Do I really need to eat ‘clean’ to lose body mass?

Clean eating, is it required?

Recently I have seen a number of posts around ‘clean eating’ and it seems to have crept back out of the woodwork once again. I can only presume this is part of a New Year strategy to shed those pounds gained in the winter months. I am unsure where the clean eating strategy came from, however it has been around for as long as I can remember (admittedly, I am only 24!). Here I am going to review this strategy for weight loss.

So, what is clean eating?

In short, it is removing all foods that are processed and/or artificial and keeping the bulk of your diet focused on unprocessed food, or natural sources of food. Most would define this as swapping processed food for healthy food, however please someone define what a ‘healthy’ food choice even is.

Using this strategy I have a few concerns

  • The definition of clean eating is somewhat vague. For instance, no details on of total amount of calories, or the macronutrient composition we should be aiming for. As we know, the only way to lose body mass is by placing yourself into a calorie deficit. Therefore, why isn’t this considered in this strategy? Which claims to reduce body mass? In fairness, whilst pondering some websites I did see one example whereby they did consider total calorie intake, however the example seemed ridiculous. They suggested you calculate the total calorie intake by deciding your goal weight (in this example was in pounds (lb)), and then adding a 0 to the end of it!!! (i.e. goal weight 180lb = 1800 cals). Not only does this not consider any scientific evidence, it is also potentially dangerous. In severe cases a large individual may go for a goal weight that is far to unrealistic and as a result, go into a far too severe calorie deficit; which would undoubtedly reduce the chances of adherence or a positive outcome of weight loss.
  • Does this strategy lend itself to a busy schedule? Without going into statistics, it seems (please correct me if not) most people are working longer hours, or have less time for breaks (i.e. 10 min break and lunch break). Therefore, if we can only ingest natural, unprocessed foods we will require a long time to prepare and cook such products, and more importantly far more time than grabbing a quick lunch. It seems this strategy demonises some of the handy foods we can pick up in stores, which believe me, will NOT kill you or hamper your targeted reductions of body mass. For example, on the days which I forget my lunch (which is often!), I would opt for a packet of 100-200g chicken (somewhat processed), a packet of Uncle Bens Rice (250g) then perhaps even a packet of Doritos (40g). This obviously contains processed foods, however it will have limited impact on my body mass loss as long as I remain within a calorie deficit. Likewise, I also manage to satisfy some cravings with some tasty rice, and some Doritos, which come on, who doesn’t like them!
  • A key component is avoidance of sweeteners, which I just cannot understand. To date, no scientific evidence exists on the damage of sweeteners, however it seems to have been demonised (just like sugar, but hey, that’s a rant for another time) and many people as a result are opting to avoid them. They have been suggested to lead to gains in body mass, poor dental health and cancer. Sweeteners are mainly found in diet-soft drinks and some cereal bars. It would seem the scientific evidence is lacking however, as a fairly recent meta-analysis (Miller and Perez, 2014) has revealed no association with ingestion of low calorie sweeteners and increases in body mass, BMI or waist circumference when analysing randomised-controlled design studies only. The randomised controlled design is important, as this is typically a direct intervention on sweetener intake and weight loss/health. Unfortunately, multiple studies have used a correlation analysis to identify the trending increase in sweeteners ingestion and incidences of diabetes and obesity. However, we know correlation is not causation and other factors (other than sweeteners) could have contributed to this effect.

In regards to health, again the link to cancer is misleading. A study by Soffritti et al. (2005) highlighted that in rats, the development of lymphomas and leukaemias was increased greatly when fed aspartame. Agreed scary, considering pepsi-max, diet coke and so on include this sweetener in their drinks. Nevertheless, the dose utilised in this study was supramaximal compared to a realistic human dose; meaning around 1000 cans of diet coke would have to be consumed to have any ‘meaningful effect’. In realistic terms, this is >10 cans a day for probably the rest of your life. Something even the biggest fan of diet beverages probably couldn’t manage.

Somewhat gone on a tangent here, although the take home message would be don’t worry about the ingestion of diet drinks or sweeteners. I also think diet drinks offer a good method to keeping within a calorie restricted diet, as the calories in a 330ml can of pepsi-max for instance is <1cal, whereas, pepsi (sugar) is 139 cals and I believe around 30 grams of carbohydrate.

  • The guilt of consuming the so called ‘dirty’ foods. Even if somebody can correct me with a definition of the clean eating diet, currently, there is no definition of a ‘dirty diet’. So therefore, where do we draw the line with whether the ‘clean’ diet principles are being followed? This can lead to confusion and psychological anxiety every time they eat, like for instance, ordering from a restaurant menu.

It wouldn’t be a fair review without some positives

  • I presume eating clean does somewhat effect your psychology to thinking you’re following a ‘healthy’ diet, however I do not claim to be a psychologist by any stretch of the imagination. Therefore I cannot really expand on this further. I am mainly speaking from anecdotal evidence, although I found this only worked out in the short term and soon enough the cravings started to appear.
  • It is likely the clean eating choices will result in the consumption of fewer calories compared to the processed or ‘dirty’ foods, although as stated previously, be aware that this could drive you into a larger calorie deficit than desired.
  • I couldn’t think of anymore! Haha!

Take home messages:

  • Be aware that ‘eating clean’ will not result in a long term sustainable weight management strategy.
  • Although not mentioned previously in great detail, this method of obtaining nutrients can be expensive, particularly compared to some of the lower cost food which includes some (however not particularly damaging) processing.
  • Challenge some of the clean eating principles and the propaganda they constantly push out (e.g. sweeteners will kill you), as in most cases, the evidence simply isn’t there.
  • A calorie controlled diet, including a small deficit for losses in body mass is still a more appropriate method to effectively lose mass and achieve the goals you set.
  • ALWAYS choose a nutrition strategy that will suit you as an individual, not try and copy a ‘clean eating’ guru! In all honesty, a shoddy nutrition plan that you will stick to is better than the perfect one you will never follow.

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