You want to be healthy.
You want to be lean.
You want to live as long as possible.
So you eat a healthy diet.
You do your best to keep up with the latest news on what foods are healthy, and which aren’t.
You read blogs, and learn why some foods contribute to cancer, cause inflammation, and make you fat. Then you don’t eat these foods, even if you love them.
You avoid foods you always thought were harmless, like bread, or fruit, or milk. You’re scared, just like I was.
What if these foods weren’t as bad as you’ve been lead to believe? What if you didn’t have to live in constant fear of damaging your health, or gaining fat, if you ate a “bad” food? What if you could finally relax about your diet?
You’ll learn the answers to those question in this podcast.
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**Armi Legge:** Your favorite foods are poisoning you. Even foods that you thought were safe are actually destroying your health, making you fat, and shortening your life. That’s what you’ve been taught to believe. If there’s one mistaken idea that has become more embedded in the health and fitness industry than any other, it’s that certain foods are bad for you. This myth is so entrenched that it’s promoted by everyone from gym rats, to doctors, to public health authorities.
Most diet books are based on the idea that bad foods will keep you from losing weight or slow your progress. There is no doubt that what you eat can have a massive impact on your health, performance, and body composition. However, there is no evidence that you can’t achieve all these things while enjoying any food you like. In this podcast, I’m going to show you why.
My name is Armi Legge and you are listening to Evidence Radio, the podcast that helps you simplify your health and fitness so you can move on with your life.
Chapter 1: Clean eating doesn’t exist.
“Healthy,” “clean,” “safe,” “wholesome,” “good.” These are the words people use to describe foods they believe you should eat. On the other hand, these are the words for foods that you should not eat, according to certain people. “Unhealthy,” “unclean,” “unsafe,” “unwholesome,” or if you’re a 1984 reader, “double plus ungood.” The biggest problem with the idea of clean eating is that “clean” has no objective definition. Everyone believes different foods are “unclean.”
Vegetarians vilify animal meat. Vegans avoid all animal products. Bodybuilders often avoid milk, fruit, and white bread. Paleo people believe grains, legumes, dairy, refined oils, added salt, sugar, alcohol, and some vegetables are bad for you. The USDA in the United States government says that saturated fat, cholesterol, red meat, egg, trans fats and other similar foods are also bad for you. People who eat low carb diets preach that sugar and other carbs make you fat. Hippies believe that artificial sweeteners, processed foods, cooked foods, and packaged foods are toxic.
It’s safe to say that for every food, there is someone saying it’s dangerous. There is no way to define “clean eating,” which means there is no way to measure or quantify what effect this diet might have on your health. There is also no way to objectively compare a clean diet to other diets.
Throughout this podcast, I’ll use examples from all the categories I just mentioned and let you decide which group I’m referring to. The one thing these ideas have in common is that there are bad foods that should be avoided or limited and good foods that you can eat.
This broad definition can be further classified into two forms.
1. There are good and bad foods and you should never eat any of the bad foods.
2. There are good and bad foods and you should only eat a small number of the bad foods to limit the damage.
Both of these ideas are irrational, unscientific, and unhealthy.
Chapter 2: Three reasons clean eating is a myth.
We will start by looking at the three potential ways a food could decrease your health, lifespan, or body composition. Then we’ll see if any of these foods actually meet these criteria for being unhealthy.
There are three ways a food could negatively affect your health, longevity, or body composition.
1. Contributing to a caloric excess, which leads to negative health problems from being overweight.
2. Causing nutrient deficiencies by diluting the nutrient density of your diet.
3. By directly interfering with your body’s functions, causing specific diseases, increasing fat gain, or accelerating aging.
Let’s see if any foods meet these criteria.
Myth #1: Some foods are more fattening than others.
Truth: There is no evidence that any food will cause more fat gain than the excess calories it provides. There is also no evidence that eating a certain food will help you lose fat.
Fat loss is ultimately about calories in vs. calories out. Any food that has calories can technically be bad for you if you eat too much in excess. This includes chicken breasts, sweet potatoes, whole grains, and even vegetables. The reason many people consider these “clean foods” is because they tend to be harder to overeat than things like cookies or ice cream. For this reason, some people refer to things like sweets, baked goods, soda, and other junk food as “fattening.” This is an inaccurate and short-sighted view point. It assumes you will overeat these foods regardless of the rest of your diet.
If your diet has enough satiating power to keep you satisfied and happy, then there is nothing wrong with consuming some less filling treats. This idea also assumes people can’t moderate their food intake, which they can. For some people, eating enough to gain or maintain weight can be a struggle. In these cases, higher calorie or more palatable foods can be extremely useful for meeting their calorie needs, not to mention being more enjoyable. You don’t find people saying ice cream and cookies are lifesaving for an anorexic like me, or muscle building for someone trying to get bigger.
This doesn’t mean you need to eat junk food to recover from anorexia or build muscle, but there is nothing wrong with having some junk food to accomplish both of those goals. The problem is that people look at these foods in isolation and assume they’re unhealthy regardless of the context.
Remember these two points:
1. The potential to over consume a food does not mean that you will.
2. Some people need to eat more and higher calorie, more palatable, and less filling foods can be an advantage– even a necessity.
However, you are also concerned with your long-term health. You want to make sure you’re giving your body everything it needs to perform optimally and you don’t want to deprive your body of essential nutrients. This brings us to myth number two.
Myth #2: Certain foods are bad for you because they are low in nutrients. The second way a food could potentially be unhealthy is by displacing more nutrient dense foods by providing empty calories.
You’ve probably seen articles about how most people are deficient in certain nutrients and how you simply can’t afford to eat any empty calories. You’ve heard that all of your food has to come from nutrient-dense sources, and even then you should take some supplements.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a formal definition of what “nutritious” means. Researchers and diet authors have tried repeatedly to come up with a system that ranks foods based on points or some other means . . . unsuccessfully.
The problem is that each system uses arbitrary and unscientific means to grade different foods. The USDA is still heavily biased against anything high in saturated fat and favors anything high in whole grains. Other ranking systems, like the ANDI score, place a greater emphasis on antioxidant levels despite the fact that there is little evidence a food’s antioxidant, or flavonol, levels are a good representation of its overall healthiness.
Classifying foods as healthy or unhealthy based on a score is a pointless and unscientific endeavor. In this case, common sense should prevail. It’s true that some foods are far more nutrient dense than others. Cake icing doesn’t have the same nutrient content as an apple. As long as the majority of your calories come from whole, nutrient-dense foods, there is no evidence you can’t meet your micronutrient needs while still consuming some empty calories.
Research has shown that most people would have to eat roughly 20% of their total calories from refined sugar before it became impossible to meet their micronutrient needs. People who eat tons of sugar are generally malnourished. However, most people who are serious about their health aren’t eating anywhere close to 20% of their daily calories from sugar.
It’s a funny paradox. The people who are most worried about eating sugar are generally the people eating the least amount already. Its the obese person drinking a half gallon of sweetened iced tea every day who isn’t paying attention to this advice.
The CDC, or Centers for Disease Control, also estimates that around 90% of Americans are consuming adequate micronutrients. There is some data that indicates nutrient deficiencies may be more common among people who are dieting. This makes sense since they are consuming fewer total calories. However, it’s rare for someone to completely need to eliminate any junk food even when they’re restricting their calorie intake.
Some studies have also shown that vitamin D and magnesium deficiency may be more common than once believed. However, this data is based on people eating an average American diet. It’s less relevant to health nuts like you, who are probably eating lots of nutrient dense foods and getting adequate sun exposure.
People often make the mistake of assuming certain foods are completely devoid of nutrition. This is rarely the case. Take ice cream for example. There are multiple studies showing the health benefits of dairy. Just because cream is frozen and mixed with sugar doesn’t mean these benefits suddenly disappear. There might be less total benefit, but it is still there.
White flour is another example. People assume that because it’s been processed, it must be completely nutrient void. Flour isn’t exactly nutrient dense, but there are still some micronutrients present, especially if it’s been fortified. It’s also worth noting that studies have generally failed to find any major health benefit of whole wheat flour over white flour.
Ironically, studies have shown that people who strictly avoid certain foods or food groups like bodybuilders, athletes, and people with eating disorders, are often deficient in micronutrients.
In addition to being common sense, balance and moderation are the most scientifically supported solutions for eating a healthy diet. Despite what you have been told, you probably aren’t deficient in most nutrients. You can still indulge in moderate amounts of “unclean foods” and meet all your essential nutrition. While many people accept this, they still believe that certain foods are still bad for you. They are wrong.
Myth #3: Certain foods directly damage your health.
Truth: No food directly damages your health in the context of a healthy diet.
People will tell you that you will suffer less damage from eating less of these unclean foods, but these foods are still bad for you in any amount. Because these foods only damage your body a little, you’re told it is still normal and healthy to eat them. Here’s the issue. You probably are not happy with “normal.” You’re more obsessed with your health and fitness than other people. “Normal” now means being overweight or obese and you don’t want a normal physique. Eating less junk means zero junk in your mind. If a food is bad, it’s bad, and you don’t want any in your body.
That’s how I used to think and that’s how most health nuts view this advice when they hear it. This is the most ridiculous and harmful misconception of clean eating. It’s largely so because it’s promoted by doctors and other health officials who people trust more than most.
In this context, unhealthy foods do their damage in different ways. It could be interfering with your body’s functions, increasing your risk of a certain disease, making you gain fat, making you age faster, and other bad stuff. The idea is that regardless of a food’s nutrient density or calorie content, it is still bad for you. Every group has a different idea of what this means.
Vegans often believe meat is toxic and gives you cancer. Some people claim that fructose is a poison and causes obesity and liver damage. The USDA still tells people that saturated fat and cholesterol cause heart disease and that whole grains should form the base of your diet. Paleo advocates claim that grains, gluten, beans, processed oils, and dairy give people cancer and pretty much every other known disease. Others claim that mycotoxins are lurking in everything you eat, secretly making you fat and damaging your health. Some people claim processed foods or artificial ingredients are dangerous. Others claim that GMOs give you cancers and tumors. Pretty much everyone claims that all trans fats are bad for you in any amount.
All of these claims are either untrue or out of context. Any food can be damaging in large enough amounts. The real question is whether or not these foods damage your health in the amounts they are normally consumed in the context of a mixed diet. The scientifically valid answer to this question is “no.”
Here are some of the most common examples.
Despite flawed correlational research, there is no evidence that meat, red or not, causes cancer or heart disease or death. In contrast, there is controlled evidence showing that red meat consumption can improve health markers as much as other meat or protein sources.
Fructose is not toxic and it doesn’t cause obesity or liver damage unless it is consumed in massive amounts and in caloric excess. There is no evidence that it is harmful in smaller amounts or that it encourages overeating compared to sucrose, which is regular table sugar.
Consuming moderate amounts of sugar does not decrease your insulin sensitivity or impair your ability to process glucose as long as you maintain your weight and don’t overeat.
There is still no good evidence that moderate amounts of saturated fat or cholesterol cause heart disease, but many of these studies also have significant limitations. Recent evidence does still indicate that even the correlations between saturated fat and cholesterol intake and heart disease are weak or non-existent. Any food may contribute to heart disease if it leads to obesity or excessive weight gain, but there is little evidence that consuming those calories from cholesterol rich foods or saturated fat is worse than getting them elsewhere for most people.
There is little evidence that Omega-6 oils contribute to inflammation or heart disease.
Gluten is not harmful to otherwise healthy people and there is still no evidence that grains, dairy, or legumes damage your health. There is also good evidence to the contrary.
There is no evidence that processed or artificial foods are necessarily less healthy than natural foods. There is also no clear definition of what constitutes a “processed food” and there are many processed foods that have proven health benefits, like whey protein.
There is no evidence that the levels of mycotoxins in the diets of developed countries have any significant impact on your health.
There is no evidence that GMOs or “genetically modified organisms” are harmful to humans. As you learned in a previous podcast with Kevin Folta.
There is some evidence that synthetic trans fats may be harmful, but the research is still inconclusive. There is little evidence that consuming a small amount of trans fats is going to damage your health, especially since they have been removed from most foods.
There is also evidence that some naturally occurring trans fats, like vaccenic acid, may have health benefits.
And by “medical reason,” I don’t mean some naturopath, acupuncturist, homeopath, or voodoo priest said a food is bad for you. I mean a real doctor diagnosed you with a specific illness and based their dietary recommendations on sound, scientific evidence. Here are a few examples.
People with phenylketonuria should avoid aspartame. People with celiac disease need to avoid gluten. People with severe peanut allergy need to avoid peanuts. People with familial familial hypercholesterolemia may need to eat less cholesterol. People with insulin resistance may benefit from a lower carbohydrate intake.
Outside of very specific medical conditions like these, there is virtually no evidence any single food can directly damage your health. There is also no evidence that certain foods will accelerate fat loss at the same calorie intake or that other foods will slow down or prevent fat loss. You could eat 43% of your calories from table sugar and still lose just as much fat as someone who only consumed 4% of their calories from sugar, as proven by one study by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1997.
Other studies have shown that elite athletes sometimes consume up to 20% of their calories from pure sugar and stay at around 6% – 10% body fat year round.
This is not a comprehensive list, but when you look at the evidence, virtually every good that’s ever been labeled as “dangerous” or “toxic” turns out to be fine in moderation, sometimes even in large amounts. Any food could be healthy or unhealthy in different situations. This is something people forget when they talk about clean eating and it’s something we’re going to address right now.
Chapter 3: How to decide if a food is good for you.
Whether or not a food is healthy or unhealthy depends on who is eating and how much they eat.
A healthy, highly trained endurance athlete or bodybuilder exercising several hours per day is going to have very different energy needs and tolerances than a sedentary, diabetic, overweight office worker. The athletes can be far more relaxed about their diet. They can eat more total calories, more calorie dense foods, and, assuming they’re meeting their micro and macro nutrient needs, they can eat more empty calories. The office worker needs to eat fewer calories and should probably focus on more filling, low calorie foods to avoid overeating. They may also need to focus on more nutrient dense food since they’re eating fewer calories.
Personal preference also matters. Some people may have a hard time eating in moderation and it may be smart to remove some of the foods they normally binge on– at least for awhile. A food that is healthy for one person might be inappropriate for another in a given context.
Whether or not a certain food is healthy or unhealthy depends on many variables. Here are a few questions to ask yourself before you write off a food as “bad” or “good.”
Are you exercising or sedentary?
How much are you exercising?
What kind of exercise are you doing?
What are your goals (either performance or atheistic-wise)?
Are you trying to lose fat, gain muscle, or improve your performance?
Do you like a certain food or not?
How many total calories are you eating?
Do you have a specific medical condition that would warrant avoiding a certain food?
Are you currently meeting your micro and macro nutrient targets?
Are you hungry or do you feel satisfied throughout the day?
What food or foods are you worried about?
What do you think will happen if you eat them?
Are you on a caloric deficit or a caloric surplus?
All of these factors matter when deciding if a food is healthy or unhealthy for a given person. In virtually all cases, there is room in your diet for a little junk.
Chapter 4: “Clean eating is a scam.”
That’s a quote from my friend, J.C. Dean, who was also on the podcast a few weeks ago. I agree.
Clean eating is a scam that is promoted by athletes, coaches, trainers, doctors, government officials, schools, diet book authors, and pretty much everyone who eats. Clean eating has no objective definition and no scientific support. It’s also an eating disorder. Avoiding specific foods or food groups without a rational reason is one of the defining characteristics of orthorexia nervosa and it’s common with people who have binge eating disorder and anorexia. It’s no surprise this is a common disorder in athletes, dieticians, and other health conscious people.
The reason I first started restricting my calorie intake to dangerously low levels was largely because I was afraid certain foods were bad for me. People who hinder themselves with rigid dietary rules often have a harder time maintaining a healthy weight. Food doesn’t make people gain fat. People overeating food makes them overweight. Eating some of your calories from less nutrient dense sources is not going to give you a nutrient deficiency. There is no evidence that any food directly damage your health in moderate amounts in every situation.
Our are careful about your diet, which you should be. However, there is no reason you need to avoid any specific food to achieve optimal health, a lean body composition, and a long lifespan. Balance and moderation are what’s important and the definition of both of those terms depends on who’s eating the food and how much they’re eating.
I struggled to get this concept for years, but learning to be more flexible about my diet is the only way I’ve been able to stay lean and healthy while improving my athletic performance, growing my business, and having a great social life. The problem is that achieving balance and moderation with your diet is easier said than done. That’s why I wrote a book called “Flexible Dieting: The Simple Path to Losing Fat and Staying Lean While Eating Your Favorite Foods.”
This is the book I wish I had written when I first became obsessed with nutrition and fitness. In the first part of the book, you will learn exactly why rigid diets are almost guaranteed to fail. Next, you will learn why flexible dieting is the healthiest, easiest, and most effective way of eating to stay lean and healthy. By the way, flexible dieting does not mean eating tons of junk and I talk about that in the book.
Chapters 8 through 11 walk you through a 12-week program to create a diet that is perfectly suited to your goals and preferences. You will also learn how to safely include treats in your diet without binging and how to transition away from counting calories and macros while staying lean.
Finally, the book shows you how to keep modifying your diet as your goals and preferences change. The book also contains many case studies of people like Eric Helms, Joey Colozzo, Holger Maivali, and others who have used flexible dieting to get lean and stay that way. Some of these people are professional bodybuilders or coaches. Others are just normal people who realized that flexible dieting was the easiest way to get lean. This is what I’ve been writing and experimenting with for the last year.
If you want to learn how to stay lean, healthy, and happy, hop on my email list by going to evidencemag.com, writing your email address in the form on the right side of the page, and then clicking the little button below. You’ll get an email on May 19th, when the book launches. If you want to immediately cancel email updates after the book comes out, that’s totally fine. I won’t blame you and I understand that sometimes it’s really hard to keep up with all the content that anyone puts out there. I just want to make sure you don’t miss this book as I know it will help you.
So, join my email list and watch your inbox on May 19th. That’s a Monday. There will be a link to buy my book.
Update: You can [buy the book here](https://evidencemag.com/flexible-dieting-book).