I followed classic clean eating for years, but now I’ll never go back.

Why I Ditched Clean Eating

Written by Russ Howe PTI, and most recently updated 1 day ago.

7 min read

The first time I heard about flexible dieting, I genuinely laughed in someone’s face.

Like, straight up belly laugh.

Up until this point I was a so-called “clean eater”.

My diet consisted of all the classic bodybuilding foods; chicken, rice, broccoli, and protein bars which tasted like broken dreams. It sucked but I knew it worked, and the very suggestion that I could achieve the same level of results while eating “normal food” seemed implausible.

But here’s the thing…

They were fucking right!

Table of Contents

why i ditched clean eating for flexible dieting

I was so deep into clean eating that I could not see the damage I was doing to my own mental health:

  • I’ve always enjoyed family get-togethers, but I started skipping them so I could avoid being around tempting foods.
  • If I surrendered to my cravings I’d spend the next couple of days beating myself up for it.
  • Yes, I was always in shape, but I never really felt happy.

That’s not a great way to live, but I didn’t realize there was another way… yet there is.

Back in 1999, researchers at Louisiana State University showed that people who follow a more flexible eating plan tend to display greater feelings of satisfaction, lower anxiety, and lower risk of depression. Flexible dieters were also able to be more consistent (which the researchers attributed to their increased satisfaction), leading to superior weight loss results versus a traditional rigid clean eating protocol. (1)

Holy fuck, right?!

This was the first study to show that the old-school bodybuilding way might not be optimal for everyone, and it blew my mind.

Three years later we saw a follow-up study from researchers at the same university. This time they dug even deeper into the topic, and were able to highlight clear links between clean eating and body dysmorphia issues, disordered eating patters, and mood swings (all things which I had personally experienced while following clean eating). The researchers were able to replicate the results of the first trial, too, demonstrating once again that participants who used a flexible diet plan felt more satisfied, and saw greater levels of consistency. (2)

So the biggest question I had here was:

The answer is we were misled.

When I was growing up, fitness and bodybuilding magazines preached that your meal plan needed to be full of chicken, rice, broccoli, etc if you wanted to get in great shape. Yes it was hard, but they told us that it was all part of the sacrifice, so we accepted the suck.

What they didn’t tell us is that the body can’t differentiate between foods once they’ve hit your damn stomach.

  • Calories are calories.
  • Protein is protein.
  • Carbs are carbs.
  • Fat is fat.

The body doesn’t give a fuuuuuck if those 30-grams of protein arrived via a protein shake or a chicken breast, or if those 40-grams of carbohydrates arrived via a bowl of pasta or a chocolate bar.

It turns out all that matters is you hit your daily targets, in any way you can.



Before we go any further, I want to re-iterate that I’m not saying clean eating is bad.

I’m saying we’ve fucked it up.

You see, at it’s base level clean eating is a term used to describe eating lean meats, and plenty of fruit and vegetables. I’ve got nothing against that.

However, over the years people have added additional rules and regulations, and it’s gotten to a point where whole food groups are being demonized (e.g. carbs), and people are being encouraged to categorize foods onto good and bad lists (or clean and dirty), and the more rigid we get, the greater the risk that we will struggle to remain consistent, and the greater the risk that we will develop mental health issues as a result of punishing ourselves over weight loss (see the studies above!).

Researchers from Harvard said it best:

Layne Norton, PhD, also has an interesting perspective on the problems within clean eating:

clean eating vs flexible dieting

Which brings me to flexible dieting.

It’s important to explain from the outset that flexible dieting doesn’t mean eating as much junk food as possible.

Honestly, your diet will still consist of most of the foods you already consider to be healthy (e.g. lean meats, fruit, vegetables, starchy carbohydrates, fish, etc), it’s just that you’re no longer trapped in a cycle of eating the same fucking thing every single day until you feel madder than a dwarf with a yo-yo.

And considering your diet is now numbers-based (you just have to hit your target each day however you can) this means you can also add treats as you go.

Without guilt.

Read that again.

That should be a fucking game-changer for anybody who has previously found traditional clean eating (and the subsequent guilt which comes with it) to be an absolute mind-fuck. So if you find that it helps you to be more consistent if you keep a couple of hundred calories aside each day so that you can absolutely violate a Creme Egg, you do that.

After a few years of successfully using flexible dieting on myself, I started rolling it out to my PT clients and website members who wanted to try the same thing. This was way back in 2015. I found that about 75% of people absolutely loved it (the other 25% needed the rigid formula, at least in the beginning), and nowadays it’s the only way I diet.

A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition hammered the final nail in the coffin of clean eating, by eliminating the idea that certain foods are better than others when it comes to fat loss. After having trainees replace whole grains with refined grains, the researchers concluded that there was a miniscule difference in weight loss (not that I would recommend doing that!). (3)

However, sometimes flexible dieting isn’t the best option.

Remember earlier when I said that 25% of my clients actually preferred the rigidity of clean eating to help them be consistent in the early stages?

That’s what I’m talking about.

Some folks need the pre-set meal plans, and the rigid list of foods which they are allowed and foods which they are not allowed, at least in the early stages of their diet, because they cannot control themselves (be it portion size or food selection) just yet.

That is totally fine. At the end of the day, you do what works for you. (4)



References:

  1. Smith C. F., et al. Flexible vs. Rigid dieting strategies: relationship with adverse behavioral outcomes. Appetite (1999).
  2. Stewart T. M., et al. Rigid vs. flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in nonobese women. Appetite (2002).
  3. Karl J. P., et al. Substituting whole grains for refined grains in a 6-wk randomized trial favorably affects energy-balance metrics in healthy men and postmenopausal women. Am J Clin Nutr (2017).
  4. Howell S., et al. “Calories in, calories out” and macronutrient intake: the hope, hype, and science of calories. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab (2017).

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I’m Russ. I’ve been a personal trainer since 2002, and I own russhowepti.com.

My job is to simplify fitness for my readers.

I send out free fitness tips to over 100,000 men and women every week, all in the same no-nonsense style as the article you’ve just read, so if you enjoyed reading it be sure to jump on my email list below.

2 responses to “Why I Ditched Clean Eating”

  1. buildingthebody738619097 avatar
    buildingthebody738619097

    great post , flexible dieting it’s the way to go , for average people who are not going to olympia the dont need to eat 100% clean.

  2. Mary-Anne Bach avatar
    Mary-Anne Bach

    Loved this article so much. I have a flexible eating approach as I found everything else made me feel like I was restricted which of course leads to binging. I eat things I like – in moderation of course LOL You wont see me bringing a meal prep to Thanksgiving dinner. Hahahahaha.

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