Flexible dieting results in a healthy relationship with food. Rigid or Clean Eating can result in a disordered eating practices. There are no “good” or “bad” foods. Any food in excess can result in weight gain whether its from chicken and rice or sweets. Increases exposure to a new food tends to increase the amount of calories consumed.



  • Flexible dieting results in a healthy relationship with food. A clean eating diet plan can result in disordered eating practices.
  • A healthy relationship with food entails no “good” or “bad” foods. Any food in excess can result in weight gain, whether from chicken and rice or sweets.
  • Intuitive eating will not be a long-term successful weight loss plan if you are not tracking calories.


The eat clean diet has been a very rigid approach to dieting for decades. To lose fat, your meal prep was nothing but celery, chicken breasts, and broccoli, according to the clean eating philosophy. Having a small mini cup of ice cream is considered counterproductive. Let’s clear up the misconceptions regarding fat-loss foods.

There are no “good” and “bad” foods. There are no bad or dirty foods. Is there a best diet for muscle gain and fat loss? Looking at all the popular diets to burn fat, almost all identify a certain food group as the villain. For keto diets, it’s carbohydrates. Low-fat diets, it’s saturated fat. Vegan diets, it’s animal proteins.

All diets work by reducing calorie intake. Whether you are on a low-carb diet/high protein diet with no added sugar or a low-fat diet weight loss program, the calorie deficit is causing the weight loss, not the elimination of a certain food group.

Certain foods are calorically dense and can take up a large portion of one’s calories daily, but how you use those calories is an individual preference. There are hype words in the diet industry, such as “clean eating,” but you can get fat on clean eating just like any other food.


Clean eating views everything as clean/good or dirty/bad foods. There is a website dedicated to clean eating called Eat Clean Bro. Clean eating has been advocated to be the best fat-loss diet because it eliminates unhealthy food. A clean meal plan consists of the simple healthy foods you would expect, such as lean chicken breasts and vegetables.

A clean eating lifestyle teaches you how to eat healthy food every day. For example, almonds, fruits, and vegetables are considered clean foods as part of a clean eating plan. Clean eating would recommend grass-fed butter over regular butter as a part of eating well.


French fries are considered a terrible food and should not be included in a healthy diet plan. French fries cause you to gain fat! Almonds are a much better choice, right? Researchers fed subjects with calorie-matched foods of either almonds, French fries (potato), or French fries with herbs/spice mix for thirty days.

They said to go about your normal activities and consume these foods daily. Each of these foods was approximately 300 calories included as part of their normal dietary intake.

At the end of the study, fat changes were the same for all the groups. Furthermore, the changes in insulin, glucose, or insulin sensitivity were the same for all the groups. This suggests that focusing on calories rather than seeing whether foods are clean or dirty is key to dietary success.(1)


In a recent article on the “World’s Fittest Woman,” Five Time CrossFit Champion Tia-Claire Toomey stated, “Toomey cutting diets consists of eating 2500 calories a day. Her breakfast starts at 790 calories, consisting of a bagel with bacon, two eggs, another half a bagel topped with peanut butter and banana, blueberries, and supplements.”

Peanut Butter? Bagels? This does not seem like clean eating, but Toomey understands as long as she is in a caloric deficit and her energy expenditure is high, there are no bad foods. She can achieve her body composition goals by eating below her maintenance calories.

The article can be found on YouTube titled, “World’s Fittest Woman- FULL DAY OF EATING *CUTTING DIET*” The article also states Toomey keeps track of her calories and macros and that she incorporates about 790 calories’ worth of snacks throughout the day to keep her energy up, including oatmeal, bananas, fruit snacks, and whey protein smoothies.

Portion Control Strategies

In another study, subjects were placed on a diet called the Portion Control Strategies Trail for a year and were divided into three groups: Standard eat less group, portion control, or pre-portioned foods. The portion control group focused on eating less from all food groups, whereas the pre-portioned group was given pre-prepared meals daily.

Problems foods that the subjects identified once they started eating (i.e., pizza, ice cream, potato chips, etc.) they can’t stop were identified and given strategies to reduce calories for successful weight loss. The top three strategies were commonly used for problem foods: Avoid keeping these foods available, avoid eating them, and avoid buying them. The other strategies were limiting the portion size and finding lower-calorie food versions.

At the end of the study, all the groups lost weight, but limiting portion size was the only successful weight-loss strategy. Avoiding food groups was not deemed an effective strategy for successful weight loss.

Another interesting finding was the group that used pre-packaged meals and those who did not limit the problem foods more frequently lost more weight initially than regained at a greater rate. The author concluded that managing portion sizes rather than avoiding problem foods are a more successful weight loss approach for many individuals.(2)


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Clean eating or rigid eating is associated with less long-term weight, whereas flexible dieting or portion control is better for long-term success.

A huge stigma in the fitness industry is that all polyunsaturated fats are bad. Seed oils with polyunsaturated fats are the new villain. They will tell you that Saturated and monounsaturated fats are better for you. The best diets for belly fat loss combine weight training and calorie restriction to reduce fat and gain muscle.

I love to talk about the Muffin Study when people say that all unsaturated fats or seed oils are evil! In the Journal of Clinical Lipidology, researchers had subjects follow a calorie-restricted diet but included calorie-matched muffins.

Participants were randomized to eat 3 muffins daily enriched with either monounsaturated fat (high-oleic sunflower oil) or polyunsaturated fat (safflower oil). The increase in both fats reduced saturated fats in the diet. Both groups lost weight at the end of the study, but the polyunsaturated fats group lost more weight than the monounsaturated fats group.

The polyunsaturated groups had greater increases in blood flow and blood pressure as well.(3) This is just an example of those that vilify any food group, such as seed oils, dairy, carbohydrates, etc., that should realize it’s all about moderation.

As healthy as water is, even water intoxication is a real-life occurrence. You can die from drinking too much water. In essence, the poison is in the dose for everything we eat.


Clean eating diet rules are the consumption of healthy foods such as chicken breasts, rice, vegetables, and healthy fats (i.e., olive oil, walnut oil, etc.). Rigid or clean eating is associated with less long-term weight, whereas flexible dieting or portion control is better for long-term success.(4)

A typical “clean eating” diet emphasizes the consumption of whole, unprocessed foods; others involve eliminating entire food groups such as dairy, refined sugar, gluten, wheat, artificial flavors and additives, and “alkaline” foods. First, a meta-analysis of over 184,802 participants, including over 37 trials, found that dairy consumption with a calorie-restricted diet was associated with lower body weight, lower body fat, reduced waist circumference, and increased lean muscle mass.(5)


A recent survey of college students found that although clean eating was widely perceived as healthy, those with extreme attitudes towards clean eating were associated with eating disorders. In a recent survey of Americans polled about clean eating, although many defined clean eating as healthy, few associated clean eating with calorie restriction or weight loss.(6)

The problem with clean eating is that it shifts a person’s perspective of food being “good” or “bad.” You can still gain weight by following clean eating by consuming too much chicken, rice, and olive oil. You can gain fat on a clean eating diet plan if you overconsume calories!

Calories are key to losing weight. Too many calories from clean eating and processed foods will equally cause weight gain. You can still enjoy small amounts of unhealthy foods and lose body fat. You don’t have to deprive yourself completely.

A typical bodybuilding diet is an example of clean eating in which a competitor will use a rigid meal plan consisting of repetitive foods. Previous research has found that bodybuilders following restrictive diets were deficient in micronutrients.(7) A study found that women dieting for a contest that followed a rigid diet program compared to a calorie-based system (i.e., If It Fits Your Macros) were more likely to be deficient in several micronutrients.

Macro-based diets, which had no restriction in food groups but were still in a caloric deficit, consumed greater protein, Vitamin E, Vitamin K, and Vitamin C.(8) Rigid eating has been found to lead to less dietary adherence and long-term weight loss.

clean eating diet rules, clean eating diet for weight loss, what is clean eating diet, clean eating diet plan, eat clean diet, diet for flexibility, flexible diet, flexible dieting, flexible dieting lifestyle,
A majority of the research favors flexible dieting as a better way of looking at foods.


Researchers have identified the personality traits of dieters into two types: rigid dieters and flexible diets. An all-or-nothing approach to eating, dieting, and weight characterizes rigid control or rigid dieting. On the other hand, Flexible Control is characterized by a more graduated approach to eating, dieting, and weight, in which “fattening” foods are eaten in limited quantities without feelings of guilt. For a comprehensive overview of flexible dieting Alan Aragon book is a great start.

Several studies have mixed results regarding the benefits and consequences of both diet types. When subjects are told to stick to the same food types, there is a decrease in food, whereas when subjects are exposed to a new food, they tend to over-consume that new food. When exposed to a new food item in human studies, participants increased calories by about 22%.(9)

The best example was a study in which subjects were presented with sandwiches with four different fillings. The increased variety of filling increased food intake by 33 percent.(10) Another study found that participants were allowed to eat macaroni and cheese once per week or every day for five weeks. Those that had mac and cheese daily had a decrease in energy intake, whereas those that had mac and cheese once a week had an increase in energy intake.(11)

Rigid Eating vs Clean Eating

This may sound like rigid eating is better for weight loss, but a majority of the research favors flexible dieting as a better way of looking at foods. If you look at long-term studies comparing rigid dieting to flexible dieting, there are differences. Long-term diet studies have found that flexible eating is associated with lower BMI, less frequent binge episodes of foods, and a higher probability of weight loss success.(12)

In a study on diet success in keeping weight off for three years, those that adapted to flexible dieting had greater weight loss than rigid dieting. Those that adopted the most behavioral changes, such as coping with stress, exercise, and food choice, resulted in greater weight loss success.(13)

Looking at any food group as “bad” or trying to eliminate it from the diet can cause long-term adherence problems. The best example was a 2012 study in which subjects were assigned to a diet with either bread as part or not part of their diet.

Both groups lost similar weight and body fat. The no-bread group had the highest dropouts (21.3%) compared to the bread group (6.6%). The no-bread group also had more times when they broke their diet and ate bread, whereas the bread group demonstrated better compliance. Thus, they recommended better dietary adherence with a balanced diet instead of eliminating food groups.

Studies on Clean Eating

A 2021 study examined the impact of both flexible and rigid dieting on body composition and adherence; for the first 10 weeks, subjects adhered to either a flexible diet (i.e., were taught to calculate their calories and macros, make food substitutions, etc.) or a rigid diet (i.e., subjects had a list of foods that they could eat with no substitutions) with a 25% caloric deficit.

Both groups consumed the same protein and split the rest of the calories between carbs and fats. Both groups lost the same amount of weight and maintained their lean mass during the diet; however, what happened after the diet was over was different.

Post-diet, the rigid dieting group significantly increased their calories. The rigid dieting group gained more body fat and had less gains in lean mass compared to the flexible dieting group. (14) It could be suspected that the rigid dieting group experienced greater psychological stress than the flexible dieting that led to a worse outcome after the diet was over, but this is purely speculative.

In sum, viewing foods as bad or good is not having a healthy relationship with food, understanding that you can still have your favorite foods and lose body fat in the right portions. A flexible dieting approach to weight loss is a healthier option to view food based on macros and not “good or bad” foods.

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Intuitive eating is a flexible approach to dieting where an individual eats mainly in response to physiological cues of hunger and satiety, in contrast to eating in response to emotional reasons or to fulfill an arbitrary diet.(15) The diet does not involve counting calories but relying on your internal biological signaling of hunger and fullness to start and stop eating.

There are no counting calories in intuitive eating, so it’s very difficult to know if you are in a calorie deficit. For this reason, some message boards have threads like intuitive eating doesn’t work reddit. 


No foods are inherently good or bad, and individuals shouldn’t restrict themselves.
Experts recommend intuitive eating to foster a “healthy relationship with food” and to prevent individuals from feeling as if they’re dieting or depriving themselves.
Intuitive eating correlates with decreased disordered eating behaviors, healthier food choices, fewer depressive symptoms, and weight loss.(16, 17)

In a study involving 218 retired athletes, many reported that intuitive eating made them feel free from the strict dietary restrictions common in sports and reduced their disordered eating practices.(18)

One retired swimmer commented,

“I used to feel very out of control about my eating and would often binge eat. I ate too much, even though I was training. Now, I pretty much eat when I am hungry and stop when I am full.

I still eat a balanced diet. The biggest change is that my life doesn’t revolve around food anymore. I used to think about food and my weight constantly.”

Thus, intuitive eating can be a healthier way of eating without binge eating, as frequently occurs in some high-level athletes. Intuitive eating may be useful for an athlete after a competition that wants to incorporate healthier food choices into the diet without counting calories.(19)

Intuitive Eating Long Term Success

Intuitive eating will not be a long-term successful weight loss plan if you are not tracking calories. In a study that compared a dieting-based intervention group to an intuitive-based eating group for six months, only the diet intervention group lost weight, whereas the intuitive eating group lost no weight.(20) The main issue with relying on internal cues to eat and fullness is highly subjective and varies considerably among people.

For example, perceptions of fullness can be altered by the portion size of a meal (i.e., people eat more food when they are given larger portion sizes), attention to the food during eating (i.e., people eat more food when they are distracted such as watching TV), the number of people attending the meal (i.e., social gathering increases calories), and the variety of food available (more food variety results in more calories).(21)

One study offered four different portion sizes of macaroni cheese and found that the bigger the portion size, the more that was eaten: 30% more energy (162 calories) was consumed with the largest (1000 g) rather than the smallest portion (500 g). Importantly, hunger and satiety were similar after each meal, and only 45% of the subjects noticed that the portion size differed.(22)

Other studies have found that subjects’ expectations of how satisfying a portion of food will be and the actual energy provided by a portion of food often need to be corrected. For example, subjects thought 200 kcal of pasta and 894 kcal of cashew nuts were expected to result in the same satiation.(23) This suggests that tracking your calories is the only way to ensure you are in a caloric deficit.


  • Flexible dieting results in a healthy relationship with food. Rigid or Clean Eating can result in disordered eating practices.
  • There are no “good” or “bad” foods. Any food in excess can result in weight gain, whether from chicken and rice or sweets.
  • Increases in exposure to a new food tend to increase the number of calories consumed.


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3.         Miller M, Sorkin JD, Mastella L, Sutherland A, Rhyne J, Donnelly P, et al. Poly is more effective than monounsaturated fat for dietary management in the metabolic syndrome: The muffin study. J Clin Lipidol. 2016;10(4):996-1003.

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5.         Geng T, Qi L, Huang T. Effects of Dairy Products Consumption on Body Weight and Body Composition Among Adults: An Updated Meta-Analysis of 37 Randomized Control Trials. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2018;62(1).


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9.         McCrory MA, Burke A, Roberts SB. Dietary (sensory) variety and energy balance. Physiol Behav. 2012;107(4):576-83.

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17.       Olson KL, Emery CF. Mindfulness and weight loss: a systematic review. Psychosom Med. 2015;77(1):59-67.

18.       Plateau CR, Petrie TA, Papathomas A. Learning to eat again: Intuitive eating practices among retired female collegiate athletes. Eating Disorders. 2017;25(1):92-8.

19.       Helms ER, Prnjak K, Linardon J. Towards a Sustainable Nutrition Paradigm in Physique Sport: A Narrative Review. Sports (Basel). 2019;7(7).

20.       Bacon L, Keim NL, Van Loan MD, Derricote M, Gale B, Kazaks A, et al. Evaluating a ‘non-diet’ wellness intervention for improvement of metabolic fitness, psychological well-being and eating and activity behaviors. International Journal of Obesity. 2002;26(6):854-65.

21.       Stevenson RJ, Mahmut M, Rooney K. Individual differences in the interoceptive states of hunger, fullness and thirst. Appetite. 2015;95:44-57.

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23.       Brunstrom JM, Shakeshaft NG, Scott-Samuel NE. Measuring ‘expected satiety’ in a range of common foods using a method of constant stimuli. Appetite. 2008;51(3):604-14.

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