Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Calories and Clean Eating: Let's Do This

The new NZ eating guidelines.

I realise I'm a bit behind the crowd here, but I'm finally joining the 'does clean even eating exist?' internet stoush.  Liz and Kek both got right on it. *applause*

In my mad little mind, this question jigsaws with 'which matters: calories or content?' and 'are foods either 'good' or 'bad'?

What's the deal?

Do Calories Matter for Body Composition?

Yes. I've not found one scientific article that suggests otherwise.


1. On some nutrition plans and approaches you don't have to think about them so much because the plan naturally controls both calorie intake and appetite, usually through dictating content (Paleo, Vegan, Atkins, Low-Carb) and/or controlling portions and eating frequency (Zone, Body for Life, Intermittent Fasting).

2. Calories matter a LOT more if you are trying to get from 'average/normal' to 'lean'. It's those last 5kg's that will fight you, and I don't know many people that get from average to lean without putting some thought into calories, content and portion sizes.

3. Some people will overeat on any plan (yes, even a very 'clean', boring diet), usually because they are out of touch their true hunger level.  People that use food to soothe their emotions will often have to become 'calorie aware' in order to establish a ballpark daily intake that is realistic to their goals and work on the emotional stuff.

As regards 'counting calories', that's a tricky business and, even weighing and measuring, you could be out by hundreds every day. For a start, the Atwater factors (4 cals per gram of carbs or protein, 9 cals per gram of fat) are averages. For example, not all types of carbohydrate yield 4 calories, but for the sake of convenience it's 'near enough'. Interestingly, a whole food diet may be harder to estimate the energy content of anyway - possibly because it contains more types of carbs/protein/fat. I think it's more important just to be calorie aware.

Calorie awareness means having an idea of where the things you eat lie in terms of 'higher' or 'lower' in calories.  A.K.A 3 x banana = mars bar, or 1 x large chicken breast = 1 very small fatty steak, or 2 tbsp oil quadruples the energy content of your salad. Basic 'rules of thumb'.

What is "Clean Eating"?

Is this really an area of confusion?  I asked around and, among my friends, the answer was unanimous.

'Clean Eating' is minimising processed food and additives/pesticides.  You can be a 'clean eating' vegan or a junkfoody one.  'Clean' is 'as nature made it'.

Are there 'Good Foods' and 'Bad Foods'

Yes, but as Paracelsus muttered: "the dose makes the poison".  It's pretty well established that trans-fats do awful things to your arteries and I'd say they are 'badbadbad' and would prefer they didn't exist. But, one slice of commercial fudge won't hurt you.

As for other foods, say refined sugar, well it all depends on where you are at and on your metabolism. A lean person running a marathon may benefit from intakes of glucose or sucrose that would lead a couch potato to fatty liver disease.

I avoid nightshades because they aggravate my arthritis, other people can eat them.  I can eat foods now that used to cause me problems because I'm fitter and have put time into healing my health issues (e.g. leaky gut).  If you develop a health problem, go through a period of stress or get yourself into a nutrient deficiency, it may require a temporary healing diet, supplementation or permanent diet change.

Therefore, not only does one diet not fit all people, but one diet doesn't even fit one person all the time.  As you change, and you will, so do your nutritional requirements and tolerances.

So, instead of 'good and bad', I think an 'eat more of this, less of this' or 'everyday food / sometimes food' or 'not right now may be ok later' approach is more sane. I don't think many people become healthy enough to ditch veges and live on cake. Sorry.  I think everyone can benefit from learning to love veges a bit more. Tastebuds can be trained like circus animals, even the most rebellious ones.

One type of food I 'do' think is bad for you?  Any food you hate to eat, ate but wish you hadn't, or any food you are scared of, or that stresses you out. Let's not forget that humans aren't just a body. We have a psyche and a soul.  The state of those affects physical health at least as much as what goes into the face-hole. Cake or an awesome salad eaten with a friend (even if that friend is your own bad self), at leisure, and fully enjoyed is a whole different beastie to cake bought secretly and eaten in haste to smother feelings of self-hate or salad stuffed down only because it's 'on your plan'.  Very different.

The Problem with Research

I've noticed that part of the 'ideal diet / clean eating' problem is that people find a piece, or huge pile, of research that seems to support their stance, or refute someone else's, then try to beat everyone into submission with it. That's never going to work.

Nutrition research is inherently problematic (especially when investigating macronutrients) and almost never conclusive because of this little quirk:

You can't just manipulate one factor.

That is, if you lower carbs you must increase something else. If you don't, then you automatically decrease the energy content, and that in itself has an effect.  Reduce gluten and you'll likely end up with a different mix of starches and sugars in addition to less gluten etc. etc. etc.  Add in the fact that it's not usually feasible to lock people up in a controlled environment and you can see how complicated it gets.

So, arguing that there is or isn't enough research to prove this or that point is a bit.. pointless.  Research indicates things, but it takes a LOT of diverse and expensive research to get a clear idea of cause and effect in nutrition.

What I think really matters

Gut health, a sane, flexible and enjoyable attitude toward food, basic calorie awareness, an individual approach and self-monitoring to see what works for you.


  1. yes, you're spot on about the research side of things. What matters? you've summed it up nicely in my opinion ;)

  2. Great post there Sara. Totally agree! Over the years I've read heaps of stuff regarding binge eating, and do agree with most of it and that different things work for different people. But the one thing that bugs me personally is how some authors say that to stop binge eating and not gain fat/or even better get fitter and leaner, you need to stop 'restricting' food. I think they interpret 'restricting' with 'dieting' and instead like the word 'abundance when we desire'. In my opinion it's a game of life all round, you need to 'restrict/sacrifice' to a degree in some areas to make 'gains' in other areas, - think budgets, work commitments, free time etc as well as fitness and body composition and health. I think it's about getting a good individual balance and working out how to achieve the things meaningful to the individual. So I'm trying not to be quick to judge! I do think most people can lose fat while incorporating their fav cake and wine into their diets........but the amount is dependent on the person, and probably can't be in endless abundance if their taste buds are trained that way. Great post!

    1. Pip, there's a bunch of research showing that a healthy controlled diet is an important part of treating binge eating disorder. In many binge eaters, part of what drives the binge eating is anxiety, including anxiety about gaining weight! So, you don't get a handle on the anxiety if they are anxious that the treatment will make them fatter. I should write a post on that, but eating disorders are hard to write concisely about because they are very complex.

  3. Yep Sara, very complex topic I think! And very true regarding the anxiety thing I think and weight gain. In some cases 'legalizing' food is scary for some and can be interpreted as a following a desire to binge. I feel for now I've got a good handle on the issue and have for a while.

  4. Beautifully and sanely said, huzzah! :)

    1. Shauna! YAY! I thought you might have abandoned the internets. Will go check your latest right now.

  5. You just saved me writing at least three more posts... phew. :)

    Oh, on the "clean eaters" - Kiwis must be more sane than Aussies, or at least the ones you hang out with. The people in my social media feed who proclaim that they're "eating clean" exist on chicken, fish, egg whites, veggies and protein shakes. Bleurgh. And they have a conniption at the idea of cake or ice cream. Obviously mental.

  6. I love your post, thanks for sharing! :) Btw, you have a pretty blog!
    Kissed from Serbia,

  7. Laura Cartner2:13 pm

    Hi Sara, could you please tell me more about how the nightshade vegetables affect artritis or inflammatory conditions in general? Is there a lot of evidence for this or did you find this more from elimination? If you have any links for this research I would be really interested, thanks

    1. Laura, I DID have a huge pile of research, and still do, but am not yet reorganised after the earthquakes (if you are not a kiwi, you might not know about the Chch earthquakes, let's just say, boy did they mess up my office! haha). It's not woo woo science. The idea is that certain people are sensitive to the nightshade toxin, and in these people, the toxin slows down the rate of cartilage repair. Your body is always breaking down and rebuilding cartilage, but the nightshade toxin slows down the repair phase. What I noticed first was that my arthritis got WORSE on a gluten free diet, then I started researching food causes that weren't gluten. Guess what? Most gluten free products contain potato starch, and that's a lot of nightshade. Here is one lay article that makes a good read.
      I'm not sure how nightshades affect inflammation 'in general'. It's on my 'to do' to look into it.. but my 'to do' is kind of long right now, sorry. Do you have arthritis? (email me if you like)


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