“Whenever there are two fiercely divided sides in an argument, the truth is often somewhere in the middle.”
You’re stuck in a false dilemma.
1. One side says you should only focus on what you eat, and that calories either don’t matter or don’t deserve any of your attention.
2. The other side says that you should only focus on how much you eat and pay no attention to food quality.
Quality versus quantity.
Few people actually support the idea that food quality is irrelevant, but it’s a common straw man argument from many people who promote “clean eating.”
People often say that you should focus either completely on calories or completely on eating “healthy food” (however they define that).
In this article, we’re going to look at this discussion from both sides. You’re going to learn the pros and cons of both approaches and see which is better. The answer might surprise you.
Let’s start with “clean eating.”
The Top 5 Problems with “Clean Eating”
1. “Clean eating” has no consistent definition.
Clean eating means something different to everyone, and people modify the term to fit their beliefs, personal experiences, and irrational fears.
For example, hundreds of people have commented on this article, most of whom have a unique definition of what “clean eating” means to them. Ironically, this supports one of the main points of that article, and this one — “clean eating” means something different to everyone, and thus, can’t be objectively studied or debated.
2. “Clean eating” encourages disordered eating behavior and causes you unnecessary stress.
This doesn’t mean that you have an eating disorder if you pay attention to your food quality.
It means that an irrational obsession with only eating healthy foods does encourage disordered eating habits.1-3 It’s socially isolating, mentally exhausting, and unnecessarily stressful.
This mindset also tends to get worse. When you have no rational basis for your eating decisions, you start eliminating more and more foods from your diet based on poor evidence. Eventually the list of foods you’re “allowed” to eat becomes almost non-existent. Instead of only avoiding foods that would normally be considered “junk,” like cake or ice cream, almost everything is off-limits.
Dividing foods into “good” and “bad” also contributes to this problem. You feel guilty for having any “bad” foods, because, well, they’re “bad.” You fight yourself for a while, even years, but eventually you indulge. When you do, you probably go overboard. It’s no surprise people who obsess over food quality and “clean eating” often go on epic binges and justify it as a “cheat day.”
For many people, the more they deprive themselves, the more they binge. This isn’t true for everyone, but it’s a risk worth noting. This also doesn’t mean that you should let yourself indulge in every craving, but ignoring them all isn’t a smart solution either. Remember: balance and moderation.
3. “Clean eating” encourages irrational, fear-based decision making.
There’s no doubt that many people eat too many calories, and that many of these calories come from fast food, sweets, and other “junk.”4-8
In an attempt to discourage these people from eating too much, many people — including public health authorities — exaggerate the potential dangers of these foods.
They tell you sugar is “toxic.”
They tell you preservatives, artificial flavors, GMO’s, and dyes give you cancer.
They tell you that saturated fat “clogs your arteries like pipes.”
This usually has two consequences, both of which are negative:
1. The people who don’t pay attention to what or how much they eat continue to pay no attention to what or how much they eat. They ignore this advice because a) they don’t care or b) it’s overly sensational and worth ignoring.
2. People who already care about what they eat — and probably don’t need this advice anyway — come up with more irrational reasons to avoid certain foods. They feel even more justified in their decision to “eat clean” and often start perpetuating this problem by spreading it on the internet and elsewhere.
Every time another new overblown article or press release comes out on the dangers of a food, they cry “See? I told you so I told you so I told you so!!!” — annoying everyone around them. Others just live in silent fear. I know because I’ve done both.
You don’t make rational decisions when you’re afraid.
If you repeatedly hear that gluten “tears holes through your intestines” and “gives you autoimmune diseases” or that “saturated fat clogs your arteries like pipes,” you become far less accepting of more reasonable and accurate advice.
When you hear “gluten is probably safe for the majority of the population,” it’s easy to assume that you’re part of that ~10% of people that may not tolerate gluten. You might be right, but your fear prevents you from considering that you’re wrong.
If anyone says that having moderate amounts of junk food is okay in the context of a balanced diet, the usual retort is something like “Most of the developed world is obese or overweight, and you’re telling people it’s okay to eat junk.” Or as this commenter put it:
“Cheese burgers are bad for you, vegetables are good for you… I don’t think it’s a good idea to promote the notion that no foods are bad for you. There’s an obesity epidemic going on here.”
Exaggerating the potential dangers of certain foods doesn’t improve people’s health, advance our knowledge of nutrition, or help fight obesity. It keeps people afraid and encourages irrational, pseudoscientific thinking. What you should do is learn exactly what does cause obesity, and what strategies you can use to deal with it.
4. “Clean eating” assumes the same diet is best for everyone.
Whatever combination of foods any given person says are “bad,” they also usually say they are “bad” for everyone in every context. They’re wrong.
People with different activity levels, preferences, and tolerances are going to do well on different diets. Some people feel great on just about any diet.
Different people are going to require and prefer a different number of calories and different amounts of protein, fat, and carbohydrate. They’re also going to need, tolerate, and prefer to get those calories from different foods than someone else.
There are general dietary principles that everyone should usually adhere to (which we’ll discuss in the next article), but how you apply these principles depends on you and your goals. Telling everyone to eat the same “clean diet” is going to marginalize someone.
5. “Clean eating” doesn’t always help people lose fat.
You’ve probably been in this situation before:
You’re eating all of the “right foods” and avoiding all of the “wrong” foods. You lose fat at first, but eventually your progress stalls.
You’ve been told that you shouldn’t focus on calories and that “clean eating” is the best way to lose fat. Either by helping you subconsciously eat less or by some voodoo metabolic advantage/hormone balancing magic, you can reach your goals without ever thinking about calories.
Unless you create a caloric deficit, you won’t lose weight. Telling someone that they should never focus on calories and only focus on food quality often traps them in a sense of false security.
You probably will eat less subconsciously when you eat more filling foods,9-11 but if you don’t understand the importance of calories, you’ll be stuck if you hit a plateau. Eating more broccoli won’t save you from the reality of calories.
The intention of “clean eating” is good — getting people to focus on more whole, filling, nutrient-dense foods. The problem is that people take this to wild extremes. They exaggerate the potential dangers of certain foods and confuse and frustrate people in the process.
Many people develop a moral and emotional attachment to their diet which devolves into a religion — where everyone crusades for their own irrational definition of what they consider a “healthy diet” — failing to realize that this definition depends on who’s eating the food and how much they’re eating.
Another approach is called “If-It-Fits-Your-Macros.” This method has some major advantages over “clean eating,” but it also has some drawbacks.
How to Screw-Up “If-It-Fits-Your-Macros” Eating (IIFYM)
IIFYM is a dietary strategy based on the idea that as long as what you eat fits your macronutrient targets of protein, fat, and carbohydrate, and sometimes fiber — it’s okay to eat it.
From a scientific standpoint, this method is well-supported. Research has consistently shown that altering and optimizing your calorie and macronutrient intake can have a huge effect on your health and body composition regardless of where those calories and macronutrients come from.6,11-16 IIFYM is also simple, flexible, relatively easy to maintain, and objective.
It’s not perfect, however.
The problem is not necessarily with IIFYM, but with the way this concept is often interpreted. When many people hear the term “if-it-fits-your-macros,” they take this literally and lose all semblance of common sense.
Technically, you could live off of Pop Tarts, protein shakes, and fiber supplements and still hit your macros. This is not a great long-term strategy for your body composition or health.
However, it’s rare to find someone who actually eats like that.
IIFYM was largely started and spread by bodybuilders, models, and athletes who were tired of adhering to the irrational and undefinable concept of “clean eating.” For the most part, they still maintained a diet that fulfilled their essential nutrition and kept them satisfied, but they didn’t obsess over food quality like they had in the past.
The problem is when someone with no regard to food quality — little common sense or nutritional knowledge — starts IIFYM and takes it literally. Someone already eating a ton of junk food keeps eating the same amount of junk food, but in a more structured manner.
IIFYM is based on the idea that you maintain an overall nutritious diet. Unfortunately, this part is sometimes lost in translation.
Another problem is that people sometimes become obsessed with exactly hitting their macronutrient targets. They eat another 10 grams of tuna to make sure they get exactly 150 grams of protein. They also assume that they don’t need to change their calorie and macronutrient targets over time — which they do. Then they get frustrated when they don’t see progress despite hitting their macros and calories.
Most people don’t misinterpret IIFYM like this, but it’s easy to see how someone could if they don’t understand the concept.
Here’s a solution that will give you the best of both worlds:
Focus on Quality and Quantity
Your weight is determined by how many calories you consume and expend.6,13 However, where you get those calories also matters.
Your macronutrient intake and food choices also play a major role in your ability to lose fat, gain muscle, stay full, stay healthy, perform well physically, and just about everything else.
Food quality and quantity are completely intertwined and impossible to separate.
Controlling your portions is important for making sure you get enough nutrition, as well as making sure you don’t overindulge. Likewise, eating more filling and nutritious food helps you control your portion sizes by keeping you satiated and well-nourished with fewer calories.10,17
Both Food Quality and Quantity Come First
You’ve probably heard people say something like “of course calories count, but it’s better to just focus on eating healthy food and ignore calories and macronutrients.”
These people often say things like you should “never diet,” or “diets make you fat,” — ignoring the fact that they are promoting an eating pattern, also known as a “diet.”
For some people, taking a binary approach of only focusing on calories or only focusing on food quality can work.
However, you’ll probably get better results with less stress by using both strategies. Focusing on both food quality and quantity can have similar positive and synergistic effects.
When you focus on food quality — eating more nutritious and filling foods — you generally do a better job of eating fewer calories.9,10,18 What many people ignore is that focusing on calories and macronutrients can also help you increase your food quality.
When you start reading labels and realizing how many calories are in your food, you usually pick lower calorie options — things like lean meat, fruits, and vegetables. You start eating “cleaner” by default.
Studies have also shown that when people track their food intake they subconsciously decrease their calorie intake.19 They eat less without realizing it, just like they do when they eat more filling foods. Tracking your food intake can often produce similar levels of weight loss compared to eating “cleaner.”
When people start tracking their macronutrient intake, they often realize they aren’t eating enough protein and/or fiber — which are far more filling than other foods. In response, they often eat more lean meat, seafood, fruits, and vegetables.
Tracking your calorie and macronutrient intake — even for a little while — is an empowering experience. You finally learn where most of your calories are coming from, where you may need to cut back, or where you might need to eat more. You might learn that you’re eating too many calories from sugar, flour, oils, and junk food, and that you should cut back. You might learn that you often eat more than you really need to be full. You might learn that you don’t need to change a damn thing.
It’s inaccurate to say that you should only focus on calories and macronutrients or only focus on food quality. You should focus on both.
In the next article, you’ll learn the most practical, scientifically supported principles for how to achieve great health, a lean body composition, and a long life — without demonizing certain foods.
What do you think are the pros and cons of “clean eating” versus “if-it-fits-your-macros?”
How do you maintain a healthy diet while still indulging occasionally?
Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
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