Monday, December 26, 2011

Clean Eating – I don't think it means what you think it means

"You keep using that word. I don't think it means what you think it means." – Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

My wife doesn't appreciate the beauty and genius that is The Princess Bride, which is her loss and mine. Mine because I can't get easy laughs when I quote these guys, and hers because she probably won't appreciate it when I watch it the next million times, either. It's unlikely to grow on her. To not like this movie is inconceivable to me, but I wasn't fully convinced of her shortcoming before the wedding. I was sure she'd like it once she saw the whole thing, which may still be true, but she keeps leaving.

Like Vizzini's "inconceivable," there are many words and phrases that are casually tossed around in the diet, fitness, and nutrition world. Many have been so butchered that they've essentially become meaningless. ...or, at least the desire to get them right has waned.

I made a list of little fitness and nutrition terms and phrases that bug me, and quickly got up to about 10 phrases long, which is a little sad. I try to be a positive person, but sometimes you must vent, just a little. Sometimes the misconceptions around these terms are just honest mistakes, sometimes there's an agenda, sometimes it's a backhanded complement, and sometimes it's just bad grammar that seems to linger on. However I look at it, I am bugged, so here I go.

The first one of these terms is... Clean Eating and it's arch-nemesis "Everything in Moderation." I'm certainly not the first one to complain about these ones, but it's hard to resist starting here. I feel like it's the low hanging fruit on my list, but I'm just getting back from the Christmas break, so it's baby steps.

Clean Eating

Clean eating is a totally undefined and undefinable state. It means something different to everybody, but what it's said to indicate is a style of eating that doesn't feature poor quality foods and ingredients, there are no boxes and packages, and things like fast food are avoided like the plague – unless you can order a turkey patty and pretend that bun is whole wheat (um, don't ask, don't tell).

There's certainly more to it, but overall, the Clean Eating Specification is pretty vague in its specificity. To make matters worse, there's no one book, site, or resource to run to for the official Clean Eating program, although Tosca Roony and her Clean Eating library seem to lay claim to it (hint; they came later).

Steel cut oatmeal, fish oil, broccoli, skinless chicken breasts, and flax meal (not always in the same bowl) are the internet hallmarks of Clean Eating, as are the concepts that you simply can't be fat or get fat if you're eating clean. In fact, the internet says that eating clean when attempting to gain weight is the sure fire way to build muscle without loosing [sic] your abs. The only problem is that it's not true (I can so get fat "eating clean.").

Another big issue is that clean, itself, is not well defined. A vegan can eat clean, a low carber can eat clean, an "everything in moderation" person can eat clean, a paleo would say that only they are eating clean (some even shake their heads in sad wonder at the primal guys), and some organic, grass-fed paleos even look down upon their supermarket paleo brethren as they wallow in their conventional meat and veggie dirtiness.

The Clean Eating crowd certainly means well, and they are doing much better than most people eating a modern industrialized diet, but many live under the strange rules where you cut the fat off of your meat, only to cook the same meat in olive oil. Then, since butter is healthier than margarine, that's what you spread on your baked potato sweet potato. Iceberg is out, romaine is in. Why is table sugar evil, while powdered dextrose and maltodextrin are just fine as long as they are shaken into whey protein powder just before, during, or after lifting weights?

The rules go on and on, and while they aren't necessarily bad, they aren't magic, either. Trust me, just eating "clean" won't get you ripped unless you still eat fewer calories than you need. Looking for health? If you have gut issues, whole grains instead of white flour is a recipe for tummy troubles. Looking to add slabs of meat to your frame? Replacing the saturated fat from the burger patty you're not eating anymore with monounsaturated fat from olive oil or polyunsaturated fat from flaxseeds isn't helping anything.

Everything in Moderation

Don't get me wrong, I also don't take the flip side, where people actively mock those who follow a version of a Clean Eating lifestyle, because to them, it's just calories, calories, calories! ...and after all, calories are calories. If only there was an internet term for the anti-clean eating phenomenon... Oh wait, there is: My Plate! The USDA and, does say eat what you like, but eat less of it.

problem solved.

Granted, no one is saying to eat junk all the time (not even the government), but they are saying that you can eat the junk, as long as you work them into your calories (and sometimes your macros), or maybe keep it to 10-20% of your calories for the week.

These Everything in Moderation folk are the people who figuratively shout out their epic cheat meals and free days all over Facebook, and when challenged by science or the suggestion that it might not be such a good idea, follow up with the classic mantra of "I eat ____, and I'm doing fine." What they are really saying is "not being able to eat _____ isn't fair."

Did you dad say life was fair? Life is fair, right? To be otherwise is inconceivable.


  1. As long as something comes out at some point after one eats, no eating is clean. It's just a matter of time. How's that for a productive comment?

    Then there is the notion of clean for what purpose? Weight loss? Weight gain? Health? Longevity? It all depends on what "dirty" does to you and what one's goal is, what they're trying to attain, or avoid.

    For most people, clean is whatever might be cleaner than it used to be, or compared to yesterday. And if that trend keeps up, that's good.

    1. Oh, I think I'm going to start telling people I eat 'clean' now because I've started avoiding high fructose corn syrup* and MSG and I'm pretty successful at it these days, and that's mostly what I care about, so Go Me. I get to look down my nose at someone now, right? ;)

      * - re: the debates about HFCS. I do not care if it is the devil's own food or has mercury or is radioactive or whatever, I only care that there is a direct link, in my experience, between consuming something with HFCS and my arthritis pain being about 12 times worse. Someone could decide HFCS is a health food and I wouldn't eat it. I've had arthritis since I was 10, I have a lot of joints that can get in on the hurting at this point. (MSG is similar - it's a migraine trigger for me. So I avoid it as much as realistically possible because I do not like feeling like my head is going to explode.)

  2. I'm all for avoiding HFCS and MSG.

    With you've had arthritis since such an early age, you might check out the possibility that you have an autoimmune related version of it. I hear things like gluten and grains can keep inflammation high, so it doesn't take much to cause an episode.

    If I had something like that (or migraines), I would do a strict elimination diet for 3-6 months. No grains, dairy, and legumes. Avoid oils made from grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes, too. Avoid sugars and sweeteners aside from fruit. No packaged or processed foods pretty much takes care of the MSG and HFCS, too.


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