What Exactly Do We Mean By ‘Clean’ And ‘Dirty’ Food?

In the fitness world you will frequently come across the terms clean eating and dirty eating. For those interested in building size and strength (commonly termed bulking), then you might come across the terms clean bulking and dirty bulking.Ultimately, people like to make the distinction often between clean foods and dirty foods. This is ok, but what exactly does this all mean? Also, what has this distinction between clean and dirty foods have to do with achieving your fat loss and size and strength goals?

•Clean Foods•

Clean foods tend to, in the broadest sense of the word, mean food that is healthy in nature. Essentially, anything that isn’t highly processed or contain too much unnecessary junk (e.g. refined sugars).

Clean food is food that doesn’t just provide us with the necessary energy to fuel activity, but also to maintain and promote health, performance and vitality.

Clean foods encompass things like good carbohydrate sources (oatmeal, wholemeal breads, pastas sweet potatoes, rices, beans), lean protein sources (chicken, turkey, salmon, white fish), healthy fats (salmon, avocados, olive oil, nuts) and, vitamins and minerals (fruits and veg). This would all be your clean foods.

•Dirty Foods•

These will tend to include things such as highly processed stuff (high in refined sugars, additives, flavourings, low in protein, high in unhealthy, saturated fats and stuff that spikes your insulin sky high given you intense cravings etc.).

This will encompass foods like cakes, cookies, candies, processed meats, fast food, takeaways etc.

Ok, so all of this is probably pretty standard to most of you! But, how does all this relate to achieving your fitness goals?

ONLY CLEAN Foods For Fat Loss And Size And Strength Development?

One of the things that many people try to do when they begin their fat loss or size and strength development journey is stick to only eating clean foods. It has to be clean foods otherwise you won’t ever achieve your fitness goals (particularly if you are trying to loose those excess pounds!).

Occasionally, you will hear people just beginning their weight loss journey say ‘I lost a huge amount of weight initially by just switching to cleaner foods!’. Now, this makes perfect sense. Why? If you are someone who tends to eat a lot of empty, highly processed foods (very high in calories) then it’s going to be very easy for you to, on a continuous basis, to overshoot your daily maintenance calories, putting you in a calorie surplus (even if that is not your intention). For someone whose diet is made primarily out of these dirty highly processed, calorie dense foods, then yes, you have a greater chance of overshooting you daily maintenance and ending up in a constant calorie surplus. Not what you want if that’s not your plan! Also, it’s usually harder to track everything (calories, macros) if most of your diet comes out pizzas, take aways, candies etc.

So, it makes sense if someone decides to clean up their diet and switch to cleaner, healthier food choices (even without considering your daily calories and macro ratios) and ends up loosing weight. The chances are, by switching out junk for better options, you daily calorie intake is lower, putting you in a better position to lose weight.

A4_–_Short-Term_Thinking.pngA4_–_Short-Term_Thinking.png

Ok, so here is the thing, this weight loss that you might have experienced on switching from dirty to clean food choices, has nothing to do with the clean foods themselves. The clean foods haven’t stimulated some untapped fat burning process in your body. It’s still all down to simply calories in/out. Your weight loss that you experience has nothing to do with whether your foods are clean or dirty. It’s simply the fact that by switching from high calorie dense, processed junk foods to cleaner varieties, you can easily track your calories and macros, and you are less likely to enter into a calorie surplus.

For instance, say your maintenance is 3500 calories per day, and you want to maintain a calorie deficit of 500 to loose weight. The daily calories that you will take in each day to maintain this deficit will be 3000 calories needed to loose weight. Whether your diet consists of 3000 calories of pop tarts and McDonalds, or 3000 calories of salads, potatoes, lean meats and veg does not matter in terms of pure weight loss. You will still lose weight regardless (general health is another matter of course!). However, you are more likely to succeed in meeting your 3000 calorie target if you stick with primarily clean foods, simply because everything is easier to track, these foods provide sustained energy (so you are much less likely to overeat through insulin spikes, cravings from junk) and they are less calorie dense. Not to mention your health will be far better!

Altogether, these factors means that you are less likely to overshoot your daily 3000 calorie target and accidentally end up in a calorie surplus.

«The take home message: It doesn’t matter whether you eat clean foods or dirty foods, the foods themselves don’t magically impact fat loss, it is still all down to calories in/out. However, with a nutrition plan consisting primarily of clean foods, you are more likely to remain within your daily calorie target then a plan made from primarily from dirty foods. But, the foods themselves do not matter in the context of pure fat loss, and size and strength development!»

When people decide they want to bulk up and gain more size and strength, they must be in a calorie surplus. Again, some people believe that the only way to gain size and strength is through eating only clean foods (the typical rice, broccoli and chicken diet!). Not true at all. Don’t be influenced by hardcore bodybuilding magazines!

For instance, lets say your daily maintenance is 3500 calories and you want to maintain a calorie surplus of 500 calories to gain size and strength. Your daily calorie intake to maintain for surplus is then going to be 4000 calories. As before, it does not matter if you derive those daily 4000 calories from cookies, candies, takeaways, pizzas or those 4000 calories from sweet potatoes, chicken and rice, you will still gain size and strength (health is another issue!). However, as I have said in previous articles, if your calorie surplus is too high then you also risk gaining excess fat (without any additional muscle tissue). By simply adopting a nutrition plan consisting of dense, high calorie junk foods, you are probably more likely to exceed your 4000 calorie target and enter sumo mode! Not great. A size and strength nutrition plan consisting of primarily clean foods will simply help you keep better track of your daily calories (and not to mention your health!). It’s fine gaining size and strength, but not at the expense of your overall health. So, let’s keep the veggies in our bulking plan!

Why I Dislike The Whole Clean/Dirty Foods Distinction

If you ask me, the whole clean vs dirty foods is nothing more than marketing wizardry that the fitness industry loves to use. Yes, there are lots of foods out there with pretty terrible nutritional values and foods out there packed full with health promoting compounds. But, in the grand scheme of triggering fat loss and size and strength development, it really makes no difference.

Clean foods can help make things easier to manage in terms of tracking your daily calories and macros, curbing cravings and instilling healthy eating habits, but that is it.

Clean foods offer no significant additional benefits over dirty foods in terms of stimulating additional fat loss or extra size and strength development. Calories will take care of that.

What I also don’t like about this clean/dirty food distinction is that it has caused people to become less flexible and more restrictive with their eating habits, and usually not for the best intentions. Since calorie manipulation determines whether you will successfully lose weight and/or develop size and strength, why not include BOTH clean and foods you really love into your food plan? It doesn’t have to be all potatoes, chicken and green veg! Add variety! Yes, you want to make sure that most of your plan consists of clean foods as you want to also maintain and boost your general health, but adding in foods you love will make everything that much more manageable and enjoyable, all while you still continue to meet your fitness goals (as long as your calories are in order).

A4_–_Short-Term_Thinking

Frequently when I am in the gym, I hear many people talk about nutrition in terms of actual foods rather than calories. For instance, if someone is trying to lose weight, I often hear ‘I remove all sugar out my diet because it causes me to gain weight’ or ‘If I eat too much of this I gain weight and can’t lose it’. The problem is, none of this has to do with the foods themselves. If your nutrition plan has too many highly processed foods then yes, you might find it difficult to lose weight if you don’t keep your calories from this food in close check. Sugary foods contain a lot of empty calories. But if you are gaining weight, you are gaining it because your in a calorie surplus. In terms of weight loss, simply switching sugary foods for healthier alternatives will just make it easier to remain within your target calories, that’s it. You don’t have to cut these favourite foods of yours out your nutrition plan. You just need to learn to track calories and adapt a range of foods that are going to allow you to stick to your weight loss, or size and strength plan. Be flexible!

It’s All about Flexibility

I would like to see the fitness industry head more towards the idea of flexible nutrition for fat loss and size and strength goals. At the moment we seem to be stuck in a time period of constant food trends. Simply put, calories dictate our weight loss and size and strength success and clean foods maintain and promote your good health.

How do you maintain both of them? You adopt flexibility. This means you should look to develop a plan that includes a good chunk of clean foods (for health, easier calorie, macro tracking), but also the foods you enjoy (for sustainability and adherence to a goal and lifestyle change). Thinking in black and white terms such as ‘I need to remove all sugar out my diet’ rather than ‘Let’s be varied’ is a sure fire way of constantly getting stuck in no mans land. For me, food trends are out and flexibility is in.


Any questions, ask away!