Forewarning: We are not advocating the approach described here as the paragon of ‘healthy’ eating. The experiment below was just what the title says: taking the piss to test the limits of an idea. This post is a guide to covering your nutritional bases while allowing yourself a huge degree of dietary freedom without hampering your body composition goals. Again, since a lot of commenters seem to be missing this point: this is NOT a dietary approach for optimum health, for diabetics or those with eating or metabolic disorders. It is also unlikely to be good for your dental health.
What is ‘clean’ eating?
Clean eating is defined as eating exclusively ‘healthy’ foods, where ‘healthy’ is determined by purely subjective and imprecise criteria. Foods generally touted as clean include brown rice, brown pasta, sweet potato, fish, milk, broccoli and wholemeal bread, to name a few.
Rather than addressing this ourselves, JC Deen and Alan Aragon have laid this out far more comprehensively than we could, explaining why ‘clean’ food is a nonsensical label in itself, and why we should abandon categorising foods in this way.
The crux is this, to quote the Helm:
‘With regard to clean/dirty foods, I don’t give much credence to these terms. The truth is there is nothing inherently unhealthy about dirty foods, it’s rather that if they dominate your diet, you generate deficiencies as a result. The paleo community has attempted to convince us that we need to avoid entire food groups in order to be like the Palaeolithic man. In actuality we don’t really know how the Palaeolithic man ate, and there is nothing to suggest what they were doing was optimal.‘
‘I tell my clients that their diets should be inclusive rather than exclusive, meaning that provided you hit your macros, get sufficient fruits, vegetables and fibre, and you have some macros left over, then sure, have your snickers bar. In fact I’d hedge a guess to say that results on the diet will be better this way, as you’re less likely to fall off the wagon.’
The knee-jerk reaction to the clean eating movement has been ‘IIFYM’: If It Fits Your Macros, i.e. as long as you hit your protein/carb/fat numbers for the day, then you should not consider food choices. This simplifies dieting right down to three numbers, and affords a great degree of liberty for the reformed clean-eater.
However, such a reduction of a multifaceted approach towards nutrition into flat-out focus on 3 numbers throws a couple of babies out with the bathwater.
The fitness industry, like politics, vacillates between extremes where certain foods or ideas are demonised. Simple minds take a concept with no understanding of the underlying science to make a Frankenstein’s monster out of it.
The IIFYM movement is a step in the right direction, but along with it comes a false nutritional enlightenment, the thinking that because calories are the MOST important determinant of weight loss in a diet, dumbos will extrapolate that to it being the ONLY thing that matters in a diet. Chris Masterjohn says it best:
“Calories in calories out is absolutely true. But just because calories count doesn’t mean nothing else counts. If you’re going to build a plane, and you don’t believe in gravity, then I’m not getting in your plane. You should be building your plane with the central understanding that you are interacting with gravity.”
IIFYM – Shortcomings
The primary things that purist IIFYM doesn’t account for are satiety and micronutrients.
Compliance is THE biggest factor in a diet’s success. It doesn’t matter how physiologically optimal a diet is if you only stick to it on Monday and then fall off the wagon. Successful diets manage satiety. Focusing on managing your hunger could even be the only change you make, and you would still lose fat by switching your food choices alone. Taking the piss with IIFYM in a deficit could mean that you gravitate to blood-sugar elevating, MSG-laden foods that could stimulate your appetite further and make it difficult to stay in a calorie deficit. Keeping high-volume, low calorie, satiating foods in your diet can help make the deficit more tolerable.
Micronutrients is the blanket term for vitamins and minerals, essential and non-essential. Following IIFYM and refusing to eat anything except pop-tarts and tuna would be an incomplete diet, and ultimately give you a lovely case of malnutrition. Things to consider:
– Sodium/potassium ratio
– Gut health
– For completeness, let’s also put water, amino acid and fatty acid profiles under this category.
Fortunately, here’s the Propane solution to ensure you cover these nutritional bases:
– Micronutrients: 3 options:
– 2-4 servings of fruit/veg per day.
– Fibre: One Quest Bar has 18g prebiotic fibre.
– Sodium/Potassium ratio: Limit added salt to food, plus a dietary source of potassium or mineral supplement.
– Gut health: Limit allergenic foods (i.e. gluten, dairy) if you have an intolerance. Consider a probiotic. Interestingly, (and counterintuitively) wholegrains may impede muscle growth. The best way to hedge your bets against anti-nutrients, vitamin/mineral deficiencies and incomplete proteins is variety in your diet. Be as inclusive as possible.
“Why There are No Good or Bad Foods
There are three ways a food could negatively affect your health, longevity, or body composition.
1. Contributing to a caloric excess which leads to negative health problems from being overweight.2
2. Causing nutrient deficiencies by diluting the nutrient density of your diet.3
3. Directly interfering with your body’s functions, causing specific diseases, increasing fat gain, or accelerating aging.”
Does it work?
You’ve got past all the boring stuff – does it actually work in practice? Can you get lean doing this?
Well.. here’s a few photos – bear in mind I was not dieting at this point and had been eating around maintenance for several months, subject to hitting my macros and covering the nutritional bases. I decided to push these principles to the limit, mainly as an experiment. I sacrificed myself for science – it wasn’t easy eating all those sweets but I persevered. #nopainnogain, #sacrificetowin, #beastmode. I also became the UK’s majority shareholder of Wagon Wheels.
I’ve had a few questions about my specific approach during this phase. You can see my progress in this 5 year time lapse video below, alongside the general diet approach I was following during each phase:
Main food sources
My main food sources were as follows:
Micronutrients & Fibre
As you can see, there’s a lot of freedom there. I didn’t look at a complex carb for months.
I couldn’t let Yusef have all the fun here so I thought I’d add some thoughts to how I’ve used IIFYM in the past and how I continue to use it (together with some proof)
I think the main issue with IIFYM is the two extreme views it encourages:
1) Believing that Pop Tarts are the fountain of youth and the answer to world peace.
2) That your diet needs to be super clean to work, you have a sexual relationship with sweet potato and your beef needs to have been grass-fed, massaged, and told bed-time stories otherwise you will ACTUALLY DIE.
I have to say, I used to believe pretty strongly in the food quality argument, it made logical sense to me. It’s easy to convince yourself that you need to eat that way to progress and if you’re convinced enough, you’ll fight your corner untill the death. It was only after an experiment where I took IIFYM to the extreme (and dieted to this condition:
I realised that it really didn’t matter. It’s an extreme analogy, but you currently don’t jump out of a windows because you think you’ll fall to your death. However, you don’t KNOW you will – you’ve never tried it. Although if one day you thought, ‘to hell with it’ and rather than plummeting to a grisly death, you gently floated to the floor, you reach the bottom and think: “That was so much easier than those bloody stairs! No more stairs for me!”, in other words, once you destroy a limiting belief you’ll never look back.
Once you realise you can get your carbs from cake (within macro limits) and still achieve body comp/performance goals, you’ll curse yourself for ever believing that clean and dirty is a valid distinction.
Whats more, the looks you get for eating ‘crap’ while dieting is quite literally priceless.
The (Chinese) take-away point here is not to immediately turn off your computer and run to the nearest KFC, but rather that you should shift your focus from arbitrary food choices to the ultimate purpose of eating: enjoyment and nutrition. This means note your basic requirements, and meet them with foods that make you happy. You don’t get extra points for eating brown rice (it may even hamper your capacity for gains).
The below photo is a representation of the progress we’ve both been able to make using this approach. By simplifying and focussing on the metrics and data that matter, we were both able to get leaner than ever before:
If you’d like to receive help with your own diet and training you can apply to work with us online using the link below: