With the recent movement of “If It Fits Your Macros” (IIFYM) in fitness and bodybuilding subculture, many opposers of the flexible dieting mantra hold steadfast to the more dogmatic, “clean-eating” approach when it comes to diet and food choices. This got me thinking about the prototypical diet of the majority of “traditional” bodybuilders and if there comes a point when patterns of highly-restrictive eating and limitation of food sources becomes counterproductive to health and improving one’s physique.
I’ve written previous articles that tackle the debate of “clean and dirty” foods quite thoroughly, but this article will give a quick recap of those entries to make sure we’re all on the same page. Then we will take a look at what many of these self-proclaimed “clean eaters” ingest on a daily basis and if it may actually be hindering their health and physique goals.
One thing to keep in mind before we move on is that bodybuilding has unfortunately lost congruity with the concept of overall health/fitness. Sadly, many individuals who grace the stage to show off their shredded, muscular physique are putting their body through so much turmoil (whether it’s drug use, nutrient deprivation, excessive training, psychological issues, etc.) and likely cutting years off their life. This is not to say all competitive physique athletes are unhealthy, but it just iterates the point that bodybuilding isn’t necessarily synonymous with the terms health and fitness.
Classifying clean and dirty foods
For some people who are “in the know” this section will just be beating a dead horse, so bear with me as I give a truncated overview of the “clean and dirty” food dichotomy that pervades the nutrition world. When talking about food choices with a typical fitness aficionado, I pose to the question, “What constitutes a unanimously health-promoting food?” Coincidentally their response is usually littered with terminology like “organic”, “free-range”, “low-fat”, “low-carb”, “low-calorie”, “dairy-free”, “gluten-free”, the list goes on.
Notice the assumptions being made here? Why does a food that’s low in fat, for example, mean it’s always a healthy choice? What about “organic” foods, are you telling me that just because they’re not modified or processed in some capacity that they are always healthy choices? I’m sorry, but you’ve been brainwashed by marketing/media/simpleton nutritionists if you honestly think that way.
Health—it’s all relative
When we consider foods that are universally “healthy”, think about what overarching premise we’re are driving at. Healthy (synonymous with fitness), in the biological sense, is something that promotes the survivability of an organism. Therefore, a “healthy” food is simply a form of nourishment that is conducive to longevity.
Now if we take a step back and consider the fact that different humans have a plethora of variables that go into their nutrient requirements, you can see that the relativity of diet creates a whole new dynamic behind food choices. This is to say that very few foods/ingredients are completely taboo because they are likely beneficial in some capacity if eaten in proper quantity.
Nutrition is not as black and white as people seem to make it with the whole notion “clean” and “dirty” foods; its relative and most any food/ingredient can be at least somewhat healthy so long as you’re meeting your nutrient requirements.
The subjective dichotomy of universally “clean” and “dirty” foods that many typical health and bodybuilding enthusiasts cling to is a perfect example of this lamebrain way of thinking about nutrition; they look at certain foods and think “Oh, those are ‘clean’ foods, so I should just eat strictly those and abandon everything else.” This eventually manifests itself into the restrictive diets that were alluded to earlier in this article. Let’s take a look at why these “ultra-clean, bodybuilding” diets are ultimately not healthy in the grand scheme of things.
Why highly-restrictive/”clean” eating isn’t necessarily healthy
When I first started training and changing my eating habits to be “healthier” I followed the run-of-the-mill diets you see outlined in many contemporary bodybuilding magazines, the same humdrum rubble that now defines pretty much every meathead’s diet. Let’s take a look at an example such a “clean” diet:
- Meal 1—Egg whites, oatmeal
- Meal 2—Chicken breast, rice, broccoli
- Meal 3—Same as meal 2
- Meal 4—Whey protein shake
- Meal 5—Steak, rice, broccoli
- Meal 6—Casein protein shake
Well for starters, when I see diets like this the first thing that comes to my mind is monotony, followed closely by nutrient deficiencies. Honestly most people would see this diet and commend the individual on how “healthy” they eat when the reality is this diet is far from that.
The diet lacks fat sources, variety, eliminates food groups, it’s bland as can be, contains no fruit and minute amounts of veggies, and is highly deficient in fiber and about every micronutrient. I really shouldn’t need to elaborate much on why these shortcomings are not conducive to health and wellbeing.
So how strict should you be and what is a healthy diet?
Naturally, you’re probably concerned about how to fix the previously outlined “clean” diet so it is indeed healthy for you. Well, before I provide some suggestions, bear in mind that diet is relative and there isn’t a cookie-cutter plan that suits all individuals. That being said, there are still some generalities that can be extended too many people’s nutritional habits that promote overall health. So let’s take a look at some of those tips:
Tip #1 - Variety is the spice of life
Your diet shouldn’t consist of the same 3 or 4 “clean” foods over and over again. Eating only egg whites, chicken and rice all day doesn’t make your diet healthy despite its purported “cleanness”. Vary your food choices and don’t restrict yourself. Eating an egg yolk every now and then won’t kill you; neither will some fruit (nor pretty much any other food when eaten in appropriate amounts). You don’t have to only eat certain alleged “clean” foods. For more on the fallacy of “clean and dirty” foods, give this a read.
Tip #2 - Don’t completely avoid fats and carbohydrates
Many people have this inane fear of fats and/or carbohydrates and will go to extreme measures to avoid them at all costs. While limiting these macronutrients may be necessary in some instances, it is rarely wise to completely take them out of your diet (especially fats since they are an essential nutrient). There is nothing wrong with lowering carb or fat intake, but trying to eat next to nil isn’t very practical or healthy.
Tip #3 - Eat balanced/complete meals
This ties in with the above tip in that your meals should preferably contain all three macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fats). It is okay to tweak the ratio of these nutrients at certain meals but it’s not needed. Furthermore, when you eat balanced meals you will likely feel more satisfied, have more freedom of food choices, prevent large blood glucose swings, and promote a better anabolic response to the feeding.
Tip #4 - Don’t skimp on micronutrients and dietary fiber
Along with the tip above about eating a variety of foods, make sure you’re eating sufficient amounts of micronutrients (i.e. vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, etc.) and dietary fiber. If you’re eating a good amount of fruits, vegetables, dairy, whole-grains, animal proteins, etc. I see little reason you will be deficient in this area. If you’re not doing this, it is wise to consider supplementing with a multi-vitamin, but this isn’t necessarily a fail-safe for avoiding whole foods.
Tip #5 - Eat quality protein(s) with every meal
Most bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts already know the crucial part that proteins play in physique and performance enhancement, but as with the above tip about eating “complete” meals, don’t skimp on the protein. Protein source does matter since muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is differentially stimulated in proportion to the essential amino acid content (and specifically L-leucine) of each meal.
A conservative estimate, based on extrapolations, is that 25-30+ grams of a leucine-rich protein source (such as most animal proteins and whey protein) is plenty to sufficiently elevate MPS for a good 3-4 hours, and maybe even longer with coingestion of other nutrients. (1) Again, this is just a starting point for active individuals but will need tweaking based on goals, body size, etc.
Tip #6- Fixing the “clean” diet outlined above using these tips
Okay so earlier in this article we looked at the typical “ultra-clean” diet many gym-goers swear by, so now we will reconstruct this diet so that is more healthful, not to mention will keep most people from going insane due to a monotonous diet. Note: the amounts of each food are not included since they would need to be adjusted to your specific macronutrient/caloric needs. This is just meant to give you a general idea of how to get a variety of foods in your diet.
- Meal 1—Egg whites and whole eggs, oatmeal, sliced strawberries, milk
- Meal 2—Chicken breast, sweet potato, broccoli, peanut butter
- Meal 3—Turkey breast, brown rice, spinach, almonds
- Meal 4—Whey protein, yogurt, banana, unsweetened coconut flakes
- Meal 5—Lean beef/steak, corn tortillas, black beans, asparagus
- Meal 6—Casein protein, macadamia nuts, yams, pineapple
You can see how much more variety this diet contains than its previous iteration. Not to mention it contains a good amount of fats, carbohydrates and quality proteins, micronutrients and fiber. Also consider all the creative recipes you could make with the foods mentioned (and these are just some of the food options so the sky is the limit really).
Don’t succumb to the idea that eating a healthy diet means sticking to bland, boring foods and monotony because it’s that sort of thinking that will ultimately make you dread it. One thing I try to teach newcomers when it comes to diet is that they shouldn’t feel restricted when trying to devise a healthy eating plan.
There is certainly an emotional/psychological connection with human eating behavior, so you should eat foods you like while making sure to achieve your macronutrient and micronutrient quotas; these two things are most certainly not mutually exclusive.
Hopefully after reading this article you will find yourself using the tips provided herein as a means of keeping your diet creative, enjoyable and, most importantly, conducive to your health goals.
1. Areta JL, Burke LM, Ross ML, Camera DM, West DW, Broad EM, Jeacocke NA, Moore DR, Stellingwerff T, Phillips SM, Hawley JA, Coffey VG. Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis. J Physiol. 2013 May 1;591(Pt 9):2319-31. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2012.244897. Epub 2013 Mar 4.