Foreword: At some point during your perusal of this article you’re likely to get a bit riled up and ready to have me beheaded by the nutrition gods for heresy. That’s completely fine and I actually hope that’s the case because it shows that you, the reader, have passion about this, just as I do.
One thing I’ve come to acknowledge over the years of dabbling in a ludicrous amount of nutritional debates is that you should never discount the merit of a method just because you have some preconceived hatred of it; always be willing to debate logically and think for yourself.
The Dichotomy of ”Clean” and “Dirty” Foods
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are likely familiar with the importance of proper nutrition in helping you achieve your physique/fitness goals. Unfortunately, there seems to be a tendency for groundless nutritional theories to spread like the Bubonic plague and infest the minds of gym patrons everywhere. Given this, it’s not surprising that one of the great schisms in regards to nutrition is the debate of “clean” and “dirty” foods.
Pick up most any health and/or fitness-related magazine and you’ll likely encounter the typical celebrity trainer’s column that advocates a “clean, healthy diet”. But what makes a food inherently (and unanimously) “clean’? On the contrary, what inherently makes certain foods completely “dirty” or off-limits? Are these colloquial terms of “clean and dirty” foods rooted purely in conjecture or is there a solid body of scientific evidence that they have been built upon?
Before we move on, if the concepts of “clean” and “dirty” foods are new to you, just know that they have nothing to do with whether or not the food is literally sanitary; they are instead used to designate certain foods as being universally healthy or unhealthy, respectively.
What’s healthy for you is relevant
Naturally then, we have to ask, “What is healthy?”
Frankly speaking, a food that is healthy will be relative to the organism and their environment. People seem to haphazardly throw the word healthy around in certain pre-defined circumstances, but the reality is that what is healthy for one individual may or may not be healthy for another. In a Darwinian/biological sense, for something to be healthy, it would serve to enhance the survivability (read: fitness) of that organism.
To further elucidate this point, let’s take a look at Michael Phelps’ (a gold-medalist Olympic swimmer) diet. I’m sure a few readers have heard the purported daily food intake he was devouring during his peak training phase for the summer Olympic games, and if you haven’t, here’s the gist of his 12,000-calorie diet (yes, that is twelve followed by three zeros) (1):
Breakfast: Three fried-egg sandwiches loaded with mayo, cheese and fried onions. One five-egg omelet. One large bowl of grits. Three slices of French toast with powdered sugar and three chocolate-chip pancakes topped with maple syrup.
Lunch: One pound of pasta. Two large ham and cheese sandwiches with mayo on white bread. Energy drinks containing 1,000+ calories.
Dinner: Another pound of pasta. One whole pizza. Some more energy drinks.
Now most people would look at this and quickly write it off as being absurdly unhealthy, and loaded with “dirty/junk” foods. I mean come on, where are the organic fruits and earth-grown veggies that we all are told make up the quintessential “healthy, clean” diet?
This is where the context comes into play. Let’s hypothetically say Michael Phelps, during his strenuous training days, is burning a good 6000-7000 calories. Couple this with his basal metabolic rate and his natural ectomorphic somatotype and you can be most certain he is near the 12,000 calorie range for total energy expenditure throughout the day.
Thus if Michael Phelps was to try and meet those kinds of caloric demands eating allegedly healthy, nutrient-dense veggies, fruits, whole grains, lean beef, chicken breast, etc. he would find himself stuffed before ever reaching half of his 12,000-calorie demand. Eventually, he would be so severely malnourished and sapped of energy that the only thing he’d be swimming in would be a hospital bed of nutrient-infused IV drips and the only gold he’d desire would be of the chocolate coin variety.
Now, yes, 12,000 calories (daily) is a superfluous amount of intake for the vast majority of people (even most trainees/athletes), but this is just a case in point that what’s healthy for one person may or may not be healthy for another. Circumstances and environment are major influences on what will be healthy for an organism; there is no preset strategy for optimal health among all beings (or more simply, there is no optimal cookie-cutter diet for all humans).
If we look at the inverse situation of Mr. Phelps (which is sadly the more common scenario, at least in the U.S.) whereby individuals grossly exceed their calorie demands because of mindless grazing on calorie-dense, nutrient-devoid foods, and their daily “exercise” is the trek from the couch to the refrigerator, which instance do you suppose is worse for one’s health? The answer is they’re both equally detrimental to one’s health, whether it’s malnourished Michael Phelps or obese Hefty McLefty. Underweight, overweight, excess body-fat, too little body-fat, it doesn’t matter because in the end they all have ramifications for health and longevity, regardless their outward appearance.
Note: If you want to argue that being obese is better than being anorexic, or vice versa, than clearly you have missed the forest for the trees)
So how do we define a “clean” food?
I’ve come across many individuals who won’t eat something purely because it isn’t “certified organic” (and was thus a “dirty”, off-limits food to them); now don’t get me wrong, if you’re some natural-energy, hippie yoga instructor that believes only organic food should be eaten in order to restore some Zen-like harmony with your bowel function, that’s great, but to view foods in a black-and-white frame of mind (e.g. clean or dirty/good or bad) is only falsely justifying your habit of strictly eating certain “clean” foods and excluding everything else. In short, this dichotomy of universally“clean” and “dirty” foods is subjective, rather baseless, and only serves to distort how people view food.
Let’s think about this pragmatically, what makes, for example, a piece of grilled boneless, skinless, hormone-free, organic, free-range (alright, enough with the adjectives already) chicken breast unanimously “clean”? Is it the macronutrient composition, considering its pretty much just protein?
Is it the way it is was raised, or the fact that it was free to roam the farmland for food prior to its impending fate with the slaughterhouse? Is it the vitamin and mineral content? What if only one or two of these parameters are met? Would that entail a hybridized third category of “clirty” foods?
What about a “dirty” food?
Like the preceding question about “clean” food, how do we categorize/define a food that is unanimously “dirty”? If “dirty” food doesn’t ring a bell, you are probably more familiar with the idea of “junk” food (they are interchangeable terms).
For the majority of individuals, this category is generally reserved for foods that are processed, high in fat and/or sugar, and lacking micronutrient content. Along with the rise of the “If it fits your macros” (IIFYM) diet mantra in bodybuilding subculture there has been an eerie increase in the number of people who eat Pop-Tarts; thus Pop-Tarts have now become the gold standard example of what people consider a wholly “dirty” food (Kellogg’s is grateful for the support by the way).
Again, if we rationally think about this, why is a Pop-Tart a unanimously “dirty”, off-limits food? The keyword here (as before) is unanimously. There are few foods/ingredients that are not beneficial in some capacity in at least one situation, so get the idea out of your head that certain foods are completely taboo in all instances because it’s just not the proper way to view them. But what is the proper way to classify foods if this “clean and dirty” system is rather illogical?
Logically classifying food
This is actually quite simple to answer now that we’ve discussed what it means for something to be healthy and reconsidered the concept of universally “clean/dirty” foods. A more plausible, sensible, and logical way to categorize foods is as being either healthy or unhealthy. Shocking epiphany, I know.
Before you snap to judgment and say, “Well isn’t considering a food as ‘clean’ just saying it’s healthy?” That may be the case for you and your needs, and if you prefer the word clean over healthy (for God knows what reason), than yes they are one in the same. But the issue, as stated before, is that very few foods/ingredients are always unhealthy and completely off-limits.
The main thing that comes to mind would be partially hydrogenated oils and mono/di-glycerides since they contain trans-fatty acids which have been linked to health complications in even minute quantities. (2) Beyond that, unless you have specific food allergies or an irrational fear of certain food additives (like monosodium glutamate), there is little basis to label a food as being universally “dirty” or unhealthy.
Why we can’t have nice things: What “If it fits your macros” (IIFYM) is & is not
The concept of IIFYM is actually rather intuitive and not some profound ideation. If you are unfamiliar with IIFYM, it’s pretty simple: eat whatever you please so long as you meet your macronutrient needs at the end of the day.
So for example, if you are able to work Pop-Tarts into your diet and still fulfill your macronutrient (and micronutrient, more on this later) needs, than what is unhealthy (or “dirty”) about that? Is it the high-fructose corn syrup, the enriched flour, the soybean oil? Again, there is little foundation to disdain and/or fear such ingredients, at least scientifically and physiologically speaking. (3)
But herein lays the reason we can’t have nice things in the fitness and bodybuilding realm, because people have this all-or-nothing, extremist mentality and heaven forbid there be a middle ground. The dichotomy of universally “clean” and “dirty” foods that we’ve been discussing is a perfect example of this; people look at certain foods and think “Oh, those are ‘clean’ foods, so I should just eat strictly those and and abandon everything else.”
What the hell ever happened to the days where it was okay to enjoy a slice of pie and move on with life? How about going out to eat with your spouse and enjoying a nice glass of wine over a candlelit dinner? ”Nope, ain’t gonna happen,” you say, because Summer time is rolling around and you need that perfect beach body.
Will your diet or body really be “ruined” because you’ve eaten a slice of pizza and/or cake? Absolutely not, and it’s actually quite practical to enjoy those foods you crave in moderation.
Granted, this doesn’t mean you can’t blow things out of proportion either, like binging on an entire cake or inhaling a dozen éclairs. That’s not what IIFYM is suggesting you do by any means; IIFYM is not some excuse to eat purely Pop-Tarts, ice cream, donuts, and pizza all day while disregarding micronutrient needs and excessive sugar intake. Rather, it’s a practical, modest (let alone logical/sane) approach to dieting whereby you meet your daily macronutrient and micronutrient needs with foods of your choice.
This seems to be where people falter, because they think that they will somehow be able to work an entire box of Pop-Tarts into their daily diet and still satisfy their dietary fiber needs and/or avoid excessive amounts of sugar intake. Yes, fiber is a macronutrient and you need it, and since when do tons of trans-fats and excessive amounts of simple sugars fit a bodybuilder’s (let alone any average gym junkie) macronutrient needs anyway? Rarely, if ever, is that the case.
Moreover, IIFYM should be amended to “IIFYM/µ”, and again, good luck meeting your micronutrient needs eating pizza and ice cream all day with a few protein shakes (and no, simply popping a multi-vitamin does not confer the same benefits as eating vegetables and fruits).
Dieting logically: Avoiding excess and deficiency
At the end of the day, your diet should be promoting your health and fitness. In order for this to happen, you should be avoiding the extremes of taking in too much of a particular nutrient and/or being deficient in another nutrient, as well as meeting your daily goal for caloric intake. Whatever foods you choose to eat to satisfy this is simply a means to an end.
I think you will find that anybody trying to meet halfway decent macro and micronutrient quotas will be eating lean proteins, whole-grain carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, vegetables and fruits. Notice I’m not calling these “clean” foods because that term is dead to me; these are more properly foods I would call “nutrient dense” (and save your semantic arguments for someone else).
But again, if someone wants to incorporate some foods that are more nutrient-devoid/empty calorie they can do that assuming they still reach their overall needs at the end of the day (and assuming they are balancing their macronutrient proportions at each feeding).
Thus ends my criticism of the “clean” and “dirty” food war. You’re probably thinking I’m some neo-Nazi, Pop-Tart-loving prick for some of what’s been written here, but in reality I still believe that anybody looking to improve their health/body can stand to benefit by eating a diet comprised mostly of nutrient-dense foods.
Some people may have “trigger” foods that send them into a frenzy of uncontrolled binging, so of course I would not advocate eating a food that ignites that cascade of events. But at the same time, that’s a psychological issue that the person needs to work on because binging in and of itself is disordered eating.
Furthermore, don’t discount the fact that food is often times a social relief for individuals; if you enjoy eating a couple scoops of Ben and Jerry’s with your kids or taking your significant other out for dinner, then plan ahead and work that into your diet.
There is no reason you can’t make room in your daily diet for foods you genuinely like to eat while still achieving your physique and fitness goals. It’s just a matter of finding the proper balance...Ya’ know, that middle ground that nobody seems to care about anymore.
1. "Michael Phelps Diet." Michael Phelps. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 June. 2013.
2. Teegala SM, et al. Consumption and health effects of trans fatty acids: A review. Journal of AOAC International. 2009;92:1250.
3. Moeller S, et al. The effects of high fructose syrup. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 2009;28:619.