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The Problem With “Clean Food” & “Cheat Food” Terminology.

Put The Donut Down! You’ll Destroy Your Gains! Or Will You?

Posted by NutritionMax - June 16th, 2014

Full disclosure: I detest these words and I am quite aware that many of you will disagree with me. That’s fine, but just hear me out.

Who was the person that made the universal decision to create food segregation?

Well, whoever that person was is responsible for establishing a foreboding cloud that follows us wherever we go and strikes down upon us whenever we get near a “cheat” food. The fear. The confusion. The erroneous food monikers that has been wrongfully ingrained in our minds. All of this needs to end in the fitness world.

People often say “Pizza” “Wings” “Hot Dogs” “Bacon” “Burgers” “Pancakes” “Sushi” to name a few are “cheats” because they are somehow deemed “unhealthy” or the ruin fat loss progress.

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Conversely, anything that is fat-free, super lean that it’s dry to the bone, low in calories and doesn’t have a gram of sugar is somehow a “clean” food that perhaps facilitates fat loss.

Do we honestly believe that eating 1 donut every now and then will magically pack on 5 lbs. of fat?

Do we honestly believe that by only eating the blandest and “safest” foods we can achieve fat loss quicker?

Listen, I get that fact that we all want to make intelligent food decisions for body composition changes or what should be of greater importance, total body health.

*News Flash* There’s no such thing as a “bad” or “good” food.

We have this mindset of sitting on the dividing line between pizza being on one side and cauliflower being on the other where our ability to resist temptation or not dictates the outcome. If we make the “right” choice we are relieved, yet probably unsatisfied and still craving something better. If we make the “wrong” choice, we enjoy those 3 minutes of hedonism and then have enduring thoughts of guilt, self-loathing and regret.

Either way, it creates psychological chaos and stress which can translate into other larger problems.

No single food is inherently “bad” (Although, I’d say a cup of vegetable oil or trans fat is probably pure evil). Otherwise, there is some redeeming quality in every food that provides some level of nourishment. That’s what foods purpose is – to provide the substances we need to function.

Many of us who are interested in losing fat strictly avoid these “cheat” foods because of the fear that one meal will sabotage all of our efforts, but let me remind you that that logic is nonsense. Our biochemistry doesn’t work that way. The one thing IIFYM has going for it is how it doesn’t cause this food segregation. Although, free-for-all eating of whatever you want because it fits your macros is far from a good idea too. 50g of carbs from ice cream is NOT the same as 50g from oats.

There is a place for any of these foods in our diet whether it is just for optimal health, leisure or with dieting. It’s important not to lose our sanity by removing all of our favorite foods to no avail, but also not to go over board and eat a particular food with abandon. Namely, I’m speaking about the high carb/sugar foods.

If you’re a bit apprehensive about what the effect ice cream may have on your body, then just eat it after a brutal work out where those calories are actually put to better use.

And actually, that’s the real truth. The timing of when you decide to eat a really sweet/carb dense food during the course of a day is likely more important than the actual concept of eating the sweet food.

Really though, there’s nothing “bad” about pizza, pancakes and burgers. Sure, there’s sub-optimal versions of these depending on the sourcing, but when it’s a high quality, organic and pasture-raised, it’s the “cleanest” food of all.

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Tell me, what’s so terrible about pizza? The high carb content of the dough may be the only “problem” you have with it. If so, fit it into a time where it fits with your fitness goals. If the ingredients are organic and loaded full-fat meat and cheese, it’s truly a real winner.

Deciding to eat a “cheat” food shouldn’t be as complicated as we make it out to be. Sure, eating 10 cupcakes isn’t going to help your fat loss cause, but eat the 1 damn cupcake if you feel you want to. Depriving ourselves of high carb/sugar foods for weeks on end just sets us up for a massive binging, crave feast. With all things accounted for in your diet, you can sincerely include deserts and whatnot in your diet. Eating “clean” foods or what we consider “healthy” is fine and should be the main goal. I get that idea that we call foods “clean” because they help us stay on track, but what we think of as a “clean” food, really isn’t. Egg white substitutes, fat- free meat and cheese, reduced fat butter are not the best choices, but we don’t need to label them as “clean.”

Not to deviate too much, but no one is really eating “clean” anyway. We are exposed to toxins and undesirable compounds every single day in our food supply. That’s just a fact we have to live with.

I will say that yes, there are certain ingredients in foods like vegetable oils and trans fat that really should be avoided at all costs. A food containing those isn’t a “cheat,” it’s just pure junk for your body. However, don’t get me wrong… this isn’t about 100% avoiding all of this because chances are we won’t. I’m simply bringing awareness to the misconception of the terms.

Just to be clear, a calorie isn’t a calorie. Each food has a different impact on our biochemistry at the cellular level. Food can’t be viewed in isolation. All of the food eaten in one day dictates the total impact on our cells.

Leave room for your favorite foods here and there, you’ll do just fine. Remember, we live on Earth to enjoy life. How can you enjoy life if you spend all of your days trying to look good by restricting what you eat?

This is more about the mislabeling of foods as “good” and “bad” because there is no existence of a scale from 1-10 that places a food somewhere. So, do yourself a favor and stop calling foods these insulting terms. Eat intelligently for your body and mind. Eat the “less nutritious” foods still, just be strategic about it. Eat the “more nutritious” foods a majority of the time, just don’t be so stubborn. Do this and you’ll succeed physically and probably more importantly, in your social environment.

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posted by NutritionMax
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NASM CPT, Master's in Human Nutrition
Precision Nutrition Sports & Exercise Nutritionist

Justin Janoska is a professional fitness coach and a clinical nutritionist who specializes in helping people with challenging diseases. He runs an online coaching platform where he helps people like you reach build muscle or lose weight.

For an intimate coaching experience, visit

Twitter: NutritionMax
Instagram: nutrition_max

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Very nice article! 

I always slip up on weekends and sometimes so bad that I only feel normal again on wed-thursday something =) but overall I control what I eat and feel good about it. 

Scott_Herman  Edit  Delete  Close

yeah @brolle81, we all have weekends like that!  Just stay in control man!


This is a very valuable article for those who are brainwashed!!! Do you follow Layne Norton? This sounds like it could be written by him! Haha


nAlthough eating healthy is great...and a well balanced diet is just as or even more important than exercise....were only here once.  If your friends are going out for wings...go  eat wings  have a beer....but you dont need 50 wings and 12 beer.   You have to enjoy your life, and you have to enjoy your food.   I know I cant live off bland baked chicken breasts 7 days a week and be happy...I need bag of Doritos now and again....or a great IPA to wash down my super...if anything...that will just make me push myself harder the next day in the gym.  Im not training to be on a cover of a magazine...I dont need to get below 12....Im healthy and Im happy.  Ive never tasted a really truly healthy meal and thought...well this is great.  Im sorry I cant get excited about looking down at my plate and seeing plain asparagIm still gonna have some Doritos...Im just wont clean out the entire LARGE bag in a bag will last me a few weeks.  I eat healthy 95% of the time so I can still enjoy the "bad" foods once in a while...and you know what...I enjoy them more now than I did when thats all I ate...


@nutritionmax : Good article and i agree with many of the points. It never killed me to eat a pizza with chicken after working out. And "bad" foods are only bad when they are not the exception anymore but become your standard food again. It's how you eat 'most' of the time which defines the results.


It is kind of similar for me. I was actually a total sweet-tooth, and could eat choclate/chips/cola all day long without becoming 'fat'. Once i decided to get back into shape after several years of pause, i wanted to do it right and change it all. I got rid of all processed sugar- / fat- intake, and also switched over to self prepared food (except for certain things that you can't prepare on your own), no more ready-done-put-in-oven/microwave foods. If you put the ingredients in your food by yourself, you know it's going to be 'good'.


The point i wanted to get to here is, after i got rid of this nasty sugar addiction that the unnatural intake of sugar causes, i actually stopped craving it. And remember i spend the last years with never worrying about it and just eating as much as i wanted. And surprisingly i feel - like @jmboiardi mentioned as well - almost ill, when i eat some now. (same goes for fatty food - it really turns my belly upside down).


I have become a believer in the whole "eat the right amount of everything" in every meal (in my case: fat / protein / carbs in the 30-30-40 ratio) Doing so, your body never gets into a deficit making you want immense amounts of one or the other. It really all nails down to 'what' and 'when' you eat.


And if, in addition, you eat several meals (6-8) over the day, it also never feels like you'd be missing something. You surely can't manage to always get your perfect ratio (unless you are going fully OCD on your food calculations ^.-). I am just doing it by a rule of thumb.. if i think i missed a bit of one thing, i'll try to eat a bit more of that type in the next meal to fill that gap.


ok that was enough text for now :) thanks again for the article.

crood  Edit  Delete  Close

Very true. Also you of course have been right about the aspect ratio being a bit different for everybody and of course for different goals. That sentence formulation was missing that little addition, thus i changed it to "in my case" :) Thanks for pointing it out.Aside from that, and in regards to sugar yes, it impacts the reward system in your brain, releases more dopamin than eating a balanced meal (and as some drugs do) and as far as i know it also tempers with your "i am full" feeling and leads to overeating beyond actual need. That being said sugar is no devil, we need it. Just the right types and amounts : )

NutritionMax  Edit  Delete  Close

Truth. Sugar's impact on the brain in very interesting and has an effect similar to drug in terms of dopamine release and pleasure - purely on a hormonal basis, I'm saying. I get what you're saying otherwise and I agree, although the "perfect" ratio you speak of is a bit subjective, as I don't think there is any ratio required or deemed ideal. Everyone has different needs and goals as you're aware.

Scott_Herman  Edit  Delete  Close

I am the same way. Since I stopped eating so much sugar I don't crave it. I used to eat Skittles ALL the time.. but now.. I still love them.. but can't kill a 1 pound bag like I use to!


Great article man, I always like to have me some sort of cheat snack every now and then on my diet and of course still being on a defict, helps me alot but I don't make it a habbit ... It's all about moderation you know. That's what our parents always said




Really good article! It was helpful in terms of how I see food. Thanks man.

Scott_Herman  Edit  Delete  Close

I agree. @nutritionmax does a great job! I hope he has more to come!


Very nice article.




All good points here. I have found that over the years of eating very nutritious foods that my body does not crave quick sugar foods or less nutritious food and I actually feel quite ill if I eat them even in small amounts. I agree the terms "clean" and "dirty" and "good" versus "bad" have been used to death. Other than true metabolic poisons like trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, and food colorings and dyes, one needs to look at the nutrition to calorie ratio. As you mentioned, 50g of carbs from ice cream while calorically the same as 50g of oats (for the most part) is not equal at a nutritional level for each of the calories consumed.


To me, the need to still want to eat less nutritionally beneficial foods either frequently or occassionally points to some deficiency in the diet. The body is very smart and it remembers when it needs or wants a specific nutrient or hormonal effect what food supplied it. I understand people need to live life and an occassional indulgence is neither bad nor harmful but I believe if one has trained one's metabolism and supplied it with all the nutrients it needs thru proper nutrition, the "need" for less nutritional food either disappears completely or is relegated to life events where one wishes but does not need to indulge :-)



NutritionMax  Edit  Delete  Close

@scramble There's sugar in a lot of dried fruit. Apricots are brutal. Just need to be mindful.

Scott_Herman  Edit  Delete  Close

@scramble, once you start with dried apricots and pineapple... you can't stop! haha