The Clean Eating Myth

I ate so clean that I was a lean mean clean eating machine.

My meals were devoid of added sugars, added salt, sugar-sweetened beverages, empty calories, vegetable oils, and were pretty bland. I ate brown rice with eggs for dinner basically. Sometimes I added a little ketchup.

For snacks I would eat a bag of nuts. Or maybe some cheese. Both were low-carb options. I might eat some fruit too. For breakfast I would either eat a few eggs or make a smoothie with some lettuce and melon.

I also was into superfoods, like spirulina, maca powder, goji berries, and the like. None of these things are foods. Those were just marketing terms designed to get you excited about what these unpalatable things will do for your health. Maybe they’ll make you feel great but they are supplements. That was the clean eating myth.

The premise of clean eating

People who are into clean eating are usually into weight loss or lowering their body fat and going to the gym. I’ve noticed that many of them are young and have caught the bug. The media infected their brain and they live in Western society.

People who defend clean eating acknowledge the obesity rates and cite it as a way to escape from that. In reality it’s just an addiction and a lifestyle engendered by a desire to change body shape and composition. When you want to change how your body looks, it can get so bad that you’ll eat the craziest things to get there.

So I see a lot of young people and sometimes older people with the bug talk about clean eating but they all seem to be interested in going to the gym and staring at themselves in the mirror quite often.

Where clean eating fails

Clean eating isn’t therefore about health. It’s about looks and it’s a product of Western culture and consumerism. If lifting weights and working out a lot and then having a low body fat percentage is healthy, then it would work. People who are naturally lean can eat whatever they want. That’s healthy.

Clean eating supports that “eat less move more” mantra. That just doesn’t work forever, and it may be a bad idea for young healthy individuals.

It may certainly improve the health of people who are obese. But the research hasn’t shown it to help people who aren’t obese. Mediterranean diets have been studied in the literature and definitely the epidemiological research shows that avoiding really bad foods and lifestyle habits like drinking often, smoking cigarettes, and eating fast food is going to be better (duh). But that doesn’t support clean eating from an evidence-based standpoint.

That doesn’t matter though because more importantly, clean eating also isn’t instinctual or based on our body’s internal feedback. When we eat, our bodies tell us how we feel about the food: how filling it is, how much energy we have, and if we want to eat it again. By convincing ourselves that eating clean is going to be better for us (as i’ve done), we won’t listen to what our bodies are telling us. And then in the long run, we may end up with imbalances.

This is what clean eating really looks like.

IG: @sbcahealth

That’s an old post of mine on instagram.

So I hope you agree that clean eating isn’t the same as healthy eating. However, the USDA and most places you learn about nutrition probably think they’re the same, because the USDA’s healthy eating index basically tells us to eat more grains, fruits, dark leafy greens, seafood, nuts, and avoid saturated fat and sugar. It’s boring and uninstinctual that’s why few people do it. People try to eat healthy for 30 days at a time (like that new diet book that came out) because afterwards, their bodies tell them they’re out of balance.

The really “dedicated” people (idiots actually), won’t listen to their bodies. They won’t make excuses. They think they’re working hard by trying to get a six pack in the gym at 5 AM. And they will likely have elevated stress hormones and in the long run that will cancel out any potential benefit from being physically active. Only their positive attitude, as long as it isn’t destroyed by stress hormones, keeps them going.

Physical activity by the way, as referred to in the literature, and as recommended by doctors for patients who desperately need it, is about walking, hiking, being outside, and not sitting down as much, and doing some moderate exercise. That has been studied in the literature. Going hardcore in the gym has not. Hey, that doesn’t mean the gym is bad. I’m really against that type of dismissive evidence-based thinking because it’s unscientific. However, it says something about human nature. Most people listen to their bodies, and don’t workout that hard when they do workout. 

And I think that’s healthier than being ‘dedicated’ and having rigid fitness goals. Add clean eating to this and it’s a recipe for disaster. I did it for years and developed adrenal issues which I’ve been healing on and off for a year since I let go of lifting as heavy as possible. It’s just that at my age (24), I have a lot of energy and can quickly get addicted for some reason to physical activity. Maybe it’s genetic. Maybe it’s because I started playing various sports as a young kid. Now that I follow my body though, I feel a lot better.

So what is healthy eating?

I will cover this in more detail in a separate post, but healthy eating CAN indeed include some of the things the research has shown, but if it is based entirely on that, the subjective intuitive aspect will be missing. And for something so intuitive, nutrition science is completely unnecessary to achieve perfect health and to look great naked.

And the other thing is, many different diets could be healthy. So it’s hard to say what healthy eating really is. We know what unhealthy eating is but there is a lot of delicious room for making eating healthy. Beyond healthy, food should be nourishing. If you eat beans, low fat dairy, small portions of meat, and salad as your dinner, that may be perfectly healthy according to the USDA, but is it nourishing? Probably not as much as full-fat dairy, more meat, and foods you really crave.

So enjoy this picture of a curry I made with some lamb and quail eggs (I normally don’t eat quail eggs but found them in an asian grocery recently) and lots of spices. I ate it with white rice, which I prefer taste-wise over brown rice, like the vast majority of people in the world.

IG: @sbcahealth

P.S. When I was a lean mean clean eating machine, I would never have agreed with this stuff. But I didn’t know what I was doing to my body. There are certainly people who believe in clean eating and going to the gym who are listening to their bodies, but the whole ‘dedication’ and ‘fitspiration’ mindset can lead to doing way too much for what is healthy to achieve something that is just a trend among a certain group of people.

If you want to read more content like this, subscribe to my email list (below) to be notified of when my guide to stop being confused about health comes out. For being a subscriber, you’ll get it for free. It will cover how to think about health, where to get information from, how to analyze ideas, and several myths.

Carpe diem.

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