Simply eating healthy can often help you lose fat, build muscle, and get healthy.
Making smarter food choices can lead to consuming less calories. But not always.
You can, quite easily, still consume excess calories eating "clean" and "healthy" foods.
This is especially true if you're following typical nutrition advice of consuming several small meals every few hours1.
You may feel better about yourself by swapping your morning donut out for a healthy fruit smoothie, but it may not be a smart choice if your goals are to lose weight.
Just because a food is healthy, clean, nutritious, or whatever other term may be attached to it doesn't mean it's low in calories.
And if you're still eating too many calories you will not lose fat, and possibly even gain some, regardless of your food choices.
The "Clean Eating" Experience
For years, I was the poster child for "clean eating". Absolutely nothing I ate was processed or had added sugar went into my body. Seriously, I wouldn't even eat things like wheat bread, because it was processed.
Sounds enjoyable huh? You would think I would’ve been as lean and healthy as I had ever been during that time. But I wasn't. I was far from it.
Why? All of my healthy food was adding up to more calories than I needed to consume to lose fat. My diet consisting entirely of carb sources like oatmeal, sweet potatoes, rice, and fruit along with plenty of protein and healthy fat was definitely nutrient dense, but it was also calorically dense.
To help understand how that's possible, I’d like to provide an example of what many people's idea of eating healthy would look like. You can clearly see just how many calories a "healthy diet" can add up to.
Breakfast: Cup of oatmeal, banana, tablespoon of peanut butter, scoop of protein - 470 cals
Snack 1: Apple, handful of almonds, string cheese - 360 cals
Lunch: Chicken, brown rice - 470 cals
Snack 2: Protein bar - 380 cals
Dinner: Turkey burger, wheat bun, sweet potato - 660 cals
Snack 3: Protein shake, 2 tablespoons peanut butter - 440 cals
Total: 2,780 cals
While a diet like that would certainly be healthy and provide plenty of nutrients, it definitely wouldn't lead to weight loss for most people. Unless you're someone who is quite active, 2,780 calories would likely only maintain your weight at best and very likely lead to weight gain for many individuals who lead a sedentary lifestyle.
Not only that, but a diet that clean would be extremely unsatisfying, hard to stick with, time consuming, and also very expensive over time.
Another problem with this type of diet is most people would have to include at least one cheat day or cheat meal per week to keep their sanity. That cheat day could get quite crazy for many people too, and easily turn into a complete binge following those several days of deprivation.
In reality though, their healthy diet was already providing too many calories and the cheat meal or day would be far from warranted.
The "Flexible Dieting" Approach
So, if just eating healthy isn't the answer and potentially could even lead to weight gain rather than loss, what should you do?
Well, there's only one way to guarantee results and that's by tracking your intake and controlling how many calories you consume. Your caloric intake is always the most important factor in determining the affect your diet has on your body and therefore is the one thing you must control if you wish to lose fat.
To lose fat you must consume less calories than you need each day. And while doing that can certainly require a bit of discipline, it doesn't have to suck and be bland, boring, and expensive like many people think. It can be quite enjoyable, affordable, and sustainable with the right approach.
I no longer eat that extremely healthy diet. I now eat foods like ice cream, cookies, donuts and any other food I want each day, and I am able to easily get and stay leaner than I ever was before. I now have control over my calorie intake.
Sure, I still consume plenty of "healthy" foods, but only when I actually want them and need them, not because I feel like it's my only option. I still consume enough of them to get all the nutrients I need to keep me healthy, keep me full, and make sure I have plenty of energy throughout the day.
But I now know there's no need to continue consuming more of those nutritious and healthy foods past that point. Doing so only adds more calories and potentially more than I need.
Related: How To Build A Fat Loss Meal Plan
I also know that provided I consume the right amount of calories each day for my goals, consuming some less nutrient-dense "junk" food will do no harm to my progress and results2.
So, let's take a look at what a diet like this could look like:
Breakfast: Egg White Delight, black coffee - 250 cals
Snack 1: Light & Fit Greek Yogurt - 80 cals
Lunch: Chic-Fil-A grilled chicken sandwich, fruit cup, diet lemonade - 400 cals
Snack 2: Bag of beef jerky - 240 cals
Dinner: Small thin crust ham and pineapple pizza, diet soda - 860 cals
Snack 3: Cup of low fat ice cream - 240 cals
Total: 2,080 cals
Personalizing Your Diet
Obviously that's a very random example. Hardly looks as unenjoyable and unsustainable as the typical healthy diet right? All the specifics of the diet (the food choices, meal timing, number of meals, and food combinations) could be tweaked endlessly to meet the needs and preferences of the individual.
You could eat less calories in the morning and save more for later in the day, eat a huge breakfast and eat less later in the day, skip the snacks and add calories to the main meals, eat nothing in the morning and save all of your calories for later in the day, or even eat a Twinkie diet with some protein shakes and vegetables thrown in3.
What matters most is the total calories and the overall energy balance. At 2,080 total calories a diet like the one above could lead to sustainable and steady fat loss in most individuals who are training at least a few days per week.
It would also be wise to include some vegetables in the diet. Though I didn't specifically include them, they could easily be added in any of the meals for very little additional calories and plenty of nutrients to keep you healthy and satiated.
Another benefit is that this diet would require hardly any planning and meal prep. Say goodbye to having your co-workers hate you when you pop open a can of tuna in the office or having to carry around a bag full of Tupperware containers.
If you're not seeing results despite constantly eating healthy, maybe it's time you try a different and possibly better approach.
Just eating healthy can work for some, but it's far from a guarantee.
- Cameron, Jameason D., Marie-Josée Cyr, and Eric Doucet. "Increased meal frequency does not promote greater weight loss in subjects who were prescribed an 8-week equi-energetic energy-restricted diet." British journal of nutrition 103.08 (2010): 1098-1101.
- Sloth, Birgitte, et al. "No difference in body weight decrease between a low-glycemic-index and a high-glycemic-index diet but reduced LDL cholesterol after 10-wk ad libitum intake of the low-glycemic-index diet." The American journal of clinical nutrition 80.2 (2004): 337-347.
- Park, Madison. "Twinkie diet helps nutrition professor lose 27 pounds." CNN News (2010).