They’re not going to taste like the meal you had at that restaurant last Saturday night.

You’re probably not going to have the time, energy, or knowledge to make different recipes every single day. Eating more uniform will make more sense.

If you’re thinking about eating clean drop the all-or-nothing mindset around it. Prepare to eat a little dirty too and be ok with this. 

Who is clean eating for and not for? 

As a perfectionist myself, eating clean has a certain allure to it. I love the idea of my diet being perfectly clean ALL of the time but be careful with this. It could lead to binge eating, social isolation of fear of not eating clean, and food anxiety. 

Some people do really well with rules and strictness around food choices. Restrictors need more rules and structure around what foods they can and can not eat. They may have more trigger foods and have a difficult time stopping at just one bite. Eating clean or stricter eating COULD be helpful.

Eating clean might also be a good fit if you have elite athletic or body composition goals. For example, making weight for an event, achieving sub 8% body fat, or even short-term goals like a wedding in 6 to 12 weeks. As goals become more precise so too does the attention to detail. 

Moderators are people that can take a few bites of food and stop. They don’t have many trigger foods and have excellent appetite and hunger awareness. Clean eating probably doesn’t make as much sense for them.

What to do with this article

Clean eating is an oversimplification and can create a false sense of security. If I just eat clean it will solve X, Y, and Z problems. But this alone doesn’t solve any problems.  

Over the years I’ve coached thousands of people and the vast majority of them already know what to eat. They understand that protein and veggies are a good idea and grasp the concept of extra calories are what’s making us fat.

People already know. But that doesn’t mean they do.

Most of them make the same mistakes over and over again. They put food into A and B categories and rely on motivation and willpower to get them to do A and not do B. 

Today, I invite you to dive a little deeper. And let me warn you when you do it might be uncomfortable. You might not like what you find. It will challenge your ego and identity, and you may have to be vulnerable and admit that you might just not know what you’re doing.

Clean eating is just a belief and nothing more. It’s great to create frameworks and ideas like this. But like any “idea” around nutrition, you can always use it as a starting place. What did you like about it? Do not like it? What did you find easy and challenging?

Instead of viewing food as clean or dirty try this.

  • What can you eat more of
  • some of
  • and less of.

eat more, some, and less of

Imagine real-life scenarios where you could apply this.

Why do you want to eat clean? What problem do you want it to solve? 


Photo by Anna Pelzer on Unsplash

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

Fernan C, Schuldt JP, Niederdeppe J. Health Halo Effects from Product Titles and Nutrient Content Claims in the Context of “Protein” Bars. Health Commun. 2018;33(12):1425-1433. doi:10.1080/10410236.2017.1358240
Arnotti K, Bamber M. Fruit and Vegetable Consumption in Overweight or Obese Individuals: A Meta-Analysis. West J Nurs Res. 2020;42(4):306-314. doi:10.1177/0193945919858699