I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “Abs are made in the kitchen.” And yes, changes in nutrition and eating habits are hugely important for weight loss. So why do I discourage clients from framing these changes as “clean eating”?
I am a stickler on this one – I really do not like the phrase “clean eating.” When a client uses it, I invite them to re-frame with a different phrase, for the four following reasons:
“Clean Eating” Isn’t Specific Enough
As I said, nutrition changes are crucial for long-term weight loss and maintenance. Exercise alone is unlikely to get the job done.
But when my clients make behavioral changes around their eating, I want these changes to be laser-focused, specific, and measurable. The problem with “clean eating” is that it’s not specific or measurable.
What does “clean eating” even mean??
It can mean different things to different people – and these variations in interpretation can truly make the difference between someone getting great results and just stalling out.
So instead of allowing someone to say that they’re going to “eat clean” or “clean up their diet” that week, I push them to be specific. What exactly are you going to change?
- Portion sizes?
- Eating more vegetables?
- Eating less sugar?
- Eating more protein?
Even though being more specific might sound like it’s more restrictive, in reality it’s freeing, and more flexible. If someone can focus fully on reducing sugar intake by replacing sugary foods with something else (i.e. having fruity yogurt for dessert instead of ice cream), they don’t have to worry about every single detail of their diet to perfection. All the have to do is focus on that one change in behavior, implement it, observe the results, and fine-tune.
This helps to prevent my next issue with “clean eating,” which is…
“Clean Eating” Is Stop-and-Go Dieting
Clean eating, because of both its vagueness and its rigidity, is not flexible and adaptable for many different modes of life. It doesn’t consistently translate well into a work dinner, a vacation, a happy hour, a holiday, or anything other than focusing on weight loss.
This means that you frequently fall off the wagon.
The fact that perfectionistic clean eating is not flexible means that there are lots of diversions from the plan.
And because it’s not flexible, the diversions don’t just represent a small hiccup – they usually mean you get completely thrown off, only to start again a few days later or the following week.
That’s a lot of time lost.
On the other hand, people who successfully lose weight and keep it off tend to follow a more even pattern throughout the week – weekends look a lot like weekdays, and the ups and downs are very small. I advise approaching your dietary changes with the aim of making your plan unflappable, so that you can experience micro-diversions and get right back on track without feeling badly.
Speaking of which, when people “mess up” on a diet, they often beat themselves up, which leads to the next thing I don’t like about clean eating…
“Clean Eating” Fosters an Unhealthy Relationship with Food
Contrary to what many well-meaning people think, training people to over-glorify vegetables and to think of sugar as poison is not improving someone’s physical and mental health.
Grouping foods into “good” and “bad” categories damages your relationship with food and with your body.
There are no “good” or “bad” foods. Instead, we want to focus on trends – how do you eat overall? What are your eating patterns like? Are you able to check enough boxes when it comes to protein intake, vegetable intake, water intake, etc., that treats are in the context of a healthy diet?
Furthermore, are you able to treat yourself with self-compassion, equanimity, and calm when you do have an “oops” moment?
Even further… can we re-define dieting so that “oops” isn’t even in the picture? That life’s regular ups and downs are part of your diet?
It Just Doesn’t Work
Rigid dieting – i.e. “clean eating” – as a method of weight loss doesn’t stand up to rigorous scientific study. As this group of researchers described it, “Learning to accept that rigid expectations and ‘perfect’ adherence to behavioral goals is unrealistic and building cognitive flexibility to take in stride when one’s plans do not go according to plan is a core competency for long term sustainable behavioral changes and weight management.”
The tragedy of overly-rigid dieting is that it may provide short-term results, but the results don’t last. And this isn’t because “diets always fail” or “weight re-gain is inevitable.” It’s because overly-rigid dieting doesn’t provide people with the real, meaty skills needed to continue on the path that they started.
Flexible, open-minded dieting that focuses on building happiness, health, and skillfulness around food and exercise is difficult to distill into a sound bite, but it’s far more effective than clean eating.
Alternatives to “Clean Eating”
But I get it. The phrase “clean eating” is a shorthand for “eating better.” So what strategies do I suggest instead, for re-framing?
I want clients to work on specific goals and skills when it comes to exercise and nutrition. Here are some ideas:
- Having a protein goal, like 100 grams per day and just tracking that
- Planning many meals in advance
- Keeping the kitchen/pantry geared toward health
- Eating out a little less (or a lot less) by planning easy, tasty lunches
- Having a Plan B when things go sideways
- Learning how to fuel exercise appropriately
… and many, many more.
The goals are individual to the person. But the principles stay the same. People thrive with healthy weight loss when they:
- Have good support
- Have a flexible approach
- Have a positive mindset
- Implement and track realistic behavior change goals
What phrase from toxic dieting culture bugs you? Leave your answer in the comments!