The dominant way we think about eating is through what is called the “clean eating” model. In this model, we aim to eat good “clean” foods while avoiding unhealthy “dirty” foods. This model is sometimes effective at getting dieters to improve their dietary patterns, but it can also greatly mislead them as to what’s actually working, what isn’t, and how to achieve their health goals. I’ve seen dieter after dieter come to me after following a clean eating style diet, frustrated as to why they aren’t seeing the results that they’re looking for.
The problem with this model of thought is that it makes us think in terms of these binary "good" and "bad" classes rather than admitting that food is a complex topic and that it’s hard to make these definitive value statements.
Foods like vegetables are traditionally classified as good, but fruits are sometimes labelled as good and sometimes as bad because while they share the high fiber content of vegetables they also contain a lot of naturally occurring sugars. It doesn’t help that numerous schools of thought exist within clean eating, so it’s very possible for people to disagree on whether a food (like fruit) is good or bad! Clearly, this is confusing, and much of this confusion is passed on to the common dieter, who simply wants to be given clear instructions about what to do. Should you eat fruit? Shouldn't you? The answer is probably yes, but that might not be the answer you get if you ask a common trainer following a clean eating model.
Kale is traditionally considered a clean food. Like many of the other leafy vegetables, it is high in micronutrient content and fiber, low in calories, and pretty filling relative to its volume. These are all traditionally good things. In recent years, kale has really taken off as a "superfood", and there's been an entire fad around eating it.
On the other end of the spectrum, fast food is generally considered as bad as it gets. A typical burger is going to be high in calories, overly delicious, low on micronutrients, and packed with preservatives or sodium.
In the classic documentary Supersize Me, Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but fast food for a month. As a result, he gained weight and felt more lethargic in his daily life. Unfortunately, this movie serves as a general template for the way that a lot of us think about fast food - as a pure evil with no positives. This is an unhealthy way of looking at our food and arises from the very skewed picture of the data that Spurlock presents. Ultimately, his story is just one piece of the larger overall picture - that Spurlock gained weight because he overate and not necessarily because of the kinds of food that he was eating. (Although it probably didn't help!)
Enter Burger Island
Here’s an example I like to use to explain the difference between these types of food that should help you understand how the picture is far less clear than the model of clean eating typically proposes.
If you were to be stranded on an island with no hope of rescue and a lifetime’s supply of food, would you prefer to be stranded with unlimited kale or unlimited burgers? Most clean eaters would probably answer kale.
Let’s assume that you run on about 2000 calories per day. A cup of kale contains about 33 calories, so in order to get in your daily calories, you’d be consuming a whopping 60 cups of kale per day. An absurd amount. Since kale is highly filling, this will also mean that you’d have some discomfort eating it all, and would likely not eat quite as much as you should. Over time, you’d definitely lose weight - not ideal in a survival situation.
Additionally, kale’s calories come largely from carbohydrates, with smaller amounts of protein and much smaller amounts of fat. A balanced diet typically involves about roughly equal calorie contributions from each. Since your protein intake is much lower than ideal, you’ll also struggle to maintain muscle mass, contributing to a worsening metabolism over time.
Kale, like most vegetables, contains a lot of fiber. Fiber is beneficial for the human gut because it isn’t fully digestible, resulting in some of it getting passed out the other end untouched. Huge fiber intakes will cause gastrointestinal distress, which would be pretty uncomfortable.
Okay, so maybe kale won’t kill you - but it’s clear that it’s not ideal to live on kale alone.
What about the burgers?
Let’s take my personal favorite: the McDonald’s McDouble. This burger contains 390 calories. This means I need to consume a little more than 5 of these burgers to hit that same 2000 calorie per day target - still a lot to eat solely from one food source, but much more manageable than 60 cups of kale.
162 of these calories come from fat, 136 come from carbs, and 92 come from protein. This certainly isn’t an even split, but it’s far more reasonable - including enough protein to help maintain our current muscle mass.
Add on top of that the facts that it’s far more delicious than kale and less likely to cause gastrointestinal distress. You might even overeat a bit because you’re enjoying yourself so much, leading to a bit of weight gain - which is actually a good thing in a survival situation, where you need additional energy stores for periods of little to no food.
Now there is one clear problem: the burgers are low in micronutrients. This means that while you’re going to very easily have your macronutrient (calorie) needs taken care of, you’re going to be likely to have one or more nutrient deficiencies. These deficiencies may make you feel a bit worse, or may make you a bit more susceptible to disease, but they probably won’t kill you right away.
In short, in a survival situation, it is far easier to survive on palatable, calorie-rich foods that we enjoy eating - the exact opposite of how we often tend to think about our dietary patterns.
Understanding This Example
This isn’t to say that I am recommending burgers as a health food. Nor is it to say that I think that kale is the devil and should be put on a “do not eat” list. It should be clear that I am trying to argue something far more important: that in contrast to binary good/bad labels, the healthiness of the food we eat is context dependent, and that what may be ideal food in one situation isn’t ideal in another.
I'll admit that burger island is a flawed example. For one, a burger is comprised of many types of foods already, and already shows a much greater amount of food diversity than just eating kale endlessly. We tend to eat foods together because the monotony of eating the exact same thing repeatedly will really fry our brains (hello Soylent). People don’t tend to eat just one thing over and over, but instead eat a variety of foods.
Our diet is a holistic thing, which means that it can only be understood in the context of everything that you’re eating. If your diet is comprised of a lot of calorie rich foods and you start eating kale, that kale is probably replacing some of those calorie rich foods in your diet, causing you to lose weight.
But what happens if you start eating kale in addition to all the food you were normally eating? Well, nothing is going to happen because you’re eating more calories than before. So the addition of kale consumption may or may not replace other calories in your diet, leading to an overall loss of calories. This may or may not be healthy depending on your current lifestyle and activity level - more active people need more calories and more protein to sustain themselves and their muscle mass.
If anything, the clearest takeaway should be that eating one food and just one food is a bad idea. Most foods are not completely ideal nutrient sources on their own, but when combined with a lot of other foods, we can approximate an ideal intake of all our daily nutrients. More limited diets are more likely to lead to nutrient deficiency in one or more areas, and this is precisely what we tend to see with highly strict diets such as are followed by bodybuilders and physique athletes preparing for a competition, or by dieters looking to lose a lot of weight. One way to offset this potential problem is by supplementing with a multivitamin, which isn’t ideal but certainly helps you cover your bases.
Another point this example can help illustrate is that clean eating often prioritizes foods with high micronutrient content over foods with high macronutrient content - which is essentially a way of putting the cart before the horse.
Macronutrients is a term that refers to the fats, carbs, and proteins in our diets. These are termed the macronutrients because they contain calories, and we need a lot of calories to sustain our daily activities. Most of these calories are burned to sustain our bodies’ basic processes, like breathing, walking around, sleeping, and thinking. Some of these calories are used during exercise instead. Calories are the single biggest thing we need as human beings to keep living. Without calories, we die of starvation. This is why low calorie, high filling vegetables can be a problem - because they’re naturally low in calories, the most important thing we need to live.
In contrast, micronutrients refers to a series of nutrients which aren’t necessarily bundled with calories and are needed in much smaller doses. Some of our micronutrients can be synthesized in the body if we’re not getting them in our diet, but some cannot. Without these micronutrients, our bodies may not function 100% ideally - we may have impaired quality of life, and may more easily catch certain kinds of disease, but generally we can still keep on living.
The example of the deserted island full of kale is intended to demonstrate the difference between these two. Clean eating often places a great deal of emphasis on the quality of your micronutrients, and often urges you to consume as much as possible of them. But there’s not really a point to eating a ton of micronutrients - some are simply disposed of as waste if you’re getting in more than you need. Overdosing yourself on micronutrients doesn’t necessarily have any beneficial effects, and won’t necessarily make you healthier, stronger, or leaner. If you were to eat nothing but multivitamins, you’d die because calories are more important.
More recently, bodybuilders and other physique athletes have come to appreciate the value of “if it fits your macros” (IIFYM) style dieting, also known as flexible dieting. Flexible dieting avoids the traditional clean eating approach by instead focusing on hitting numbered targets for each of your major macronutrients (fats, proteins, and carbs) and by extension hitting a certain calorie intake for the day. These types of diets far more accurately depict the forces at play in a diet, and are generally far more consistent at producing results, provided of course that they’re properly followed (which is a whole other argument).
The most well-known benefit of flexible dieting is that since it doesn’t need to demonize high-calorie, hyperpalatable comfort foods, it offers us an alternative in which we can eat some of these foods without feeling guilty or having a negative impact on our overall health or performance. IIFYM dieters are known for sharing photos of the pizza, pop tarts, ice cream, and other traditionally “dirty” foods that they’re able to eat while still achieving their fitness goals.
John Cisna, a high school science teacher, was able to lose over 50lbs while eating nothing but McDonald’s thanks to a similar plan.
Mike Samuels, a personal trainer, was able to lean out while switching over to a diet including lots of fast food and ice cream thanks to a properly structured plan.
It is well known that bodybuilders and powerlifters in the heavier weight classes (who have to eat massive amounts of calories) sometimes resort to eating a lot of traditionally “dirty” foods in order to gain and maintain that weight.
Again, this isn’t to say that kale and other vegetables high in micronutrients aren’t important, or that you should eat nothing but fast food. Most diets should still contain a lot of vegetables and should still focus on good micronutrient consumption. But you have to understand that you cannot analyze the usefulness of a food independently of the context of the individual diet - and that what may be a good thing for one person to eat may not be good for another person.
Most people miss the forest for the trees, worrying too much about micronutrient intake without bothering to control for their macronutrient intakes. The intent of this post is to make you start to question existing dogmas you may have about diet and instead learn to look at diet in a more nuanced and subtle way.
This is something that is generally known within the bodybuilding community and in fact, it’s relatively old news at this point. But when I ask new clients if they’ve heard about flexible dieting, the answer is usually no. The unfortunate truth is that most of us still believe to some extent in the clean eating model, even though it's becoming rapidly outdated.
It isn’t true that kale will kill you and fast food will save your life - but so long as the general public is unaware of the more accurate model of flexible dieting, I’ll gladly keep saying it if it’ll get their attention.
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