Muscle for life

If You Think “Clean Eating” Is Stupid, You’re Doing It Wrong

If You Think “Clean Eating” Is Stupid, You’re Doing It Wrong

It’s trendy to sneer at “clean eating” these days.

To boast about all of the trans fatty, sugary, pre-packaged delights that you can “fit into your macros.”

In many cases, this is merely an attempt to virtue signal to the fitness intelligentsia. People trying to prove that they “get it,” and to lord it over everyone that doesn’t.

It’s also stupid.

The wholesale rejection of clean eating isn’t a disavowal of dietary ignorance and dogma—it’s a childish denial of our body’s most basic need for food: nutrition.

You know…stuff like high-quality protein, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats. The “little things” that we need to stay mentally and physically robust, and to fight off disease and dysfunction. Things that we won’t find in Fruit Loops, Pop Tarts, and Bluebell.

Remember that the next time you’re browsing the #IIFYM hashtag on Instagram.

Body composition isn’t a foolproof barometer of health. You can have a killer six pack and a whole host of nutritional deficiencies that, if allowed to fester, may literally one day kill you.

This is why I’d rather be a “clueless” clean eater who’s obsessed with coconut oil and kale and afraid of gluten and GMOs than a rabid, incorrigible “IIFYMer” who refuses to “waste calories” on fruit and vegetables because it would mean less fast food and Oreos.

The former might never be as lean and muscular as the latter, but he also won’t be as likely to get sick and die.

This is why the meal plans of smart flexible dieters look a lot like those of the clean eating crowd. Colorful plant foods, whole grains, and nutritious proteins comprise the vast majority of the calories, and indulgences are an afterthought.

A focus on clean eating can benefit you in other ways, as well.

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Clean eating teaches you how to be a good intuitive eater.

If you ever want to maintain your ideal physique without having to plan and track everything that you eat, then then you’d better get used to eating a lot of relatively unprocessed, nutritious foods.

This is the “secret” to effortless weight maintenance, because most “healthy” foods tend to be lighter in calories and very filling and nutritious.

In short, they’re the types of foods that your body’s natural mechanisms for regulating appetite work best with.

Highly processed foods, on the other hand, tend to be very high in calories yet not nearly as filling or nourishing, which, in a sense, “short circuits” these mechanisms, making it much easier to overeat.

Clean eating ensures that your body gets the at least most of the nutrition it needs.

“Healthy eating” alone isn’t necessarily enough to provide your body with enough of all of the micronutrients it needs to perform optimally (which is why I recommend that you take a good multivitamin), but it can get most of the job done.

Remember that, in the end, health and vitality matter a lot more than muscle and body fat percentage. You’re not going to care how big your biceps are when you’re having a heart attack.

The bottom line is clean eating significantly reduces your risk of chronic disease, which is one of the biggest reasons to fuss over all of this diet and exercise stuff in the first place.

Clean eating minimizes your exposure to various chemicals, hormones, and other substances that can be harmful to your health.

We’re exposed to an overwhelming number of chemicals every day through just eating, breathing, and drinking.

The list includes tobacco smoke, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, disinfection byproducts, plasticizers, heavy metals, parabens, surfactants, and phthalates, and many more.

Many people don’t realize how seriously this chemical load can affect our health.

For example, research shows that the daily exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals commonly found in plastic bottles, metal food cans, detergents, toys, cosmetics, and pesticides increases the risk of neurological and behavioral disorders, male infertility, birth defects, endometriosis, obesity, diabetes, and some cancers, and can even lead to diminished IQ scores.

The same study estimates that these chemicals are responsible for at least $340 billion in annual healthcare costs here in the United States.

Read that again. Billion, with a b, and that’s just one class of chemicals out of many that our bodies have to deal with every day.

Many of these conditions come on slowly, too. You may not notice the gradual decline until, one day, it’s apparent that something is very wrong.

We can, and should, attack this problem in two ways:

  1. Keep our body as healthy and functional as possible.
  2. Reduce our exposure to harmful substances as much as possible.

Number one is best accomplished by things like exercising regularly, not being overweight, not smoking, and drinking as little alcohol as possible.

Eating mostly unprocessed foods (choose organic produce for bonus points), and using “clean” cosmetic, grooming, and cleaning products are big for number two.

Clean eating can help you develop a healthy relationship with food.

clean eating basics

A lot of what goes on in the fitness space isn’t healthy or desirable.

For example, you see a lot of yo-yo dieting, food abstinence, starvation dieting, bingeing and purging, and emotional eating.

None of this is normal.

In fact, in some cases, what you’re looking at is a legitimate eating disorder that can ruin ultimately people’s lives.

Thus, if we want to look and feel great for the long haul, then we must cultivate and maintain a healthy relationship with food.

You know you’re on the right path if…

  • You generally eat until full and stop.
  • You don’t have overwhelming psychological or emotional desires to eat individual foods, or food in general.
  • You don’t seriously struggle with cravings.
  • You see food mainly as a source of nourishment.
  • You enjoy eating nutritious foods that give you energy and fuel your daily activities.
  • You don’t feel guilty when you eat the occasional “unhealthy” food.

I’d even go as far as saying if you don’t check most, if not all, of those boxes, then flexible dieting probably isn’t for you. Chances are, you’ll just wind up playing the “if it fits your macros” game I mentioned earlier.

Yes, any food can fit your macros, but how about cancer, heart disease, chronic fatigue, and the like? Do those fit your macros, too?

Now, clean eating isn’t necessarily the cure. In this context, it’s a double-edged sword.

Take it too far and you’re looking at orthorexiaan unhealthy obsession with eating “healthy” foods. Be flexible and intelligent about it, though, and you’ll naturally develop a positive eating mindset that is enhanced, and not perverted, by dietary flexibility and freedom.

The Bottom Line on Clean Eating

More and more people are ridiculing clean eating these days because it makes them feel better about their shitty diets.

Don’t listen to them.

Pity them, even, because people that neglect the nutritional side of dieting are going to have to pay that piper some day, and maybe sooner than later.

Here’s how it breaks down:

Clean eating guarantees nothing in the way of muscle gain and fat loss, because that dimension of dieting is ruled by calories and macros, and flexible dieting guarantees nothing in the way of nutrition and health, because the dimension is ruled by the quality of your food choices.

Thus, the middle of the spectrum is the place to be.

If you want the best of both worlds–a body that feels and works as good as it looks–then you need to be a “flexible clean eater.”

I kind of like that. Maybe it should become a thing. 🙂

What’s your take on clean eating? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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I'm Mike and I'm the creator of Muscle for Life and Legion Athletics, and I believe that EVERYONE can achieve the body of their dreams.

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  • Thanks for stopping by and checking out my article! I hope you enjoyed it.

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  • Andrew

    Working on keeping my diet filled with fruits and veggies. At the end of my bulk now (doing BBLS) and when I start to cut my neck gets real skinny and I would like it to be more proportional to my body (a little thicker). Do you have any good exercises I can do to make my neck bigger/thicker?

  • Dre180


    I think it all depends on how far people take iifym honestly. I feel while eating clean is great you also need to find a balance that allows you to feel like a human. i can’t and won’t sit around eating plain chicken and rice all day. that lifestyle choice to me is not worth it. sure you will likely have a killer body composition but at what expense? My bulk diet consists of healthy waffles (your high protein banana oatcake batter), pasta, lean beef burgers, green veggies and fruit, sweet potatoes, black beans, chicken with sauce etc. my point being most of these ingredients are considered clean yes, but i do spice things up with some sauces that aren’t bc i need to enjoy what i am eating. i can’t force feed myself strictly clean foods. now the people throwing junk in the bodies like M & M’s, Pop Tarts and Twinkies just bc they can fit it in their macros..obviously that is an extreme. i also feel that when i binge with stuff like that i crave it even more, so for me the best thing is to generally stay away from it. But in essence i think it is super important to find that balance of mostly healthy stuff with something to keep you interested in the diet, bc the best diet is the one you can stick to.


    • Well put, Dan!

    • MikaeI

      This is a big misconception about clean eating, you can enjoy your food while still eating healthy, take some cooking lessons and be creative with your food.

      • Dre180

        What’s the misconception? Most people consider “clean foods” to be foods that don’t taste good like the junk most people eat. That’s the truth. I agree with what you’re saying, however while I am a pretty damn good cook not everyone has time to cook gourmet meals each day for every meal. We have things such as family and work not to mention exercise, So I make things that are quick and tasty as possible. But my diet wouldn’t be considered “clean” per se from the typical bodybuilding crowd. That’s all I was saying. I’m not afraid to eat what’s considered “dirty food”. But it is balanced in with a majority of healthy items

  • jcgadfly

    Ask ten people what “clean eating” is and you’ll get eleven different definitions…

  • Casey Collier

    Would BPA free plastics and canned food be okay to use?

    I put my prepared meals in BPA Rubbermaid containers and sometimes buy canned organic vegetables.


    • Yup, nothing wrong with the containers and I wouldn’t be concerned about occasional canned veggies. If it’s the same for you, go frozen instead.

      • Casey Collier

        Thanks Mike:)
        If you don’t mind me asking, what is bad about cans? If I go with BPA free cans??

        Merry Christmas

        • There are other chemicals that can leech into your food. It’s not something to freak out about, but if you’re regularly exposed to a wide variety of chemicals via food, beverages, toiletries, etc., the combined effects can be detrimental.

          That’s why I think it’s smart to take simple measures to reduce/limit our exposure, without taking it to the OCD/paranoid level.

  • Hey Mike, first off I want to let you know how much I appreciate this site. I started watching your YouTube channel and listening to your podcasts about a year ago. I was always into fitness, but your advice has really helped me kick things into high gear, and this last year has been one of my best so far.

    And great article. I’m a big fan of flexible dieting, as it’s pretty much been the only thing that’s worked for me. But I’ve definitely noticed that I’ve been a little TOO flexible, especially as of quite recently. It didn’t stop me from losing weight, but it did effect me in other ways- my sleep’s getting worse, my mood is less stable, and my ability to concentrate is starting to go downhill.

    Reading this post is making me realize that there’s probably a connection between all of that and the fact that I’ve had pancakes every single day for the last month. I turned 30 this year, and I’ve had the horrible realization that, from a health perspective, I just can’t get away that shit anymore.

    Anyway, point taken- a little more broccoli and a little less pizza from now on 😉

    • YW! Glad you’re enjoying the content, and thanks for your support. That’s great you had some awesome take-aways from the article. You’ll definitely feel better and stay healthier with the change!

  • Squatznmilk

    Honestly, I think whole “clean eating” thing is pretty stupid.

    You can eat clean and still have nutritional deficiencies.

    You can eat clean and overeat or undereat.

    People who “eat clean” tend to fear foods arbitrarily and have little actual understanding of nutrition.

    They shun potatoes, yet eat brown rice to be clean when potatoes are much more nutrient dense.

    They fear gluten even though they don’t know what it is.

    They avoid gmos even though they don’t know what they are- they just sound scary.

    Also, I’ve noticed people who obsess with “eating clean” are more likely to binge if they have any missteps in their diet. They can’t just have an oreo and move on. “It’s oh no, I didn’t eat clean. The whole day is ruined. Instead of stopping at that one oreo, I may as well eat the whole box and start again tomorrow.”

    They have to plan “cheat days” to cope with their overly restrictive meal plans and then wonder why they don’t get anywhere.

    I believe in eating nutrient dense food. The food isn’t the problem. The problem is people use “clean eating” as a way of perpetuating ignorance about food and bringing themselves closer to an eating disorder.

    • Eating Clean can be defined in different ways in the minds of different people, but it’s foundation is simply eating whole nutritious foods. Improper execution of it can obviously lead to deficiencies and arbitrary rules. Don’t let that ruin it for you, though. You’re right that the food isn’t the problem–it’s the people misapplying the idea of Clean Eating.

    • Great points, although honestly I would rather be your average “clean eater” than your average SAD eater…

      You might like this:


  • Cerebralbore101

    What is a good replacement for Sunny D? I feel like I need to have a drink for breakfast, but I think a super sugary drink is a bad idea. Thoughts?

    • Whole foods are preferred, and if you want to have a drink you can still have juice if you’d like. Best if it’s whole fruit juice. You can also consider tea, coffee, milk, almond milk, green shake, plain water, etc.

  • Nadia

    Hi, Mike. I’ve got two questions. How long is too long to be on a cut? Also, say I calculated my macros for a cut, but I adjusted the carbs a bit. I would assum I still need a refeed, but I would like to know what percentage is the cutoff for no longer needed a refeed? I hope I worded this okay.

    • Hey Nadia! Ultimately, a cut can last as long as it takes to lose the fat you want to lose. As long as you’re losing fat effectively and feeling good, you can keep cutting. If you’re eating at your BMR, lifting 5 times a week, and doing a couple hours of HIIT cardio without losing any weight, then it would be time to take a break and reverse diet. Check this out:

      A refeed is essentially just a more structured cheat meal. Your cutting calorie macros aren’t related in particular. Check this out: https://www.muscleforlife.com/refeed/

      I hope this helps!

  • Liz MacAskill

    Hi Mike. Love your content! Question for you. I’ve noticed in some of your podcasts, you recommend that women don’t start (lean) bulking until they’re under 20% body fat. I was just tested at my local DEXA and got a reading of 21% – I’m 5’6″ and 152#. Dunked at a local facility and got a reading of 16% (so different!). Am on board with all of your advice – started your programming approach 6 weeks ago and I’ve already seen a significant difference in my body composition and PRS in the gym. Lifting heavier than I have previously, eating complex carbs (came from low-carb for over a decade), etc. – all things I failed to do previously. Anyway, trying to decide if I should lean out a bit more before starting to bulk. Thanks for your help! -Liz

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