A recent study showed that if you are a clean eater you are 67.3% less likely to die of alien invasion than if you eat dirty.
I am kidding, that isn’t a real study. But the hyperbolic nature of that comment is fairly representative of what we hear out of the “clean eating” camp.
Every single diet has a few key principles we can take from them to improve our own nutrition habits.
Now instead of hyperbole and the typical “campiness” we see around diet types, how about we see what clean eating might have to offer us?
1. Eating Clean Often Lowers Food Reward
In a recent book, The Hungry Brain, the neuroscientist Stephan Guyenet beautifully pens the history of dietary and nutrition science and demonstrates how one of the main factors (most likely the most important factor) that drives food intake and controls our dietary habits is the reward that food gives us1.
Put briefly, the more “rewarding” a food is to our brains, the more we will be “wired” to consume it.
The two main things that drive food reward are energy density and palatability.
Energy density is the amount of calories per gram of food. Essentially, the more energy dense a food is the more calories you get per bite of that food.
Foods range all over the “energy density” scale and can be extremely energy dense like olive oil which has 900 calories per 100 grams, or they can be very low in energy density like celery which has 16 calories per 100 grams.
Energy density is one of the qualities of food that drives us to eat more. Stop and think about the last time you consumed something of high energy density, even something simple like a handful of almonds. Was that more or less rewarding than a low energy density food like celery or broccoli?
Decades of experiments have shown that consuming foods that are more energy dense (higher in calories per gram) increase your “food reward” and make you want to eat more foods2. So diets that are structured to consume foods that are lower in energy density are often better for calorie control.
Eating clean has the advantage that foods that are considered “clean” are often lower in energy density. As this is one of the key aspects that controls food intake, by choosing “clean” foods you usually decrease the amount of energy dense food you eat and lower overall calorie intake and food reward. Both of these aspects reduce the likelihood of overeating.
In addition to energy density, the other food quality that increases food reward is the palatability of the food. Palatability is simply, how pleasant a food is.
Here are the qualities of food that increase their palatability:
- Calorie Density
- Umami (aka meaty flavor)
The more palatable a food is, the more likely you are to consume it when you aren’t hungry, or eat past your hunger signals. Think about when you stuff yourself at dinner and you are really full, then someone brings a dish of brownies to the table.
You are more likely to eat those brownies, despite your fullness than you are to eat a bowl of broccoli when you are in the same situation.
When we think about “dirty” foods versus “clean” foods we usually see that “dirty foods” have at least one, and sometimes all five of these qualities whereas “clean” foods are less likely to have them. Foods that are “designed”, such as chips, cookies, brownies, candy, etc. are often designed to maximize palatability.
Think about foods like potato chips, they are salty, fatty, and high in calorie density. Some even take it one step further and add in that umami flavor by adding MSG. Conversely, foods that are clean usually have fewer of the qualities that make them highly palatable.
Selecting foods to include in your diet that minimize palatability can be a good way to lower the risk of constant overconsumption.
2. Eating Clean Can Improve Satiety
Apart from food reward, another key aspect of our diets is how our body’s hunger signals work. Foods that are more satiating can leave us feeling fuller, and feeling full for longer periods of time.
For years we have been told that certain macronutrients, like fat, are the most satiating and carbs are the least. Well it turns out that there are a lot of factors that control how satiating a food is. For example, protein, fiber, and water contents of the test foods correlated positively with satiety, whereas fat content is actually negatively associated3.
Here is a list of some the most satiating foods: Plain potatoes, fish, steak, porridge, apples, and oranges3.
Here is a list of some of the least satiating foods tested. Candy bar, croissant, cake, donuts, peanuts, and potato chips3.
When you look at these lists it is quite clear that simple, “clean” foods are often more satiating than “dirty” foods. This means that by consuming “clean” foods as a large portion of your diet, it is much easier to manage hunger.
It is entirely possible to consume clean foods that are very low on the “satiety index” such as bananas and lentils, but on the whole, “clean” foods are usually more satiating.
3. Eating Clean Can Control Calories Ad Libitum
Over 100 years of nutritional science literature has taught us one thing: overall calorie balance is what determines weight gain and fat loss. We know that the "calories out" piece is often a complicated equation, but the "calories in" is simple; it is the food you consume.
When we stop and think about the fact that “clean” foods usually induce a lower “food reward” and that “clean” foods are usually better at controlling satiety, we can draw a fairly simple conclusion.
Basing a diet around foods that fall into the “clean” eating paradigm can make controlling overall calorie intake without tracking food much easier by lowering food reward and increasing satiety.
Now, you can very easily gain weight eating clean, as you can over consume very calorie rich, “clean” foods like nuts, olive oil, raw butter, etc. But on the whole, a clean eating paradigm could help you see the results you’re hopeful for.
P.S. Check out our diet plan guide for a full explanation of what “Clean Eating” is.