Do you know any guys or gals that almost exclusively eat chicken breast, egg whites, and sweet potatoes? I would bet $100 that these same people do not hesitate to tell you that the secret to their six packs is “clean eating,” or a diet low in fat, low in high-glycemic carbs, and very high in lean protein. Oddly enough, have you ever noticed that despite their six packs, these individuals never seem to get any bigger or stronger? Yeah, there’s a reason for that, it’s because clean eating is bullshit.
Why clean eating is bullshit
There are a handful of factors at play here, but the number one reason goes back to seventh grade biology class. Simply put, your body does not care about the origin of the calories you consume. On a chemical level, a gram of protein from a slice of cheese and a gram of protein from lentils are indistinguishable 1. Concentrations of certain amino acids may vary, sure, but at the end of the day the basic chemical compounds that we all consume to survive—proteins, fats, carbohydrates—are universal across food sources2. Pizza and turkey burgers are created equal.
That’s it. That’s all there is to it. The concept of clean eating relies more on the supposed purity of the food sources than the actual chemical makeup of the macronutrients the eaters consume 3. You can consume the exact same amount of total calories, protein, fat and carbs via Poptarts, ramen noodles, and cheeseburgers, and still see the same results as that guy eating only chicken and brown rice 4. If you want photographic proof, look no further than Olympic record holder and goddamn American hero, Michael Phelps, who claimed to eat over 12,000 calories per day. Phelps ate a diet rich in blueberry pancakes and energy drinks, and was still ripped as hell 5
But wait, Ben, if that’s the whole secret, couldn’t I just eat a ton of turkey, sweet potato, and kale and still make gains while posting mirror selfies to Instagram? Yes, college freshman, yes you could, but that system is incredibly unreliable. Let me explain why with some quick numbers:
- In order to gain muscle, you need to eat at a caloric surplus. That is to say, eat more calories than your body will burn
- Our guinea pig, Chad, burns 2000 calories a day, so to see gains he should take in approximately 2400. Let’s break that down into three 800-calorie “clean” meals.
- To hit 800 calories for breakfast, Chad would need to eat 5 eggs (350 calories), two slices of toast (240 calories), and 14 ounces of 2% milk
- Lunch could be 3 chicken breasts (360 calories), one spoonful of olive oil (120 calories), a cup of rice (150 calories) and ¾ can of black beans (170 calories)
- Dinner – you get the idea
Chad has to put away a large volume of food in each meal just to meet his caloric goals. Eating 5 eggs in one sitting sucks. Meanwhile, Chad could just add two chicken breasts (240 calories) to a pack of instant ramen (480 calories), plus a little oil (80 calories), to achieve the exact same effect. Why should Chad force himself to eat so much food in one sitting when he could eat more calorically dense foods for the same results? Not to mention, do you think he’s going to be able to accomplish that every single day? Unlikely.
This may or may not be Chad
Did you also notice how fucking boring Chad’s diet is? One of the critical reasons clean eating fails is because cottage cheese, egg whites, chicken breast, spinach, all that stuff, fucking sucks 6.
Why would you eat a huge bowl of ground turkey when a cheeseburger is clearly the more desirable option? The one sure-fire way to fall off the exercise wagon is to couple it with food that you hate. Eating should be a fun, desirable experience, not a chore.
Moderation is key
Now, before you go out and binge on Chipotle and Domino’s, you need to keep in mind that moderation is key. If you go ahead and eat “dirty” foods for all of your meals, don’t be surprised if you feel and perform like crap. You run the risk of malnutrition whenever you take a diet to the extreme—whether its clean or dirty7
DGAC Advisory Committee, USDA. Part D, Section 3: Discretionary Calories. The Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005.↩
Alan Aragon, The Dirt on Clean Eating, http://wannabebig.com/diet-and-nutrition/the-dirt-on-clean-eating/↩
Madero M, et al. The effect of two energy-restricted diets, a low-fructose diet versus a moderate natural fructose diet, on weight loss and metabolic syndrome parameters: a randomized controlled trial. Metabolism. 2011 May 27. [Epub ahead of print] 17. Mozaffarian D, Clarke R. Quantitative effects on cardiovascular risk factors and coronary heart disease risk of replacing partially hydrogenated vegetable oils with other fats and oils. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2009 May;63 Suppl 2:S22-33.↩
Tomiyama, A. J., Mann, T., Vinas, D., Hunger, J. M., DeJager, J., & Taylor, S. E. (2010). Low Calorie Dieting Increases Cortisol. Psychosomatic Medicine, 72(4), 357–364. http://doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0b013e3181d9523c ↩
Brown, J. L., & Pollitt, E. (1996). Malnutrition, poverty and intellectual development. Scientific American, 274(2), 38-43. ↩