The Problem with “Clean Eating”
There’s a joke in the world of sports dietetics: The only type of un-clean food is food that has fallen on the floor.
It’s a topic Registered Dietitian and professional runner Maddie Alm discusses frequently with her clients, and her opinion is often met with push back. Her professional take is: “there’s no such thing as clean eating… It's a social media driven term. I went to school for eight years; there's no clinical definition of clean eating.”
Bucking diet culture, she counters the “clean eating” narrative by promoting mantras like “food is fuel” and “all foods fit”. On her own social media account, she shares examples of meals that are practical, satisfying, AND check the boxes in terms of an athlete’s need for carbohydrates, protein, and fats.
The food isn’t perfectly styled, but it’s refreshingly simple and attainable for athletes of all ages and cooking abilities. You’ll find pancakes with bacon and eggs, pastries, bagels with cream cheese, burgers and fries, cereal and milk, and even frozen pizza.
But for many well-intentioned athletes, accepting that these foods are perfectly capable of promoting long-term health and fueling performance is not simple. And being dismissive of concerns about food quality is not necessarily a great starting place for a conversation on giving your body the nutrition it needs…
When working with someone looking to eat “cleaner”, Maddie digs in on misconceptions around processed foods. “Okay, I get what you're saying that you're kind of trying to limit processed foods, but why?” she modelled. “And what does processed food mean to you?”
One of her favourite examples to get her clients thinking (and perhaps lighten the mood) is baby carrots. Yes, really.
“Those are processed, because they're processed down from their whole form into a smaller carrot.”
A key point is differentiating “processed” from “unhealthy” or “non-nutritional”. No, eating a handful of baby carrots is not the same as eating a handful of candy bars – yet a bit of candy might give your body the simple carbohydrates it needs before exercise and sit better than a handful of carrots…
Ultimately, some foods do have a higher density of vitamins and minerals, BUT all foods have a time and place where they can be helpful in an athlete’s overall diet.
“That’s where the ‘clean eating’ umbrella term can be really misused and cause athletes to be fearful of foods that can be really helpful for them. Pre-made options like frozen burritos, or frozen fruits and vegetables, pre-chopped items – those are really helpful for busy athletes, because they don't have a lot of time to prepare meals. So I try to help them understand that making those choices is always going to be better than not eating or grabbing something like a salad (which might not have enough carbohydrates or protein to meet the needs of an athlete).”
Trying to “eat clean” can also lead to overdoing it on high-fibre foods, which “can actually make you feel sluggish, and have GI issues, and end up underfueling because it's filling, but it's not [very calorically dense].” For many athletes, this too much fibre, GI distress leading to further elimination of foods, chronic underfueling pathway is the root cause of RED-S…
In navigating toward optimum, Maddie’s aim is always to help athletes understand how to eat healthfully without restriction or ‘clean eating’ labels, and to recognise when different foods – whole or processed – might best support their goals.
“My biggest goal is for athletes to never be fearful of a specific type of food.”