How ‘Clean Eating’ Can Make You Gain Weight

I’ve tried every diet in the book — even before they make it to the book.

For example, I was cutting out bread,  dairy, and sugar — a.k.a. “eating clean” — before it was a thing. I firmly believed that as long as I didn’t eat a select group of forbidden foods like cheese, bread, and red meat, I would be good.

But every time I try this kind of diet, I end up losing weight rapidly at first, and then the numbers on the scale slide back up. It’s super confusing, especially because so many health food blogs swear that you don’t need to count calories if you’re eating healthy, unprocessed foods. They say that you’ll naturally eat less if you’re eating plenty of fiber. The theory is that healthier foods fill you up more, so you’ll need to eat less.

But that’s not usually how it works for me.

Instead, I’ll cop a container of cashews from the bodega and eat it all in one sitting because I’m not thinking about it as something I need to watch. It’s one of the few healthy foods that I’m allowed to eat — so shouldn’t my body naturally tell me when I’ve had enough?

Put simply, no. That never happens. I almost always overdo it if I have access to my favorite “healthy” comfort foods like nuts, gluten-free bread, dark chocolate, and dairy-free ice cream. I don’t have that “off” button that so many skinny girls who chirp “I forgot to eat today!” get to enjoy. And that’s why elimination diets like “clean eating” don’t work for me.

(I’ve actually found a lot of success using apps to make sure I’m keeping my portion sizes reeled in and not overdoing it with my favorite health foods — but that’s another story.)

Check Instagram, and you’ll see plenty of fitspo models heralding “clean eating” as the best weight loss trick ever. I couldn’t understand why this wasn’t true for me — but I figured I couldn’t be the only person who’s a clean over-eater. So I talked to Dr. Peggy Policastro, director of behavioral nutrition at the New Jersey Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health at Rutgers University about where I could be going wrong.

According to Dr. Policastro, what I’ve been experiencing is known as the “health food halo effect.” It’s what happens when you divide all your foods into “good” or “bad” columns and then you overdo the “good.”

This is exactly what’s going on with me. I avoid bagels like the plague because they’ve got gluten. And then instead of eating one bagel and being done with it, I have like five slices of gluten-free bread at a time against my better judgment because I feel deprived.

The key isn’t to remove “bad” foods from your diet, Dr. Policastro said. It’s to keep things moderate.

“No diet should ever cut out certain foods,” she said. “The key to any good diet for weight loss is decreasing the amount of portion sizes and increasing physical activity.”

So as always, Oprah was right — you can still eat bread and lose weight, you just can’t eat too much of it. Easier said than done, obviously — but it’s nice to know thanks to Dr. Policastro that I’m not the only person who’s been thwarted by “clean eating.”

Graphic by Mi Gerer

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