Flexible Dieting: The Overhyped Battle Between Clean vs. Dirty Foods
Food – it is needed for survival, happiness and in our case, results. For the longest time there has been an argument regarding food choices and the effects they will have on our appearance.
In some arenas, there are those who believe that the consumption of one potato chip will equate to a lower-back fat roll. On the other hand, we see people eating ice cream and pre-packaged cake treats while still maintaining the physique of a Greek god.
This is where we uncover controversy in the fitness world.
Here we have 2 opposing views that are working toward the same goal. One group is focused on clean eating and the other on dirty eating.
In this article I hope to steer you clear of the mental debate. When making a food choice I no longer want you to think about its “cleanliness.” Instead, you will be able to satisfy your palate, health and mental state.
Most fitness freaks try to eat healthy. We see little problem with this, and the “clean” foods they choose to consume. But when we look at the other side of the fence – dirty foods – we run into issues.
What is a dirty food? How do we define “dirty foods”? The answer is not as clear as we think.
I will begin by explaining how each of the foods received their names, and then provide examples of each. I will round out this article with a final verdict on whether or not these clean and dirty labels are necessary.
The reason people cling to the misguided concept of dirty food is largely because of the myths that surround diet and weight loss.
What are “Clean” Foods?
Clean foods are the ones that we see on the covers of fitness magazines. They are placed upon pedestals and are usually placed on lists like “Foods That Fight Fat.”
Clean foods typically consist of colorful vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and high quality oils. As a result of this “clean” label, people involved in fitness as well as those just browsing nutrition facts will try to consume only these foods.
This causes not only a severe deprivation of some of the more enjoyable food choices, but it also forces the feeling of dissatisfaction and discouragement. Your taste buds are simply not satisfied.
Why? Most people who follow this nonsense are not going to like the taste of these “fat burning foods”, yet they will still eat them.
Digging deeper, these types of foods will not have a greater effect on fat loss than the foods that he or she may really enjoy. So the weight will not magically fall off.
Let’s take a look at why and how this is possible.
Food Processing and How We Look at Clean Foods
The amount of processing a food goes through prior to landing in your grocery cart usually determines whether it is labeled as “clean” or “dirty.”
“Low” processed foods include most of your grain products, some meats and most sweet treats. Foods that go through the least amount of processing, and therefore are in their most pure and natural form, are labeled as “clean.”
Determining the amount of processing requires examination of the label. People look at the ingredients as well as the notes on the product, looking for attributes such as “18g whole grains” for breads, or “no added sugar” for sweet products.
When looking at meats, a minimally processed meat would be your whole chicken, pork loin or fish filet.
Macronutrient Quality and Content
Let’s take a look at two foods that contain the same amount of fat, carbohydrates and protein.
The fat in food A is all saturated, the carbohydrates are pure sugar and the protein is low quality. Food B has carbohydrates that come from fibrous plant tissue and starch, the fats are entirely unsaturated and the protein has a perfect amino acid profile.
In the fitness industry, we would see different labels for the two foods: food A being dirty and food B being clean. People tend to think that a food with a makeup of what they think are better calories will lead to better results. Thus, they consider it clean.
Sometimes a food will be considered clean based on its caloric value. A lower-calorie food is frequently considered “cleaner” than its higher calorie competitor.
Aside from micronutrient and fiber differences, consuming 500 calories from raw broccoli and almonds is no different than eating a half of a pint of ice cream.
What are “Dirty” Foods?
Sadly, a wide variety of foods receive the dirty title when they are far from being bad for you. In fact, many of these foods are better for you then the clean foods consumed in their place.
The reason people cling to the misguided concept of dirty food is due largely to the myths that surround diet and weight loss. Many of these myths are tied into the “clean” food movement that was discussed above.
As a result, those still entrenched in the clean/dirty debate find themselves not only suffering the deprivation of many delicious and nutritious food sources, but they are missing out on key nutrients while also spending extra money.
Food Processing and How We Look at Dirty Foods
“Dirty” foods are what we like to consider heavily processed. Here we find pre-packaged goods: chips, fruit snacks, cookies, etc.
These foods go through many different processes prior to consumption, such as stripping the natural vitamins and minerals, the addition of sweeteners, preservatives and colors and finally, the shaping and forming of the product. All of these different phases of production take the original ingredient further and further from its original state.
When looking at what is considered a clean food, we can see why these foods get labeled as dirty. However, there is a very big discrepancy and it has everything to do with hypocrisy.
For example, 99% lean turkey breast sliced from the deli. One will more than likely consider this food clean since it contains a low amount of fat, minimal carbohydrate and lean protein. But on the contrary.
This turkey went through more steps of production than a bag of chocolate chip cookies. Here is where we begin to see the argument of clean versus dirty fall apart, and it only gets worse.
Macronutrient Quality and Content
A dirty food is said to be high in unwanted calories, right? Let’s look back to the comparison of food A and B, mentioned above.
If you were to choose between the two foods of equal caloric value and “cleanliness” you would probably lean towards food B. The problem here is that you would make this decision based upon your thought of the food’s effect on your body. Knowing that, I would gladly let you reach for the “fat-fighting” chicken, olive oil and broccoli while I reach for the eggs and butter.
If calorie count is the same, there will be no better or worse effect on your body composition. The only real difference between the two foods is the amount of micronutrients present and its ability to fill you.
The foods that actually get placed into the two categories are, indeed, different. With that being said, the reasons that people think they are different are simply not true.
Aside from micronutrient and fiber differences that can easily be made up at another meal during the day, consuming 500 calories from raw broccoli and almonds is no different than eating a half of a pint of ice cream.
Here we have the real meaning of food quality. When making a food choice, the only thing I consider besides taste and fitting my macros is the micronutrient density of the food. This leads me to the choice of whole grains and minimally processed foods. With that said, if I have my micronutrients hit for the day and I have the macros left to consume some cookies or ice cream, I am going to go for it.
Those foods will have no negative effect on my body composition. Going further, the micronutrient profile of highly processed foods such as white bread, white rice and boxed cereal is very strong. The companies putting these products on the shelves put them through a process called fortification. This process adds large amounts of micronutrients, usually making them more micronutrient dense than it was beforehand.
As a result, we find a food that is far from “dirty.” As you can see, there is yet another never-ending battle of the foods that again, ends with the whole idea behind flexible dieting: if it fits your macros, it is fine to eat.