Why eating “Clean” doesn’t always equal getting “Lean”

All foods have energy.  Energy in food is known as…… Go ahead, take a few seconds to make a guess. 

If you said “What is a calorie?” you should be on Jeopardy.  No really, if you guessed calories you were right. 

As a licensed nutritionist, I occasionally encounter a client who has made many wonderful strides to choose healthier foods and improve the quality of his or her diet.  Whether it’s opting to include less processed food, increase natural sources of fiber, or just boost up vegetable intake at every meal, making improvements in the quality of the food you’re eating is one of the best things you can do for your health. 

But then the client looks at me with a frown and blurts out, “BUT, I’m not losing weight.”

Unfortunately eating for health doesn’t necessarily mean eating for weight loss.  Let’s look back at those pesky calories again.  Despite some foods being healthy and nutrient dense (a term that means you get lots of vitamins and minerals in one place), some foods that nourish us well also provide a lot of energy in a small package. 

Take for example:

An entire avocado has 230 calories

Half a cup of nuts clocks in at 380

And that healthy 1/2 cup of dried fruit?

It’s going to set you back 280 calories—with nearly every one of those calories coming from sugar. 

These are exactly the healthy foods we recommend when athletes or children need to gain some needed weight.    

So let’s talk about four terms that are confusing when it pertains specifically to weight loss. 


According to a survey released in 2014 by Consumer Reports, two-thirds of Americans believe “natural” means the food contains no artificial ingredients, genetic modification, or pesticides.  Take it a step further and I would add that many consumers equate the word “Natural” with “Healthy.”  In actuality the FDA has not been able to even define the term.  Typically natural means that there have been no colors, artificial flavors or synthetic substances added that would not be normally found in that food.  Because this term is used so loosely and holds no technical definition, natural foods may or may not be healthier than their commercial counterpart.  The term natural does not have an influence on how much energy our body gets or stores from the food or beverage so eating more natural foods does not lead to automatic weight loss. 


Decreasing processed foods and opting for more natural foods, also called eating “clean” can decrease sodium intake and increase natural sources of vitamins and minerals.  What surprises some people is when they gain weight following a plan that promotes lots of unprocessed meats, vegetables, nuts, and certain oils.  Unprocessed food still has energy, so if portions are excessive, or exercise is non-existent, whole foods can still be stored as weight gain or not lead to weight loss.  If a cake is made from honey or coconut sugar, coconut flour, dried fruit, and seeds, it’s still going to be considered a dessert or a treat.  Making a recipe from these nutritious foods doesn’t mean that it is a freebie just because it isn’t made from white sugar, refined oils, or flour. 


Organic basically means that the food was grown and processed without the use of certain pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or growth hormones.  In several studies examining head to head comparisons of the vitamin and mineral content of organic plants and conventionally grown there was little difference in the actual nutritional content of the produce.  http://www.organic.org/home/faq#faq6

The choice to buy organic items is a personal decision based on many factors, but weight loss benefits shouldn’t be one of them.  When it’s comes to weight loss, an organic item isn’t going to lead to weight loss any more than conventionally grown items.  For example, organic apple juice has the same amount of naturally occurring sugar and calories as conventionally grown, 100% apple juice. 


Although the finger has been pointed at gluten for every ailment for the past few years, the solid research just isn’t there for many of the claims that the average person should avoid gluten when it comes to weight loss.  If a muffin or cookie is gluten free it simply means that it is made with a grain other than wheat, rye, or barley.  Sometimes it may actually contain more carbohydrates and calories than the wheat filled goodie.  The impact on your waist line is still dependent on your overall energy intake and activity level, not whether a food product contains wheat. 

It is entirely possible to have an organic, clean, gluten-free, natural weight loss diet, but just swapping one food for another to meet these specific terms isn’t going to naturally lead to weight loss.  Portions, exercise, and balancing food groups plays the biggest role in whether a diet based on healthy foods actually leads to weight loss.