Eating Clean vs Flexible Dieting

What is the best way to lose weight?


If you've read the newspaper, searched the web for anything related to nutrition, or you have a friend who eats Paleo (they tell everyone), you have probably heard the argument over which is the superior way of eating, Paleo or flexible dieting?

Paleo (also known as 'Clean Eating' and 'Caveman Diet', among other things, is built around eating foods that were available to our ancestors thousands of years ago. These foods are generally along the lines of meat, fish, vegetables and nuts. Foods that have come into society more recently (since saber tooth tigers became extinct) such as dairy and grains, are often off the menu (depending on how strict you are). The goal is to reduce processed food intake and increase nutrient density. Paleo diets also tend to be lower in carbohydrate, because your ancestors couldn't eat ice-cream and pizza (their loss).

Flexible dieting (also known as 'If It Fits Your Macros') is based on the premise that you can eat ANY food that you like, provided your total intake for the day fits your energy requirements (KJ or calories), which are often broken down into macronutrients (carbohydrates, fat and protein). The goal is to control energy intake in line with your goals. Eat more food to gain weight and eat less to lose it. The aim is to develop a nutrition plan that does not eliminate certain foods, with the idea this will help promote sustainability, because you can eat SOME ice-cream and pizza if you play it smart.



Paleo diets are high in fresh fruit and vegetables, which increases your fiber intake and nutrient density. This has the added benefit of aiding satiety, meaning you stay fuller for longer after a well-designed meal. Processed foods are eliminated, which eliminates high-energy junk foods that are often consumed in excess.

Flexible dieting can teach the client how much food they need to eat and also educate them on the macronutrients from different food sources. Since no foods are eliminated from the diet, you can have the occasional ice-cream and pizza, provided you don't eat too much. This is proposed to minimise binges, whereby a client 'gives up' on their diet for a short period of time (usually one meal or one day) and eat excessive amounts of food.  


The Paleo diet can be hard to put in place. First of all, how do you define a Paleo food? Is a supermarket banana Paleo because your ancestors had access too it, or is it not, because this might have been sprayed by pesticides, which your ancestors hadn't discovered yet? I don't know...

The elimination of complete food groups can also be problematic. Removing grains and dairy completely from a diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies over the long term. Seeing a Nutritionist/Dietitian would be a good idea to gain recommendations on how to restore these nutrients, but it's hard to find a Dietitian to endorse this way of eating, because they don't like Pete Evans (that's another article in itself).

Flexible dieting also has it's downfalls. While eating some ice-cream and pizza on a diet sounds great, since these foods are so energy dense, you can only eat a small amount, which can be just as hard as not eating it at all! There is also the fact that these foods can be 'trigger foods', which you find extremely difficult to eat in small amounts and subsequently overeat when you can access them, think peanut butter...

There are also some limitations to the initial calculation of macronutrients, which are usually based on basic equations.  These equations cannot take into account muscle mass, previous dieting history and food intake, which means they should not be taken as gospel. There is also the fact that two days of exactly the same activity can use somewhat different amounts of energy, due to hormonal and other physiological fluctuations. 



Even though their followers place these diets and at either end of a scale, they actually have quite a lot in common. 

Flexible dieting often associates Paleo with a recently-popular term called 'orthorexia' which is an unhealthy relationship with food. To my understanding, orthorexia is not a medical term, but it is used frequently in this field, rightly or wrongly. The idea is that eating Paleo creates an obsession with eating only Paleo foods and subsequent distress regarding finding these Paleo foods to eat and eliminating anything non-paleo. Imagine your friends are going to a non-Paleo restaurant for dinner, what do you do?!

Now that's a good point, and there probably is some obsession to some degree. However, flexible dieting has the same problem, although it's just not related to the foods available. If you are recording your macronutrients, each meal needs to be weighed (or estimated) and the macronutrients need to be recorded (usually via a phone app). If you don't do this, you don't know what you have consumed and what macronutrients (and subsequent meal options) you have left for the day. Now I have tracked macronutrients before, and there is certainly some thought and potentially obsession about making sure your food hits those macronutrient targets!

The other common factor is guilt. If you are on a Paleo diet and you eat a non-Paleo food, you'll feel guilty. Likewise, if you exceed your macronutrients while flexible dieting, you won't feel to good either. Both diets claim to be guilt-free, but that's only true if you never mess up, which we all do!

Binges, often related to the guilt are also a consideration. The issue is when you go off Paleo or exceed your macronutrients for whatever reason, you throw in the towel for a period of time, because 'that day is already ruined.' Now if your goal is weight loss, that's probably not going to be ideal...


So which is the best?

Both ways of eating have their benefits and detractions. My preference is to be somewhere in the middle - eat more wholefoods and have an idea of your nutrient requirements, but don't go to any extremes. 

I give Integrated Fitness & Nutrition clients macronutrient recommendations and guidelines, because they are a useful tool. They allow clients to look at new recipes that suit each meal and their overall needs. It also means that if they are caught without food, they have an idea of what foods will suit their needs for that meal.

I went to an Phil Learney's Advanced Nutritional Programming seminar in London two weeks ago. One of the key points he made resonates strongly with my approach and beliefs towards nutrition for body recomposition and performance.

When both sides are throwing rocks at each other, let them doing it. Stand somewhere in the middle, collect as many rocks as you can, and build a house!
— Phil Learney

This quotes makes sense to me, and hopefully you too!

PS. Why does Paleo have an obsession with talking about how our ancestors got chased by sabre tooth tigers?

This really needs to be answered...