“Clean eating” has become yet another fitness buzz phrase as of late. I frequently hear statements such as “how do I eat clean?” or “I need to eat cleaner foods”. I’m sure this is common for you and your fitness clients, too. While these statements are well-intended and can be interpreted by exercise professionals as “my client is interested in modifying their diet to incorporate more nutritious options”, clients struggle to make solid nutrition choices because, thanks to diet culture, there’s a perceived issue of morality with food.
Food has no moral value and foods aren’t “clean” or “dirty”. Food is simply food. It’s fuel. It’s a source of energy. It’s connected to social engagements and joy. Let me reiterate – food has no moral value.
How does this translate into a problem for fitness clients and how can we better prepare our clients to engage with their food choices in ways that promote nutrition, satiety, and joy (while remaining within our scope of practice, of course)? Let’s discuss how we can navigate this as health and exercise professionals.
How Do Individuals Define “Clean Eating”?
The definitions of clean eating vary by source and by individual, but in the most general of terms, many interpret clean foods as those that are in their most natural state (minimally processed), not refined, no bizarre or unrecognizable ingredients, no GMO’s or additives, and are seen as “safe”. Food is not something we or our clients need to fear, but the reality is – they sometimes do.
Of course, we want to promote healthy eating, but it is possible to eat “too clean” and “too healthily”. Seems counterintuitive, right? It’s really not. Consider these cues or signs to determine if you are working with a client who may be falling into this trap, all of which are not a far cry from disordered eating.
- A hyper fixation on a food’s quality and no thought to enjoyment
- A constant thought process involving food or the next meal or snack
- Difficulty eating meals prepared by another individual
- A feeling of guilt if one strays from their diet
A Dangerous Thought Process
We often hear food described as good, bad, clean, dirty, junk, etc. Nancy Clark, MS, RD explained this best in her ACSM Virtual Summit (April, 2021). Simply put, this is a language problem and it is necessary we start to shift the perspective by changing the words we use. For example, traditionally if a food is dubbed “bad” but we should learn to more intentionally label this as “a fund food or a treat”. Similarly, with “good” food, we should think about it in terms of “nutrient-rich”.
Consider these two food options: A slice of pizza versus a garden salad, grilled chicken, and a side of olive-oil based dressing. Pizza is typically misidentified as a “bad food” and a salad as a “good food”. In reality, a slice of pizza is (well, delicious for one – no denying that) less nutrient-rich and more energy-rich. Whereas the salad with lean protein and a small amount of dressing is not a “good food” but is (typically) nutrient-rich and less energy-dense. See? No good. No bad. Just food with varying degrees of nutrient and energy density.
Clark also warns us about the use of the words “diet” and “exercise”. In reality, we should talk about these two separate concepts as simply taking care of one’s body—perhaps talking about them in terms of optimal nutrition and movement.
Three Examples to Consider
Clients in their intention to get their “diet right” often identify specific aspects they want to change. This is usually stated as “I need to cut out ‘X’”. Let’s look at some examples that Clark highlighted and the potential backfiring that can happen if we approach food with fear and with a diet culture perspective.
- I need to cut out red meat because it’s too fatty and bad for my heart. What a client may not realize is that red meat is an iron-rich (prevents anemia) protein and also includes the mineral zinc (with immunity-enhancing properties) and B-vitamins (which convert food to energy) – all things the body needs to function. Yes, you can get these nutrients in other ways so eating red meat isn’t the only way. Still, a client needs to understand that they need to replace what is lost if they cut out a source of essential nutrients.
- I need to eat less fat. If I do this, then I’ll lose weight because I am reducing my caloric intake. When this happens, individuals tend to eat more sugar. Clark gives a great perspective on this. If a client cuts out peanut butter with the idea of (a) consuming fewer calories and (b) consuming less fat, but replace that with jam on their toast = more sugar. Not only are they adding more sugar, but they are missing out on a significant source of unsaturated fats and the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins is disrupted. Also, athletes may experience reduced endurance.
- I need to cut out carbs to lose weight. Carbs are bad and make someone gain weight. Often, this dietary modification is made because some Instagram “trainer” said carbs are fattening or because the client wants to lose weight, minimize “empty calories” and “reduce sugar spikes”. I hear this statement almost daily. Here’s the thing – carbs do NOT make a person “fat”. Excess calories of any kind are fattening (perhaps like calories ingested from greasy foods). The conversion of excess calories from dietary fat into body fat is an easy conversion (as opposed to converting sugar into body fat). Clients can be educated on how glycogen is necessary to refuel the muscle system.
When someone says this to us, what we first need to ascertain is “what kinds of carbohydrates are you concerned about?” Are they are worried about all carbohydrate sources or specific ones? Fruits and veggies? Candy? Naturally occurring sugars? Others? Here is your window of opportunity to teach clients about the role of glucose in the body. Then, focus on nutritional value (candy vs an orange – totally different nutrient profiles).
Cutting out carbs and focusing only on protein means an individual will likely experience fatigue and decreased performance. Carbs are performance-enhancing. We need them for our brains to function and our bodies to thrive. It’s important to educate clients about valuable fuel sources like sweet potatoes, quinoa (also a protein source), rice, fruit, veggies, and other grains. *Ketogenic diets are not high protein, but instead are low-carb, high-fat. While ketogenic diets have their place medically and for certain cases of weight loss, they are notoriously difficult to maintain and require a high degree of management and guidance to sustain.
The Bottom Line
It’s all about that balance – not necessarily “healthy eating” (a highly subjective term) but “balanced meals” focused on nutrient-rich sources of food. It’s also about joy and connecting with a meal. Eating should not be mechanical and unwaveringly formulaic. We all need variety, fun, and fuel. It’s possible to do this effectively and still achieve fitness, performance, and health goals. There’s no magic bullet here. Helping clients embrace an intuitive eating style that prioritizes balance and joy – that’s where the real magic happens.
Clark, N. (2021). Clean eating: Unintended Consequences for Active People. Live presentation at the ACSM Virtual Summit April 2021.