Clean eating vs. flexible dieting: not so different after all?

by | Aug 22, 2014 | Bodybuilding | 0 comments

There’s a lot of debate going on in the fitness/health industry about dieting styles.  I figured it’s worth a couple minutes to cut through the garbage and propaganda and have a reasonably intelligent conversation about the options.  At the extreme ends of the spectrum, there are two distinct camps:

  • Clean eating.  This means whole, unprocessed, natural foods from sources that are familiar.  Lean meats, grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, oils, etc.
  • Flexible dieting.  This does away with the concept of “good foods” and “bad foods” and says that anything is ok, provided your daily macronutrient numbers (protein, carbs, fat, fiber, and total calories) add up correctly at the end of the day.

Each camp fights this battle as if there is actually something to win or lose.  Clean eaters refer to the “opposition” as lazy people who just want a “diet” that allows them to eat McDonald’s and Pop Tarts every day.  The flexible dieting group says that all clean eaters are miserable, jealous of the awesome stuff that they eat, and are all one cheat meal away from an eating disorder.

Flexible dieters are often asked “how can you put that garbage in your body if you claim to be worried about your health?”  Clean eaters are told that, in 2014, there’s no such thing as “clean, unprocessed” food.

Both groups are full of completely insufferable fanatics that are impossible to take seriously.  As always – in dieting, in politics, whatever – the truth is always somewhere in the middle.  But the middle ground doesn’t sell a lot of books or get asked to do interviews, so no one stands there.

Both concepts are fundamentally sound and work well for weight loss, gaining muscle, and competition prep.  Let’s state that clearly right now and get it out of the way.

Finding which one is right for you is more of a challenge.  I find that most people who hire me are looking for a plan.  Someone telling them what to eat to provide structure.  I think this is fine.  I encourage everyone who follows a plan like this to tell me if they’re feeling like they are restricting their choices excessively.  There’s a certain amount of flexibility and substitution freedom inherent in the plans I create, so I think they are better than a lot of available options.

Often times, these people choose that option out of fear:  fear that too many options will mean failure, or that if they can have literally anything they want, they will binge on it and kill their macros.  Those are very real concerns and ones worth addressing.  Forcing someone into a flexible plan that isn’t ready for it is just as bad as forcing someone to eat broccoli 87 times a week.

As with any decision, you should look at the pros and cons of both options.  Again, these are pros and cons of extreme, rigid versions of each option.

Clean Eating

  • Pros:  fairly easy to ensure appropriate micronutrient intake by mixing up fruit and vegetables; typically low in added or artificial sugar which keeps people sensitive to those things feeling optimal; plans typically involve eating the same foods every day which makes prep easy
  • Cons:  plans typically involve eating the same foods every day which makes life tedious; typically restricts foods that many people crave which leads to binging patterns, makes social eating and functions difficult

Flexible Dieting

  • Pros:  eat anything you like as long as you make it for your numerical targets, makes eating out an option so long as you can get a reasonable estimate on your calories; typically keeps cravings to a minimum as you can satisfy them responsibly and routinely
  • Cons:  requires excellent self-control to not go overboard on certain foods, logging your food daily is a tedious chore

Again, these are pros and cons of the extreme versions of both plans – which, by and large, is what people are adopting.  People often ask me what kind of plan I follow, and it’s really a hybrid of the two.  I follow a plan that would typically be defined as “clean” most of the time – I eat 3-4 clean meals daily, and they are usually the same thing day in and day out.  I leave a generous block of my daily macronutrients for dinner open, and then feel free to experiment with different ways to fill it.  I like to leave a large enough block that I can enjoy a nice meal at the end of the day without worrying to much about going over my numbers.  I tally up dinner, see what’s left, and put together a small snack in the evening.

Realistically, I think this is what “flexible dieting” was intended to be.  With a plan like this, you get the benefit of flexibility when you need it (dinner with the family, social options as well) without over-burdening yourself with logging your meals all day, every day.

And just like both of the extremes – this plan works, too.