The Clean Eating Myth

The Clean Eating Myth -- Athlete Daily

“I don’t track macros, but I try to eat clean.”

“I had some sweets this weekend, but I’ll just eat clean this week to make up for it.”

These are phrases that irritate me and ones I hear, in some form or fashion, at least once a week. There’s this HUGE misconception about “clean eating” when it comes to performance nutrition and nutrition for aesthetics that should be cleared up. If you’re an athlete who’s goal is to fuel their performance, “eating clean” is not —and should not be— your No. 1 priority. If you are an athlete focused on achieving a certain body composition goal (fat loss, build muscle), “eating clean” is not –and shouldn’t be– priority No. 1.

Yes, you read that right. Quantity is the most important factor when you’re working on performance goals. Quantity is the most important factor when you’re working toward a specific body composition (i.e. aesthetic) goal. In both of these situations, quantity trumps food quality.

The Clean Eating Myth -- Athlete Daily

Yes you can still get fat from over-eating healthy foods like these. The most important factor in fat loss is calorie balance (calories you take in versus how much you burn)–regardless of where those calories came from.

“You can still get fat from salmon and broccoli.”

It’s one of my favorite lines from the Nutritional Coaching Institute (NCI) Certification that we attended back in January. And therein lies the misconception that so many people have.

Yes, healthy food often has more favorable macronutrient numbers. The amount of cauliflower rice I can eat to reach 50 grams of carbs versus the amount of white rice is staggering. Plus cauliflower is chock full of micronutrients, an important factor which a lot of people obsessed with counting their macros can forget about.

I understand that for many people, especially those just starting out on their quest for health and wellness, swapping out “junk” for healthier choices can have an impact. Nutrition can be complicated and beginners can see great success in performance and aesthetics by making small changes.

But eventually we graduate. The numbers stall. If your goal is to train for fun and eat intuitively, then by all means continue on. But if you want to maximize your performance or achieve a specific aesthetic goal, you need to put aside the myth of clean eating getting you to your goals.

The Clean Eating Myth -- Athlete Daily

You can still enjoy some “junk food”, like this cake, without compromising your body composition, health or life span.

This article isn’t meant to discourage you from buying organic meats and eating your veggies. But think about it: for a male lifter consuming 500-plus grams of carbs a day, eating only “clean” foods can be impossible without causing major fiber overload and stomach discomfort. It would be very hard for them to hit their carbohydrate intake and their recovery would be compromised.

Quality matters, yes, but quantity —eating ENOUGH to fuel and aid recovery— is more important. A bowl of cereal at night is much more doable than eating a fifth sweet potato.

For a 135-lb. female trying to lose body fat, eating organic wild salmon is great. But if she doesn’t measure out her portions, eyeballing three ounces one day can just as easily be five the next, and now she’s consuming 40 percent more fat and protein than she needs to be at a proper deficit. Again, quality matters. But quantity is more important.

You can still get fat from salmon and broccoli. — Jason Phillips, Nutritional Coaching Institute

Remember the Paleo craze? Don’t measure your food! Eat as much high-quality meats and vegetables as you can! How did that work out for most of us? Chances are, you weren’t performing optimally and your body composition wasn’t what you wanted it to be. (Our Nutrition Series is littered with examples including Brooke Ence and Lindy Barber.)

Why? Most of us —myself included— were consuming way too much dietary fat on a daily basis. That’s a problem because, in the grand scheme of things, your caloric intake matters. Quantity matters. Even if all you’re eating is chicken and broccoli, you can still overeat. Taking in more calories than you expend will always lead to weight gain—regardless of whether it’s “clean foods” or ice cream that you’re eating.

The Clean Eating Myth -- Athlete Daily

Constantly depriving yourself only sets you up to fail and binge later on.

Imagine for a second if we applied that same theory to training. You did back squats on days you felt like doing back squats and maybe you didn’t feel like doing any strict press for a few weeks. Every day you either jump in on random workouts that look cool online or you do some random accessory with a friend. You never write any of your workouts down or track any reps/sets you did. That would be too time consuming. How do you think any non-beginner athlete would progress?

Taking in more calories than you expend will always lead to weight gain—regardless of whether it’s “clean foods” or ice cream that you’re eating.

In general, the term “clean food” bothers me. What does that mean? Did you spray it down with disinfectant before you ate it? It’s almost become a pass for people. A get-out-of-jail-free card with their diets.

“I went way over my macros, but I ate clean.”

“Why am I not losing weight? I’m eating clean!”

News flash: Extra calories from Chipotle’s chips and guac is treated exactly the same by your body as extra calories from that organic, non-GMO raw almond butter. The scale doesn’t give you any bonus points for the kind of food you eat. (Not to mention “good” and “bad” foods are different depending on who you talk to.)

Quality is important, but quantity is what’s going to move the needle.

The Clean Eating Myth -- Athlete Daily

500 calories is 500 calories–whether it’s from pizza or whole grain bread.

Again, this is not meant to be a knock on healthy eating. The bulk of your diet should be comprised of high-quality, nutrient dense foods that are going to help your body perform well in the gym and recover for the next day. We want you to keep inflammation at bay and have a well-rounded diet. And that includes fruits, vegetables, high-quality proteins and starchy carbohydrates.

But if you want to reach your peak performance in the gym, you have to prioritize quantity. If you want to reach a certain body weight, you have to prioritize quantity. Too many people are still under-eating when it comes to carbohydrates and over consuming dietary fat.

Too many people think that measuring out and weighing portions is too time-consuming. And if that’s you, that’s perfectly OK. Just know that quantity of food you consume is the biggest (and most important) factor in hitting your performance and body composition goals.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with training for the fun of it and eating intuitively. But if you want to set yourself up for success long-term, you have to pay attention to quantity first and then quality.



Check out our guide to tracking macros here. For more resources on the topic of “clean eating” and why it is a myth, we recommend checking out this video or this article.