Clean Eating vs Flexible Dieting

By Joe Talarico on Apr 23, 2020 10:20:00 AM
4 Minutes Reading Time


A common question I get asked is what’s the difference between clean eating vs flexible dieting? My answer to that is usually more towards quality and sustainability, more than anything else.

Bodybuilder or Average Joe?

Bodybuilders will tend to go clean eating as they get deeper into their contest prep. The thing is, when you go out to eat there are just too many variables you can’t account for. You don’t know what oils they’re cooking in, how much, what’s in the sauces, etc. Research has shown restaurants can be off by as much as 20-30% from what they post on their websites. Needless to say, if you’re four weeks out from a bodybuilding competition, you can’t afford to take that chance. If you’ve never been sub 5% body fat before, every single gram and macro matters. It is the difference between first place and fourth.

Having said that, that is for a COMPETITOR. The avid gym lifter for the most part, doesn’t need to be THAT specific. Unless you’re trying to get to extremely low levels (low single digits) of body-fat it simply isn’t needed.

Clean Eating vs Flexible Dieting

So what do these actually mean? Clean eating usually means unprocessed foods, minimal sauces, and for the most part making the food on your own. It’s easier to track, thus easier to factor in what your body responds better to meal to meal. Using the example of bodybuilders again, you’ll see they usually cook the same chicken breast, rice, potatoes, broccoli. Part of it is because they eat so many meals it’s easier to cook in bulk, but the other part is it leaves everything super simple. No rogue macros sneaking in. The downside to that of course, is super bland meals. Aside from some seasonings, you’ll also find their meals are pretty boring.

Adam, had actually tried two different competition preps - one cleaning eating and one flexible dieting. The biggest thing he noticed was going clean; he felt he looked a lot drier, less bloat. He also noted he was able to stay fuller longer, and didn’t hold as much water.

Flexible dieting on the other hand is just that. It gives you the wiggle room to play around with your macros. Bodybuilders will steer more towards this in the offseason. It gives the mind a little break from meticulously calculating every detail. But it also allows you to go out and eat with your friends, or enjoying a meal without having to be so anal about if everything fits perfectly. You might still be hitting macros but it doesn’t have to be exact. And that’s all most people really need. Even if you’re eating that chipotle burrito that might be off by 300 calories, if you are doing most other things right in your lifting and nutrition regimen for the week, it shouldn’t be a big factor.

So How Do I Choose?

I’m all about consistency. For me, it’s not a matter of which one is better for the general population. It’s a matter of what are YOU going to follow more consistently? Ideally I’d love to start clients out with flexible dieting and as they get more aware of their macros and what works, then they can transition to higher quality foods and stick that way. But I’m also a realist. We want to enjoy our occasional chips, pizza, and night out with friends. The healthiest way of eating, to me, allows you that flexibility to eat less ideal foods, and still be able to bounce back the next day. Believe it or not I’ve seen clients and friends be almost TOO clean to where the moment they had a bad meal, they were absolutely wrecked. In my opinion I don’t find that ideal. I want to be able to function as optimal as possible no matter what.

If you take a look at the blue zones (areas of people who live the longest) the bigger concepts they have in common are that overall, they are exercising more, eating healthier, and being social. Notice how they aren’t worried about being on any specific DIET intentionally, but rather just focusing on keeping their bodies in a good place. That’s what we should be taking away from these communities, not what SPECIFIC, EXACT STUFF are they doing. They’re also social. So be social! Don’t let prepping your meals in Tupperware for the sake of being clean be what hinders you back from spending time with loved ones and enjoying your limited time here on Earth.

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Joe Talarico

Joe is a certified Precision Nutrition and strength & conditioning coach. He assisted the UCLA Women’s Tennis team in winning their 2014 NCAA Championship Title, as well as study under the great strength coaches at Pepperdine University. He was a collegiate rower at the University of Rhode Island (where he got his Kinesiology degree) as well as an amateur physique competitor. He is currently the master trainer at Upgrade Labs in Santa Monica where he is combining his years of training clients in the gym with newer technology to optimize their performance and recovery. He also cohosts The RelationSH*T Show Podcast with his fiancée where they discuss all relationship topics unfiltered from who pays on dates, to open relationships.

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