What is clean eating?
“Clean eating” is everywhere you look. There are more than 60 million Instagram posts for #cleaneating and #eatclean. Grocery stores promote the latest bars and stacks of kale as “clean eats.” There are countless blog posts about clean diets. But what does it actually mean to “eat clean”?
Despite being discussed nearly everywhere, clean eating has no specific definition. Generally, it means avoiding packaged and processed foods and eating food as close to its natural state as possible. This doesn’t mean that all food must be eaten raw. Characteristics of clean food generally include:
- home cooked
- basic, whole ingredients
- no preservatives, food coloring, or other additives
- minimal processing
People who eat clean food avoid all foods or ingredients that are made in a laboratory or processed in a factory.
The definition of clean eating varies greatly. Some clean diets focus on plant-based foods and avoid all meat and dairy. Others opt for seasonal, local, organic, non-GMO foods, and ethically pasture-raised eggs, meat, and dairy. Many clean foods are gluten-free. The strictest diets also cut out alcohol and caffeine.
What are the basic principles of clean eating?
1. Eat whole, natural, unprocessed foods
Avoid items that come in containers, such as a:
Exceptions are whole foods that come in a container, such as a bag of fresh spinach or uncooked brown rice. The majority of food in a clean food diet should be fresh and free from additives, including:
- artificial sweeteners
- food coloring
2. Avoid added sugar
Whole fruit is encouraged. Avoid foods with added sugar, including:
- many brands of jarred pasta sauce
- many brands of salad dressing
Read all nutrition labels, and avoid items that list sugar as an ingredient. Be on the lookout for the more than 50 names for sugar on the label, which are listed by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Foods sweetened with the following ingredients all contain added sugar:
- fruit juice
- coconut nectar
3. Choose whole, unrefined grains
Refined grains are digested rapidly in your body, which quickly increases your blood sugar and insulin, and spikes hunger. Sources of refined grains include:
- white rice
- white bread
- processed breakfast cereals
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, refined grains increase your risk of:
- weight gain
- heart disease
Whole, unrefined grains are less processed than refined grains. Because whole grains are digested more slowly, they are known as “slow carbs.” According to the Harvard School of Public Health, whole grains help:
- keep your insulin and blood sugar levels steady
- you feel full longer
- prevent weight gain
- ward off disease
4. Opt for lean protein
If you decide to eat meat, choose lean varieties, such as:
- skinless chicken
The following foods are also great sources of lean protein:
Is eating clean healthy?
Most Americans do not even come close to meeting the daily vegetable and fruit requirements for adults listed by the United States Department of Agriculture: 1 1/2-2 cups of fruit every day, and 2 1/2-3 cups of vegetables. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fewer than 18 percent of American adults consume the recommended amount of fruit, and fewer than 14 percent consume the recommended amount of vegetables.
What are Americans eating instead? Highly processed foods. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that more than 75 percent of calories purchased come from moderately and highly processed foods.
Processed foods typically contain higher amounts of the following ingredients than homemade or whole foods:
A whopping 75 percent of the sodium Americans eat comes from processed foods, according to the American Heart Association. There is also rising concern about how food additives like emulsifiers and coloring may impact the bacteria in our digestive tract, and therefore harm our health, according to research published by the National Institutes of Health.
Diets full of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains have been linked to a reduced risk of depression, obesity, and chronic disease, according to studies published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Public Health Nutrition, and the CDC. Eating clean may reduce inflammation in the body, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Clean eating may also combat oxidative stress by boosting the amount of whole foods eaten, according to a study in the Pharmacognosy Review. With a focus on fresh, whole foods, clean eating can help you reach the recommendation by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to fill at least half of your plate with fruits and vegetables.
How do you know if clean eating is right for you?
Clean eating can also take a dark turn. The name implies that some food is good or moral, while everything else is dirty or bad. This extreme, black and white outlook can lead to deprivation and anxiety about food. In some extreme cases, diets can develop into an eating disorder, according to a study in the journal Appetite. Anyone can incorporate clean eating principles into their diet, but people who have a history of an eating disorder should do so carefully and under the care of a doctor.
Tips for eating clean: Your starter guide
1. Cook at home
People who regularly cook at home are typically healthier, and they eat fewer calories. Make your breakfast and lunch for the next day the night before. Plan the week’s meals on Sundays, and prep your food for the week ahead. Opt for a quick dinner like a salad topped with a whole grain and lean protein instead of hitting the frozen food aisle. Packaged or convenience foods do not actually save you significantly more time, and they are more expensive than cooking from scratch.
2. Swap fruit for sugary treats
While natural sugar substitutes like honey and agave may seem healthier than processed white sugar, they are nutritionally similar, and the body digests them similarly. Don’t be so quick to pick up foods with artificial sweeteners. Despite the pictures of fruit on the package, artificial sweeteners are not natural and do affect your gut flora and health. Eat fresh or baked fruit instead.
3. Load up on the veggies
Stock up on fresh produce once or twice a week, and keep it in sight in the fridge and on your counter as a gentle reminder to eat it. Include at least one vegetable with every meal, and try to vary what vegetables you eat regularly to get different nutrients and prevent boredom.
4. Check the label
Read the nutritional label and ingredients before purchasing. Avoid foods with labels that have words you can’t pronounce, or any amount of trans fats. Minimally processed foods like unsalted canned tomatoes and frozen vegetables can be a great addition to your diet. They can also help you save time when cooking.
5. Drink more water
Drop the juice! Fruit juices, even those that are 100 percent juice, have as much sugar as a soda. Eat whole fruit instead of juice. Substitute water for all sweetened beverages, including artificially sweetened ones. Avoid all sodas, as well as that second or third cup of coffee.
6. Choose heart-healthy fats
Healthy fats can have powerful health benefits. Good sources of healthy fat include:
Fat is essential for proper body function, especially muscle movement and blood clotting and brain health. Healthy fats, such as the monounsaturated fats in avocado and the polyunsaturated fats in olive oil, can help:
- lower bad cholesterol
- reduce risk of heart disease and stroke
- provide essential nutrients
Adding fat to your meal can also help you absorb fat-soluble vitamins.
Sample meal plan
Breakfast: warm quinoa
Quinoa is loaded with protein to keep you full and energized well into your morning. Substitute a can of full-fat, unsweetened coconut milk for 1.5 cups of water for a truly creamy treat.
Morning snack: grain-free trail mix and a cup of fruit
There aren’t any chocolate bits here, but you won’t miss them. The Gracious Pantry’s trail mix is full of heart-healthy fats, lean proteins, and dried fruit for a hint of sweetness.
No sad desk lunch or wimpy salad here. The best part of this recipe is that you can swap in and out ingredients as you wish. Use it as a base, and mix it up all week with different:
- homemade dressings
Just because you are eating clean doesn’t mean you have to give up crackers. These homemade crackers are easier to make than you think and are chock-full of nutritious seeds. Pair them with homemade hummus that’s ready in five minutes and cut up veggies to keep you full until dinner.
These potatoes are fully loaded and healthy. You won’t find any sour cream or fatty meat here. Topped with broccoli florets, this dish is an easy grain-free meal in one. Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of:
- vitamin B-6
- vitamin A
A single cup of sweet potato has seven times your daily recommended value of vitamin A.
Don’t worry, you can eat clean and still have dessert. The Minimalist Baker uses chia seeds to create creamy, decadent puddings that are full of vitamins and healthy fats. Both recipes are naturally sweetened with whole fruit, so you can eat the leftovers for a snack the next morning.
Eating clean can be a great way to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables you eat, and boost your nutrition. Whether or not you strictly follow the principles, opting for mostly whole foods and reducing the amount of processed foods you eat can improve your health and protect against weight gain.
Food should be enjoyable. If you don’t like to eat something, you won’t stick with it. There’s no point in making yourself miserable to eat clean. Stick to whole, unprocessed foods as much as possible, and enjoy a little bite of chocolate or a glass of wine now and then, too. Moderation and balance is key to a lasting healthy lifestyle.