You’ve probably heard of clean eating, but you may not know what it is exactly or how to go about cleaning up your diet. It’s about eating more of the best and healthiest options in each of the food groups-and eating less of the not-so-healthy ones. That means embracing whole foods like vegetables, fruits and whole grains, plus healthy proteins and fats.
The concept: “Eat clean” is about being mindful of the origin of your food and ensuring that it is as close to its natural state as possible. It is about consuming tons of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, fish, seafood and clean meats in ways that are absolutely delicious.
Just as there are varying levels of vegetarianism, such as veganism, lacto-vegetarianism, and lacto-ovo-vegetarianism, a person who eats a clean diet may have different ideas on what foods a clean diet should contain.
The term “clean eating” has become very popular in the health community.
Clean eating is a pretty broad term and everyone looks at it a bit differently. So today we want to discuss what clean eating means to us here at That Clean Life.
Let’s start with what eating clean is NOT:
Eating clean is not a fad diet, cleanse or a detox.
It’s not about what you can or cannot eat.
It’s not about counting calories, eliminating carbs or eating cabbage soup all day.
It’s not about starving, depriving, or restricting.
Let’s start at the top of what eating clean is and drill down.
The core definition of clean eating that most of its advocates agree on is choosing whole foods as they are closest to nature, or in their least-processed state. From there, different interpretations abound, from Paleo to dairy-free, grain- or gluten-free and vegan. But Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, MA, RD, author of Eat Clean Stay Lean defining the term as such: “Clean eating is about taking steps toward real, wholesome, simpler, minimally-processed foods more often (not absolute or always) and away from highly processed foods.” Let’s take a deeper dive into the science behind this healthy food trend.
This article includes tips on how to eat clean, including a diet plan and easy cooking tips. Learn how to make and enjoy healthy food that makes you feel energized and nourished.
What is Clean Eating or Eat Clean?
Clean eating is traditionally defined as eating simple, whole foods without any artificial ingredients. This typically involves the elimination of most processed foods, trans fats, heavy saturated fats, added sugar and refined grains. And some choose to take clean eating a notch further by also eliminating gluten, dairy, and soy as well.
For those looking to clean up their diet, learning how to eat clean can be a great place to start. Especially when whole, nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and quality proteins are emphasized, as these make up the bulk of a well-balanced diet. But it is also important to note that just because a food doesn’t qualify as “clean” doesn’t automatically mean they are “dirty” or bad for you in any way.
Moreover, some research suggests that the quality of your food choices may matter when to comes to weight loss. However, eating less processed foods does not outweigh the need for calorie control in the first place.
That Clean Life is about avoiding processed food. The trouble with processed foods is that they are usually striped of their nutrients and pumped full of additives that our body has no idea what to do with. Processed food also contain things like sugar, that activate that pleasure sensor in the brain and leave us wanting more, more, more. This is why we often end up on a merry-go-round of constant junk food cravings. These food companies know exactly how to keep us hooked so they can keep making more money.
With this being said, ultimately eating clean is about creating a growing movement.
Each time you go to the grocery store and stock up on fruits and vegetables instead of Doritos and Coca-Cola, you support our healthy food system instead of the processed food system. Each healthy purchase we make is a vote for healthier food and healthier policies (and a vote against processed food).
Is Clean Eating a Diet?
I think of this way of eating as more of a choice and a lifestyle. There are no strict rules and the implied goal is better health and increased energy, as opposed to just losing weight. So, I think you could argue that clean eating is not a diet, but more of a healthy way of living.
I’m a huge advocate of eating healthy without starving yourself. You might know that I have a history of eating disorders, so it’s important for me to promote a balanced approach. I’m not against using specialized diets to address health issues, but I think it’s important to make sure it doesn’t get out of control.
What You Can and Can’t Eat
The Eat-Clean principles are:
Eat six small meals a day.
Eat breakfast every day, within an hour of getting up.
Eat lean protein and complex carbohydrates at every meal.
Have two or three servings of healthy fats every day.
Get fiber, vitamins, nutrients, and enzymes from fresh fruits and vegetables.
Control your portions.
Drink 2 to 3 liters of water (about 13 8-ounce cups) every day.
The foods to avoid:
Overprocessed foods, especially white flour and sugar
Sugary beverages, such as soda and juice
Foods with chemical additives like food dyes and sodium nitrite
Foods with preservatives
Artificial foods, such as processed cheese slices
Saturated fats and trans fats
Anti-foods — calorie-dense foods with no nutritional value
Tips for Clean Eating
Eat More Vegetables and Fruits
Vegetables and fruits are undeniably healthy.
They’re loaded with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and plant compounds that help fight inflammation and protect your cells from damage.
In fact, many large observational studies link high fruit and vegetable intake to a reduced risk of illnesses like cancer and heart disease.
Fresh vegetables and fruits are ideal for clean eating, as most can be consumed raw immediately after picking and washing.
Choosing organic produce can help you take clean eating one step further by reducing pesticide exposure and potentially boosting your health.
Here are some easy ways to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet:
- Make your salads as colorful as possible, including at least three different vegetables in addition to greens.
- Add berries, chopped apples, or orange slices to your favorite dishes.
- Wash and chop veggies, toss them with olive oil and herbs, and place them in a container in your refrigerator for easy access.
Go Whole Grain
The cleanest whole grains are the ones that have been touched the least by processing. Think whole grains that look most like their just-harvested state-quinoa, wild rice, oats. While some people abstain from eating any processed grains, we think that whole-wheat pasta and whole-grain bread made with simple ingredients are part of eating clean. Sometimes you just need a hearty slice of avocado toast or a bowl of pasta. Don’t get duped by “whole-grain” claims on labels though, to eat clean packaged whole grains you’re going need to take a closer look at the ingredients.
Whole grains should always be the first ingredient, the ingredient list should be short and recognizable, and it should have minimal (if any) added sugar. When you swap out refined carbs (like white pasta, sugar, and white bread) for whole grains you’ll get more fiber, antioxidants and inflammation-fighting phytonutrients. Plus, people who eat more whole grains have an easier time losing weight and keeping it off long term.
Go Beyond the (Salad/Smoothie/Grain) Bowl
And on that note … “more plants” does not have to mean an Insta-worthy salad bowl all the time. In fact, salad can be a little sad, am I right?! Instead, consider tweaks that work with your lifestyle: What veggies can you add to your sushi order or sandwich delivery? Can you incorporate a piece of fruit to your snack? The goal is to add more to the foods you already love to make them more nutritious, delicious, and filling.
Whole Foods Contain No Added Sugar
A key recommendation of the Guidelines advises consuming less than 10% of calories per day from added sugars by particularly avoiding sugar-sweetened foods and drinks. This translates to no more than 200 calories of added sugar for a 2,000-calorie diet, since in order to eat all of the recommended servings from each food group, too much sugar will put a person over their calorie limit, which may lead to weight gain over time.
Limit Processed Foods
Processed foods are directly opposed to the clean eating lifestyle, as they’ve been modified from their natural state.
Most processed items have lost some of their fiber and nutrients but gained sugar, chemicals, or other ingredients. What’s more, processed foods have been linked to inflammation and an increased risk of heart disease.
Even if unhealthy ingredients aren’t added to these goods, they still lack many of the benefits provided by whole foods.
Eating clean involves avoiding processed foods as much as possible.
Eat Less Meat
More and more research suggests cutting back on meat is healthier for you and the planet. Veganism isn’t a requirement for clean eating though-just eating less meat can help reduce your blood pressure, reduce your risk of heart disease and help keep your weight in check. Plus, eating more plants helps bump up the fiber, healthy fats and vitamins and minerals in your diet. And if you’re worried about getting enough protein by cutting down on meat-that shouldn’t be an issue.
Most Americans get much more than the recommended 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (approximately 56 grams daily for men and 46 grams daily for women) and it’s easy to get that much protein eating a vegetarian or even vegan diet. Eggs, dairy (for a clean option, choose dairy with no added sugar and simple ingredients) beans and nuts all offer protein-see our list of top vegetarian protein sources for even more options.
When you do eat meat, choose options that haven’t been pumped with antibiotics and even better if they’ve lived and eaten like they would in the wild (think grass-fed beef, wild-caught salmon). Clean eating also means cutting down on processed meats like cold cuts, bacon and sausage.
Full-Fat Versus Low-Fat Dairy
While full-fat dairy is closest to a whole food, the fact remains that low-fat dairy is recommended by the Guidelines versus whole-milk varieties due to the saturated fat content. Other essential nutrients remain unchanged.
Whole-milk dairy is surging in popularity, however, and there are a few good reasons to favor higher-fat versions. Full-fat yogurt, for example, may not need as much added sugar as non-fat yogurt to become palatable, which may be favorable to heart health since dairy fat may not pose the same threat as added sugars. Full-fat dairy may slow down lactose absorption and decrease blood sugars due to the fat content slowing the absorption of carbohydrate, which could be helpful to diabetics.
It’s important to look at the total context of the diet, though. Dairy fat is considered easier on the arteries compared to the saturated fat in red meat, so choose your foods wisely if you prefer to enjoy the taste of whole-milk dairy while not sacrificing on heart health.
Avoid Vegetable Oils and Spreads
Vegetable oils and margarines don’t meet the criteria for clean eating.
For starters, they’re produced via chemical extraction, making them highly processed.
Some oils also contain high levels of the omega-6 fat linoleic acid. Studies in animals and isolated cells suggest that it increases inflammation, potentially raising your risk of weight gain and heart disease.
While artificial trans fats have been banned in the United States and other countries, some margarines and spreads may still contain small amounts.
Although clean eating discourages all vegetable oils and spreads, it’s important to eat a moderate amount of healthy fats. These include fatty fish, nuts, and avocado. If you can’t avoid vegetable oils completely, choose olive oil.
Keep an Eye on Sodium
ust like with sugar, most of us are getting far more sodium than we should. The Institute of Medicine recommends capping sodium at 2,300 milligrams daily, about one teaspoon of salt. If you’re over 50, of African-American descent or have high blood pressure, chronic kidney disease or diabetes, you may want to go even lower, to 1,500 milligrams per day. 80 percent of the sodium in our diets is coming from convenience foods. Cutting back on processed foods will help you reduce your salt intake, as most packaged foods contain more sodium than homemade versions.
To help minimize salt while you cook, flavor your food with herbs and spices, citrus and vinegar. Clean eating recipes can still use salt, it is essential for bringing out the flavor of foods, but we use it smartly and sparingly. Coarse sea salt or kosher salt can add punch when sprinkled on dishes at the end of cooking, and they contain less sodium (teaspoon for teaspoon) compared to table salt.
Limit Alcohol Consumption
Alcohol is made by adding yeast to crushed grains, fruits, or vegetables and allowing the mixture to ferment.
Moderate intakes of certain types of alcohol — particularly wine — may boost your heart health.
However, frequent alcohol consumption has been shown to promote inflammation and may contribute to a number of health problems, such as liver disease, digestive disorders and excess belly fat.
When following a clean eating lifestyle, minimize or eliminate your alcohol intake.