My Approach to “Eating Clean”

In the post Approaching Fat Loss Like an Investor, the concept that “eating clean” can have mixed results was briefly mentioned.

What does it mean to “eat clean”? In the most simple terms, it means restricting or eliminating nutrient poor foods. How one defines nutrient poor will depend upon their nutritional biases. A typical Paleo definition of eating clean usually involves eliminating or greatly restricting sugar, processed carbs and industrial seed oils. Stricter ones might go further and restrict dairy and starchy sources of carbs. Other diet camps will have their own definitions.

On the surface it seems like “eating clean” would be a good thing. Assuming you picked a good diet, you are tossing out the bad foods. This brings up a few problems.

  1. Many good foods get labeled as bad foods to present a simple albeit false nutritional narrative. The food you are removing might actually be beneficial.
  2. Unless steps are taken, nutrient diversification falls. If you just remove “bad food” from your diet without other changes, you will be getting more calories and nutrients from the same foods. Those foods might be wonderful, but they provide nutrients you are already receiving. If we think like investors, we can see our food portfolio has become less diversified.

There is an entire camp of nutritional gurus that are quick to label anyone following a version of “eating clean” as orthorexic. Although I understand their motivations about establishing healthy stress free relationships with the food we eat, they too are quick to embrace the simple narrative. Different foods have different values to different people and those values will change over time. Denying some forms of restrictive eating can be beneficial for some people is nonsense.

The Right Way To “Eat Clean”

Both sides are getting this wrong. One side creates fairy tales demonizing foods that are perfectly fine and the other side fails to see that many people are using restrictive choices to make dietary progress. I am going to tell you the principles on how to “eat clean” the right way. I am not a nutritionist. This is all about making the best decision in the absence of complete information.

  1. Assume you might be wrong. This means periodically checking your biases and be willing to change directions.
  2. For every food you remove, add at least two. When I went Paleo and started to “eat clean”, the number of different foods I ate increased. When I dropped the grains, I added more vegetables, both in quantity and variety. I started cooking more at home. I sought out new foods at farmers markets and Asian grocery stores. Hardly orthorexic behavior. Even if you follow a restrictive “eat clean” diet, which I don’t encourage or recommend, take this path. Diversification is the key here.
  3. Recognize that most of the gains will come early. The longer you are on a restrictive diet, the less benefit you will get. Don’t make the mistake of “doubling down” when things stop working. The path you are taking is no longer undervalued. Lock in those gains by adding back some of the foods you removed, even if in very small portions. In the absence of a real food allergy this can build resiliency.
  4. Note that it is possible to eat too clean. It happened to me. I actually had to dirty up my diet with glorious ice cream when I became underweight. My clean diet resulted in an appetite that was too low for me.

If you think about food as valuations, the picture gets more clear. When my skin was red and dry, wheat had a negative valuation. Beef liver, which I had not consumed since early childhood, had a high valuation. Cutting out the grains and adding offal wasn’t ortherexic, it was an example of the correct way to “eat clean” for me at that time.

reverse indy

If you are considering “eating clean”, think about this screen still from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones is taking the valuable treasure and replacing it with worthless sand. If you decide to “eat clean” and remove the worthless sand, what treasures are you going to add that you aren’t already eating?


Add yours

  1. Yes, I especially agree with Point #1 and Point #3! I think a lot of people choose a nutritional stance and refuse to admit it is no longer working for them… even when they are not seeing positive results (I notice this especially with people who are low-carb fanatics). Which ties in a lot to Point #3. Often times people are only partially wrong in their nutritional stance and their diet just needs a little tweaking 🙂

  2. Very good post. For a lot of people, unless you force them, they won’t eat offal. One interesting possible elimination might be no muscle meat from low quality producers (i.e. nothing that isn’t 100% natural pasture-raised)

  3. Thanks for following up on this topic. A timely reminder for me personally as it has been a while since I had a good serving of organ meats. Time to load up!

  4. The only thing that I can’t quite understand of this thought is the “locking in” part. Why you’re supposed to add “bad” foods back?

  5. @Arthur – They aren’t necessarily bad foods. We add them back for diversification and so we don’t develop an intolerance. See my peanut story on this post:

    Another example might be someone that has a skin flareup from dairy. They remove dairy and their body has time to heal. Now instead of avoiding dairy forever, they could start to add it back. If they’ve solved their issue, they should be fine with dairy. They can now eat and enjoy more food variety and no longer need to spend effort avoiding that food group.

  6. It isn’t directly linked to this specific post of yours but I think the following information below was worth sharing for you and your readers. Hope you’ll enjoy it.

    Interesting chart (sorry for the long url):×0/filters:no_upscale()/

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  7. @Johan – Agree with you totally. In my PubMed warrior post I covered Amgen’s attempts to replicate the research of others on cancer.

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