Paradigms Lost: Clean Eating & If It Fits Your Macros

The pendulum swings in the nutrition world are extreme.

We’re living in particularly tiresome dichotomy right now, between the nebulous concept of “clean eating”, and the once refreshing, now pedantic “flexible dieting” or “If It Fits Your Macros” crowds.

With the rise of social media, it has certainly become more challenging to combat charlatan information, misinformation, and supermodels with their “alkaline” diets. My disconcertion with the pendulum swing back away from the real bullshit – food-fear promotion, “detox” diets, gluten-causes-everything, sugar-is-a-toxin, and the spring of woo-woo nutrition information that flows eternal from the Instagram accounts of countless white, wealthy, Californian yogis – is that there is an emerging trend amongst the”flexible dieting/IIFYM” crowd to wave “evidence” in the air while wolfing down Pop Tarts.

I get it. Sugar is not a toxin. Some sugar in you diet will not kill you. Some nutrient-poor, calorie-dense foods will not adversely affect your health. But there comes a point in any scientific or philosophical discussion where the pragmatism of what is being added is diminished. It has been said that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom. So while the evangelical “clean eating” crowd lack science, is there is any wisdom in using evidence to shift a conceptual framework to a nutrient poor diet, once it “fits”?

Its important to remember that that is all flexible dieting/IIFYM are: conceptual frameworks, within which you have freedom to include foods not traditionally associated with weight loss – like sugar – and know that it won’t hamper your progress, or in fact kill you. In this framework, you’re setting yourself up for long-term adherence, and ultimately success. But now this framework is evolving into something that leaves nutritional best practises behind, is losing (or has lost) sight of the big picture, and is intent on making pedantic distinctions to prove a point.

And “clean eating”? That’s a scam. But that has been written about in excellent detail before, here and here, so I’m not going to reinvent the wheel of critique levelled at it. I will make a few observations, as they may relate to the current pendulum swing.

Problems with Clean Eating

Primarily, it lacks any and all definition. It is a nebulous concept, muddied by subjectivity and agenda.

As a concept, “clean eating” creates it’s own paradox: “unclean”, “dirty”, “unhealthy” or whatever other hazy term can be applied to a food which doesn’t meet approval. The fact that this entire paradigm is based around undefined terminology means words like “toxin” or “detox” can get thrown around with abandon, luring people into scam concepts, from food avoidance to “juice cleanses.”

And therein lies the rub…this is an ideological paradigm, and you cannot Trump ideology with evidence (sorry, couldn’t help it). Ideology means believers. So you’re either a believer, or you’re not. This is an evangelical crowd, and they are better than you. How can you tell? Because they “glow”.

It is a paradigm based entirely on false dichotomies. Clean foods are good, because dirty foods are bad. Alkaline is good, because acid is bad. Plants are good, because meat is bad.

The “nature bias” is one of the strongest logical fallacies at play in the “clean eating” ideology: the assumption that because something is natural, it is “good.” You’ll see this all the time with sugar. The clean eating crowd use agave, or honey. But white sugar? The devil, apparently.

Science allows us to know there is no difference.

One of the biggest issues with this concept is that it places a moral value on food, leaving certain populations – children and adolescents, in particular adolescent females – vulnerable. Children run the risk of being raised in an evangelical “clean eating” belief system, instilled with false concepts of “good” vs. “bad”, “clean” vs. “dirty” in their nascent nutritional minds. This is massively problematic. Nutrition-by-Paltrow being hammered into children, putting them at risk for nutrient deficiencies and worse: orthorexia.

So while much of the early critique of the “clean eating” movement was levelled at the false dichotomies and logical fallacies inherent in it, resulting in the “scam” label, I think the danger is that its no longer a scam: its an eating disorder. In this respect, as a conceptual framework to navigate away from this, flexible dieting/IIFYM started out as a very welcome and positive contribution to the muddied world of dieting, health and nutrition. But it seems to be evolving away from “80/20” or “90/10” frameworks, and muddying the waters in its own right.

The Problem with Flexible Dieting/IIFYM

As conceptual frameworks, they are fine. In fact, they are positive steps forward in creating a paradigm that is not only an evidence-based response to the aforementioned clean eating crockology, but puts the emphasis on the one single factor that is responsible for weight loss and weight maintenance: adherence. A calorie deficit, sustained and maintained over time.

When it first emerged, it had some more parameters in place, suggested ratios of nutrient-dense unprocessed foods to the “eat whatever you like” part. “80/20”, or “90/10”, i.e. 80% or 90% of your diet from nutrient dense, unprocessed foods and 10-20% from whatever you like. Yes, McDonald’s included: anything you like.

Now, there is thrust toward overscrupulous distinctions that don’t reflect the expressive meanings of diet-related words. For example, there have been some attempts to argue that a “processed” food by definition includes every food item you could buy.  So even a chicken breast – which has been killed, plucked, gutted, and butchered and then the breast packaged into plastic packaging and transported to supermarkets – is a “processed” food.

Only on the most pedantic interpretation of the word processed is this correct. And the reason why has nothing to do with whether it is technically correct, and everything to do with the expressive meaning behind the words “processed” or “unprocessed”. The term “expressive meaning” comes from behavioural economics expert and University of Chicago Professor, Cass Sunstein, and describes how all verbal and nonverbal acts are expressive, in that they carry a meaning associated with it. This is largely dictated by current social norms; thus the nonverbal act of lighting a cigarette in a bar would be deemed obnoxious, rebellious, ignorant or defiant because the norm (and law) is to smoke outside.

The term “processed” also carries meaning. If we lined up 10 people and asked them what the term expressed, they would say McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, Coke, Mars Bars, Pepsi, etc. So trying to make a pedantic distinction is a pointless exercise, because the term communicates a particular meaning. Trying to equate a chicken breast in a plastic box, or coconut milk – “processed” as it has been from the coconut to the can – fails to reflect the expressive meaning of the term “processed.” And someone trying to improve their health would be doing themselves a big favour if the only rule they followed was minimising “processed” foods, having regard to the expressive meaning of the term, because by implication they would be cutting out many of the foods that make the Standard Western Diet particularly conducive to weight gain and diet-induced disease.

There is another problematic manifestation of the IIFYM paradigm: the concept of nutrition as “macros.” You don’t eat macros. You eat food. And food contains macronutrients, micronutrients, and non-nutritive bioactive components that all have a particular role in the picture of health and performance.

This idea that your body only recognises macros, i.e. a molecule of glucose from table sugar (processed) is the same as a molecule of glucose from honey (unprocessed), is scientifically correct. The body doesn’t distinguish between an agent or nutrient as beneficial, harmful, or benign: it recognises and distinguishes only between nutrients and non-nutrients (Holst & Williamson, 2008).

So sugar from maple syrup and white sugar being different (or not, as the case is), is not the issue. Over the past two decades, there have been rapid advances in nutrition science. The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institutes of Medicine began to expand the list of nutritional substances beyond the “classic” nutrients (vitamins and minerals), to recognise the plethora of non-nutritive bioactive food components that have emerged as “adult vitamins” essential for the maintenance of health and reduction of disease risk (Holst & Williamson, 2008). This is why attributing health benefits to a particular dietary pattern – Mediterranean or Japanese – is both difficult and futile; it fails to reflect the complexity of diet and the presence and interactions of multiple nutrients and bioactive components of a food within the food matrix and the composition of the diet as a whole.

And that is the issue. This is the real paradigm shift that needs to occur. Not whether a fucking sugar molecule is different because it’s “natural”, or whether you can eat jellies and lose fat. Of course you can. How many times does this mundane debate have to play out in the health and fitness industry? This emphasis on “Macros Über Alles” is leading to the baby being thrown out with the bathwater amongst many in the health and fitness space. This may not be the intention of the paradigm, but it is becoming the normative behaviour. And that is a problem. Sure, macro for macro you could throw diet quality out the window and still get shredded, but it won’t stop you from, for example, getting Alzheimer’s (for which a diet – not supplements – high in vitamin E, B-vitamins, flavonoids, EPA and DHA is currently the only known prevention).

Or, to quote from Scientific Status Summary of the Institute of Food Technologists in 1998:

Mounting evidence supports the observation that functional foods containing physiologically-active components, either from plant or animal sources, may enhance health. It should be stressed, however, that functional foods are not a magic bullet or universal panacea for poor health habits. There are no “good” or “bad” foods, but there are good or bad diets. Emphasis must be placed on overall dietary pattern… [Emphasis added]

There is an extension to this dilemma, which is the movement away from developing sustainable nutrition habits. 90% of people have had an absolute shelf-life of weighing and measuring food, and tracking macros. It is fantastic for high level athletes with a specific goal. And it is fantastic as a short-term accurate method to achieve results. By analogy, its like to learning to ride a bike with the training wheels on – it develops an awareness of how much you’re actually eating, and 99% of people are horrific at estimating. But it does not set you for long-term sustainability, because only habits can achieve that. Ingraining a behaviour to become automatic, which is the reason someone has a bad or good diet in the first place: habits.

Track macros if it helps you reach a goal. Develop habits to never need to track again.

Where To From Here?

In any movement, there will be extremes. They can’t be engaged with, so they shouldn’t be engaged with. Leave them at it, whether the greens juice drinking, detoxing, clean eating, wealthy white female urbanite, or the dude standing at 6% body fat with 60k followers on Insta who will be drooling in a home at 65 because he hit his macros, and not one nutrient along the way.

These are extreme examples representing extremes of two paradigms lost.

The rest of us? Recognise that the fear-mongering around food is bullshit. Sugar is not a toxin. You are not an addict. Understand that clean eating is a scam. Understand that your body is, in fact, always detoxing. Understand that there are no “good” or “bad” foods.

But there are good and bad diets. And a good diet can include some “processed” foods, sugar, or whatever. Just be on the right side of the complexity of diet and foods, and the interactions of nutrients and bioactive food components, by making sure that the anchor of your diet is nutrition. Develop habits to anchor this in place with consistency. And by all means track macros if you have a specific goal. In either circumstances, tracking or habit-based, all that matters if you’ve anchored your diet with nutrient density. Filling the blanks is entirely at your discretion.


Reference:

Holst, B. and Williamson, G. (2008). Nutrients and phytochemicals: from bioavailability to bioefficacy beyond antioxidants. Current Opinion in Biotechnology, 19(2), pp.73-82.