Prevailing wisdom suggests that if we cannot eat all the time perfectly, we should not bother. The idea of clean eating suggests that all of our daily calories should come from whole, nutritious, and nature-based sources. Even the smallest of dietary indiscretions can lead to a downward spiral of problems.
But, is this genuinely the case, or is the truth somewhere in the middle? Let us find out.
The problem with clean eating
Clean eating is among the most popular approaches to healthy eating. Many gurus and “experts” out there suggest that we need to eat “clean” foods if we want to build muscle, lose fat, feel good, and remain healthy.
Having such a black and white approach to nutrition does more harm than good in the long run. Foods like pizza and cookies become “bad”, and alternatives such as salad and lean meats become “good”.
Granted, basing your nutrition around whole foods is beneficial. But clean eating takes things to the extreme, and many people find themselves trapped and deprived of it. Ask yourself this: If you cannot stick with a specific way of eating in the long run, can you reasonably expect to achieve long-term results?
What makes most diets fail
Dieting is the even less appealing cousin of clean eating. Instead of restricting your food selection to “clean” choices, dieting restricts your options to a small group of foods within that. For example, the popular ketogenic diet has you eat only “clean” foods, but it goes one step further, as it restricts the foods that contain carbs.
The reason why diets fail is similar to why clean eating does not work in the long run: both approaches are unsustainable. Sure, you can motivate yourself for a while. And, if you manage to see some results (such as fat loss), your motivation might spike even more. But, at some point, you will start feeling deprived. After all, we are human, and we want to enjoy the occasional treat. Plus, life happens, and we cannot always adhere to a perfect nutritional plan.
For example, what if you had to attend a social event? Or what if your child has a birthday over the weekend? Are you supposed to avoid food and run home for a ‘clean’ meal every time you get hungry?
Why you should strive for dietary flexibility
Flexibility is a naughty word in the dieting sphere because it cuts through the established rules of healthy eating, weight loss, and muscle gain. And yet, flexibility allows us to stick with a nutrition plan and achieve great results in the long run.
But why is that? Well, because we are human, we need to have a sense of control if we want to be content with our choices. If your nutrition offers no flexibility and restricts all of your favorite foods, you will eventually give up.
The good news is, you do not have to be incredibly rigid to be successful. Contrary to what you may believe, the body cannot make a difference between a cookie and a bowl of green veggies. It can only distinguish between the energy and nutrients both foods provide. A cookie is not automatically stored as fat, and having a salad does not ensure fat loss.
Each of us burns energy every day to stay alive and function. So long as we do not consume more energy than we burn, we remain the same weight. If we consume less energy than we burn, we lose weight, no matter our food choices. This is how professor Mark Haub shed 27 pounds in two months by eating mostly twinkies - he created a calorie deficit.
Instead of having a black and white mentality toward food, we should see our food choices as more and less nutritious.
What does this mean for us
Flexible dieting became incredibly popular in the last decade because it allowed us to enjoy some of our favorite foods, maintain healthy nutrition, and achieve our fitness and health objectives.
While diets appear more alluring at first, they rarely work in the long run. On the other hand, flexible dieting works because it is not a diet but a lifestyle. It involves a mindset shift and urges us to see food for what it is: fuel for the body. As with all types of fuels, food can also vary in quality and usefulness.
According to the general guidelines of flexible dieting, we should get around 80 to 90 percent of our calories from whole and nutritious foods and leave the remaining 10 to 20 percent for treats. That way, we can make good progress and be fit while also enjoying the little pleasures, going out for meals with friends, and not freaking out when a social event forces us to eat something that is not necessarily “clean” or “healthy”. And honestly, how can something delicious like a pizza be wrong… 😊