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How to Recover From ‘Clean’ Eating

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You have your routine down ….

Each meal is planned to the minute detail – a source of lean protein, lots of green vegetables, and maybe a healthy fat or an unrefined carb source.  With military precision, you work through your day’s worth of meals – egg whites and oats for breakfast, grilled chicken breast, asparagus and brown rice for lunch, with tilapia, a sweet potato and broccoli for dinner.  Throw in a post-workout whey isolate shake, perhaps some unsalted almonds, cold pre-cooked meat or more protein powder for snacks, and you’re done. When it’s time to cut some body fat, you take out the rice, oats, sweet potato and nuts, and when it’s bulking season, you just add them back in.

That’s it – basic, simple, effective ………. And boring as hell.

What’s Wrong with Eating Clean?

“Recovering” from clean eating.  It almost sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?  Why would you want to recover from something healthy. It’s not like clean eating is an addiction, or something that will have any negative impact on your health, so why break the habit?  It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the foods listed above – tilapia, egg whites, chicken and whey are all high-quality sources of protein. You get fiber from the oats, rice and potato, and monounsaturated fat from your nuts, so what’s the problem?  The issue with “eating clean” is not necessarily the foods themselves. More so, it’s the massive negative implications that being tied into such a system has on your life.

It’s Black and White

Rather than looking at foods in terms of calories and macronutrients, clean eating encourages looking at foods as good and bad. There seems to be no middle ground and no moderation. More worrying still, is that clean eating neglects one massively important factor – enjoyment. Because, heaven forbid anyone who’s serious about their goals should ever enjoy their food. And this is where clean eating starts to fall apart at the seams.

What Does “Clean” Even Mean?

Clean is such an ambiguous term, and the definition of a clean food changes depending on who you speak to – Talk to your typical bodybuilder, and they’ll say that brown rice, sprouted grain bread and cream of wheat are all clean carbs.  Someone on the Paleo diet though – those “clean” carbs are now forbidden foods, as, in the Paleo follower’s eyes, grains are evil. They prefer a clean diet of nuts, seeds, in-season veggies, fish and meat.

“Hold it there”

In comes the vegetarian – “what’s so clean about animal products?” According to them, we shouldn’t be eating these – we need a diet full of fruit, beans and legumes. And so it goes on and on.  There’s no single definition of clean, and it can’t be quantified. What can be quantified however, is calories and macronutrients.

The Problem is Two-Fold

The phrase “no one ever got fat from eating clean” is ridiculous. Believe me – you can get fat just from eating clean foods. (I should know – I did! – )

Take a look at the following clean eating diet –

Meal 1 – 4 eggs, 1 cup oats, 1 apple.

Meal 2 – 1 cup cottage cheese, 1 cup pineapple, 1 oz almonds.

Meal 3 – 6 oz salmon, ½ cup brown rice, broccoli, 1 tbsp olive oil.

Meal 4 (PWO) – 1 scoop whey isolate, 4 rice cakes.

Meal 5 – 8 oz rump steak, 1.5 cups sweet potato, cauliflower.

Meal 6 – 1 scoop casein, 2 tbsps peanut butter.

All sounds pretty good, right? Nice clean food?

There’s not an artificial ingredient in sight, all the carbs apart from post-workout come from unrefined, non-processed sources and there’s certainly no junk food.

The downside – this comes in at 3,250 calories. That’s more calories than all but the most impressive of macronators needs.  Clean eating often promotes simply picking clean foods, and doesn’t account for calories. It must be said that it is harder to get 3,000+ calories from foods like this than if you were just to hit up McDonalds of KFC, but clocking up way too many calories is still pretty easy when eating clean. After all that though, this is still a long way from being clean eating’s biggest issue.

The Binge/Restrict Cycle

How many times have you told yourself you’re completely off junk food?  You promise that no matter what, you’re not going to touch the chips, beer or ice cream while you’re dieting.  How much more do you then want them as soon as you’ve made the decision to completely abstain from them?  By making certain foods forbidden, or banned, all you do is create temptation and forge an incredibly unhealthy relationship with them.  Even the most dedicated person in the world can only put up with this for so long.  You might go a week, two weeks, three weeks, even six months without caving in, but at some point (and it WILL happen) your resolve is going to crack.  You might have a tough day at the office, there could be a family emergency, or it may simply be a case of you getting a waft of delicious donut smell as you pass the bakery, but you’ll give in.  And we’re not just talking about taking one bite or having a small serving here – we’re talking an all-out binge.  The amount you binge is proportional to the amount of restriction employed. It’s not uncommon for people who’ve forced themselves to give up a food or food group for a prolonged period to eat so much of it they make themselves physically sick when they eventually have a taste.

Following the binge comes the feelings of guilt. You think you’re a failure for giving in to temptation. You might, if things get really bad, think that there’s no point carrying on with your diet, so you either continue this binge over two days, three days, or a week. Or, worse still, you stop your diet altogether.

The “Cheat Day” Fiasco

Much more common than falling off the clean eating wagon once a month or so is those who preach clean eating, yet indulge in their weekly cheat meal or cheat day. This “cheat meal” has several massive issues. First up, the notion of “cheating” is absurd. When has cheating ever been a good thing?  You wouldn’t cheat in an exam, and cheating certainly isn’t the sign of a healthy relationship. (And no, it’s still cheating if you got away with it!) By categorizing foods as “clean” or “cheats” you keep on developing that poor relationship with your diet.  Secondly come the physical implications associated with a cheat meal.  Proponents of cheat days argue the positive effects of boosting leptin, raising metabolic rate and giving yourself an energy boost. This they may do (though structured re-feeds are far more effective,) but they can also result in a lot of fat gain.  Putting away up to 10,000 calories in a day is not uncommon for many clean eaters. That 10,000 calories equates to enough to gain almost 3 pounds of fat.  Even if your maintenance calorie intake is 2,500 and you’re eating in a 500 calorie per day deficit the rest of the week, you’ll still put on fat from this one day of bingeing –

A 500 calorie deficit x 6 days = 3,000 calorie deficit

One 10,000 calorie day = 7,500 calorie surplus

Total weekly calorie balance = + 4,500 calories. (Enough for 1.3 pounds of fat gain per week.)

Why Moderation Rules the Day

“Moderation? That’s for the weak” is the typical attitude of your clean eating zealot. To them, anyone who includes “junk” foods they enjoy on a regular basis hasn’t got the cojones to follow through with a diet, or the dedication to stick to a plan.  I’d say it actually takes greater self-resolve to exercise the moderation needed to include non-clean foods in your diet on a regular basis.  Clean eaters have an all-or-nothing approach. They can have no ice cream whatsoever, or they can gorge on it until they feel sick.  Abstain from pizza for a month, but when they have a slice, they end up eating two whole pies.  The flexible dieter, who exercises moderation however, can have a bowl of ice cream and feel satisfied. They can enjoy a few slices of pizza with friends and not break their diet, and they can go out to a bar and have a beer or two, rather than feeling the need to get completely hammered.

What the Studies Say

This might come as a surprise, as going by “common knowledge” you’d expect clean eating diets to come out on top in terms of results, but the opposite seems to be true.

A study published in a 1999 edition of the “Appetite” Journal found that flexible dieting was strongly associated with lower rates of over-eating, depression and anxiety and lower BMIs. (1)

A second study from a 2002 edition of the same journal showed that subjects involved in rigid, restricted dieting reported much higher rates of disordered eating, body dysmorphia issues and mood disturbances, while flexible dieters once again suffered these conditions much less and had lower BMIs. (2)

Ending Restriction – It’s Not So Easy

You might now be on board with flexible dieting and moderation, but breaking habits built up over several years of reading bodybuilding dogma in magazines and listening to guru coaches isn’t as easy as you might think.  Typically, the main issue I find with people transitioning from a clean eating background is that they struggle with the concept of eating “non-clean” food on a regular basis.  This is where discretionary calories come into play.  Your calorie intake (particularly in the form of carbs and fat) is much like a budget. You still need to get plenty of fiber and micronutrients, even on a flexible diet, so when on lower calories and carbs, the amount of “junk food” you can eat while staying healthy and optimizing results is a lot smaller than when you’re bulking, or on a higher calorie intake.  Therefore I suggest that recovering clean eaters dedicate 10% of their carb and fat allowance each day to foods they typically wouldn’t eat.

Say you’re dieting on 200 grams of carbs and 50 grams of fat, this could either constitute a snack of something like a bag of popcorn for 20 carbs and 5 fat, or you could take 10% of the total calories (800 calories from carbs + 450 calories from fat = 1250 calories, so 10% = 125 calories) and have that amount of junk food.  Obviously the higher your calorie intake, the bigger your budget.  A second option is to gradually change some of your food choices. This could be as simple as switching from brown rice to white, or eating more bread or pasta instead of always relying on oats and sweet potatoes.  The more restrictive your clean eating diet, the more difficult transitioning can be.  With those coming from a Paleo background, I often find making very small steps is best, by simply asking them to eat some dairy, beans or fruit.  By learning how to enjoy foods you’d previously deemed as dirty in moderation, you liberate yourself from the restraints of restrictive, exclusive dieting.

Monitoring Progress

Monitoring your progress in terms of bodyweight, measurements, progress photos and performance in the gym is the best way to reassure yourself that you don’t have to eat clean all the time to maintain your shape.  If you’re regularly tracking progress, you’ll soon see that breaking away from clean eating and adopting a more moderate mind-set will have absolutely no negative impact on your physique, and will likely even have a positive effect. You won’t get the bloat or puffy look following cheat meals and binges, and your strength and performance won’t take a dive following these either. The mental change is a bit more gradual, but slowly, over time, you will find that you can start to enjoy your favourite, previously banned foods in moderation without feeling the need to gorge.  Meals out and socialising become so much easier. You don’t stress over food, and no one you’re with makes snarky comments over how you’re not eating or drinking, or about your ridiculous requests off the menu to ensure you stick to your plan.  Moderation may not be as “hardcore” as clean eating and it may not be sexy, but by god, it’s liberating.

-Mike Samuels




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About Mike Samuels
Mike Samuels

He is passionate about helping people get leaner and stronger while living a flexible lifestyle and having more fun.[Continue]

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