What is “Clean Eating”?
If you’ve heard someone on a diet speak about the food they eat, they’ve probably called their meals “clean”. Or, rather, they turn down food choices that they deem “unclean”. These “unclean” food choices are typically calorie dense foods, such as sweets and salty snacks; sugary, calorie dense beverages; white flour carbohydrates; alcohol, including wine, beer, and spirits; and fried foods, among others.
“Clean” foods, then, normally refers to wholesome, nutrient-dense foods. These include, but are not necessarily limited to: lean meats, such as chicken, turkey, and center-cut pork chops; white fishes, such as tilapia and cod; olive oil; fruits and vegetables; whole grain carbohydrates; sweet potatoes; “organic” nut butters; reduced fat beverages and meal replacements; and water.
However, the only way any of these “unclean” foods would become “unclean” is if they fell into a pile of dirt. Likewise, these “clean” foods would only be “clean” if you happened to wash them first.
Then Why Clean Eating?
Foods that are typically labeled as “clean” are, yes, more nutrient dense. Simply put, this means that they contain more micronutrients — vitamins and minerals — per gram than do their “unclean” counterparts.
Therefore, your diet should contain a majority of these “clean” foods. Per day, it is just as essential to obtain micronutrients, water, and adequate fiber as it is to exercise and get plenty of sleep per night. However, what most “clean” eaters will fail to realize is that you can overeat on “clean” foods. And, whether “clean” or “unclean”, overeating will lead to weight gain.
Fat Loss is Energy in Versus Energy Out
An example of a “clean” meal could be as follows: a kale and spinach salad, topped with cherry tomatoes, cucumber, shredded carrots, grilled chicken, avocado, red onion, reduced fat cheese, and with an olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette on the side. Or, how about “healthified” tacos with a flax-ground flour tortilla, white cod, greek yogurt (to replace the sour cream), avocado, lettuce, chopped tomato, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime?
Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
But what each individual needs to realize is that while these foods are heavily nutrient dense, having three of those white fish tacos can set you back nearly 30 grams of fat for one meal. For a runner or someone who performs long-distance sports daily, that’s no problem. But if you are a stay at home mother training through exercise DVDs on her living room while the kids are napping, this one meal can definitely help to increase fat gain.
What’s even worse is that some of these meals can actually contain more calories than “unclean” foods. Not to mention, most reduced fat products contain a slew of chemicals to mask the lack of fat and sugar. While most of these products have been scientifically tested, not all of them have. Plus, a good amount of them have been proven to have adverse effects both inside and outside the body. In that case, it’s better to just eat the fat.
What is Tracking Macronutrients?
Macronutrients are the protein, carbohydrates, and fats required for your body’s internal processes. These numbers, calculated in grams, are how many of each macromolecule your body should be ingesting per day for maximum efficiency.
Every type of food contains macronutrients. So, both “clean” and “unclean” foods contain protein, carbohydrates, and fat. All types of foods, therefore, can be “tracked” — or the proportion of their macronutrients calculated and accounted for — to fit your day’s daily quota.
With tracking macronutrients, no food is off limits. Instead, an individual can figure out the amount of protein, carbohydrates, and fat in each type of food and have whatever amount that can “fit” into their daily allotted macros. In this way, you can literally have your cake and eat it, too.
IIFYM – If It Fits Your Macros
However, let’s not get carried away. Just like how eating three flax-ground flour tortilla fish tacos can quickly add up to overeating, so too can the power of macronutrients. As of late, the fad for “macro trackers” has been to fit as much “unhealthy” food into their diet as they can, just because they can. Eating nothing but protein powders, Pop-Tarts, and string cheese can have its adverse effects, though, such as lowering nutrient levels in vitro, overall sluggishness, and a decrease in performance. While fun foods are definitely fun, they should not take up the bulk of your diet just because they “fit”.
So What Do I Do?
Ideally, a combination of both “clean” foods and tracking macronutrients is the gateway to success. Ingesting “clean” foods such as whole grains, lean meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts, oils, and less processed food will strengthen the body and give it the fuel it needs in order to perform its best. However, “unclean” foods, in moderation, can help with quick pre- and post-workout fuel, mental sanity, and less stress when socializing.
Therefore, the term required for everyday living is “balance.” You need a balance between the wholesome and nutrient-dense foods as well as the more processed, “good for your soul” foods. Each type of food has its place, its worth, and its way into your diet. However, while keeping track of your macronutrients, no food (or an entire food group) has to be off limits. Instead, it becomes much easier to understand the nutritional value of food and plan when you choose to eat it accordingly.
Sol Ruiz heads our Research Digest department. He graduated from the New York University where he obtained his Master’s Degree in Public Health.