If you’re up for a healthy challenge this year, why not try cleaning up your diet? This may be the perfect time to give clean eating a try!
What is clean eating?
You’ve undoubtedly heard about the “clean eating” trend on social media, at gyms and from nutritionists. But, you may not be so clear on what it exactly means, right?
Clean eating is a sound approach to nutritionally sustaining yourself in a way that optimizes energy and health. Some even say it is the key to health and happiness. At the heart of this concept is healthy, whole, unprocessed food. The same nourishment our ancestors enjoyed before the 1910s, when the first processed foods began to hit the market.
As Clean Eating magazine describes, “It is not a diet; it’s a lifestyle approach to food and its preparation, leading to an improved life – one meal at a time.” Some natural health practitioners focus considerably on each food’s journey from origin to plate.
What I like most about the concept is that it’s not all or nothing. It is not necessarily a “restrictive” or “calorie-counting” diet. It is all about giving your body the best fuel available. Or, as EatingWell magazine explains, “eating more of the best and healthiest options in each of the food groups – and eating less of the not-so-healthy ones.”
Below is our basic Clean Eating Guide for Beginners. Over the next few weeks, come back to read Clean Eating Meal Planning, Recipes and Shopping Lists to make your journey into clean eating easy and successful.
What are the main guidelines for clean eating?
While there isn’t a clear-cut, concrete definition for the practice, clean eating experts seem to agree on these key principles:
- Maximize whole, natural foods and minimize unnatural, highly processed foods
The majority of your sustenance should come from fresh foods. Organic fruits and vegetables are best, but are not in everyone’s budget. Just be sure to thoroughly wash your produce before consuming it (see Why Organic Matters below). If processed foods are necessary for your lifestyle, opt for minimally processed foods. These are best identified by checking package labels when shopping. Choose options with no GMOs and short ingredient lists, where you recognize and can pronounce each one.
- Favor unrefined carbs
Refined grains and sugars undergo a process that strips them of their nutrient content, so choose 100% whole grains and natural sweeteners, such as maple syrup, honey, cane juice and agave nectar. Whole grains like whole wheat, brown rice, popcorn, buckwheat, whole oats, quinoa and bulgur contain more important nutrients, including fiber, potassium, magnesium and selenium. So, you will want to avoid white flour products like white bread, white rice and white pasta as much as possible.
Pay attention to your body. As you remove more processed foods from your diet and you start to feel more energetic, you may discover that cutting back on grains may make you feel even more energetic.
- Drink plenty of water
Soda, sweetened juices and coffees, energy drinks and alcoholic beverages pile on unnecessary calories each day. Purified, Clean Water is the best choice. When it gets boring, try adding natural enhancers like a slice of fruit or a sprig of herbs. (Check out this article that features delicious water-infused recipes.) I have found that sometimes even just adding a drop or two of Lemon Stevia to a glass of water can help break up the desire for unhealthier and sweeter drinks.
If you enjoy alcohol in moderation, which means two drinks per day for men and one for women, you might try limiting your alcohol intake to one to two days per week (and only 1-2 drinks each day).
- Eat nutritionally balanced meals
Get lean protein, complex carbs and healthy fat at every meal throughout the day. You may choose to eat less fatty meat and opt for healthy fats like those found in olive oil, fish and nuts. When it comes to dairy, choose natural and/or organic products, particularly those from animals raised without antibiotics and hormones whenever possible.
This plate from ChooseMyPlate.gov may give you a better picture of how your meals might look to make them more nutritionally balanced. In a perfect world, I think we would decrease the whole grains section and increase the vegetables section. BUT, this is a significant improvement over what the old food pyramid would have us believe.
I think the main thing that people need to realize, is that unless you are under a healthcare practitioner’s care, it is not wise to totally eliminate food groups. Dr. Diana Schwarzbein says it well:
Plan on five or six small meals a day
By eating three small meals and two or three heavier snacks each day, you are less apt to overeat, or have blood sugar spikes and lagging energy levels. The key to these smaller meals is of course the “smaller” part, but also to make sure they include some protein and fat for sustenance as mentioned above. Avoid eating a snack that strictly consists of carbs unless it is a fruit or vegetable.
Be mindful of sugar, salt and fat consumption
These three ingredients are trademarks of processed foods. Most of us understand that there is sugar in candy, desserts and soda, but may not be as aware of the added sugar in things like tomato products, fat-free yogurts, “fruit” juices and more. Search ingredient labels for sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, diastatic malt, galactose, dextrose and glucose. (Remember, if you must enjoy some sugar, the further down the ingredient list, the better.) And by the way, artificial sweeteners and hyrogenated oils are not found on the clean eating guide either.
If you choose to eat more raw, whole foods, not processed, you will naturally eliminate more sugar, sodium and fat from your diet.
- Don’t forget the physical activity
A clean eating lifestyle also involves getting adequate amounts of daily movement!
Is it Healthy?
Certainly avoiding additives, preservatives, sugar, salt, saturated fats and other ingredients associated with processed foods can’t be a bad thing, right? Of course! Many studies have shown the health advantages of diets that are based on vegetables, fruit, whole grains and legumes left in as natural a state as possible. Some of these benefits of whole foods include the fact that they are high in phytochemicals, they contain more vitamins, minerals, beneficial fats and fiber, and their nutrients act synergistically to protect us from disease.
Why Organic Matters
Even as I talk of all of the value in fresh vegetables and fruit, I must acknowledge a real-world flaw in the food production system. Non-organic produce is treated with pesticides and herbicides that can contaminate it. That is why I often suggest that you choose organic. The Environmental Working Group identifies the produce items that test highest for pesticide residues in its Dirty Dozen Plus list: apples, peaches, celery, potatoes, cherry tomatoes, snap peas, cucumbers, spinach, grapes, strawberries, nectarines, sweet bell peppers, hot peppers and kale/collard greens. This may be a good place to start with your organic purchasing.
Clean Eating magazine also suggests that you choose organic when it comes to meat, eggs and dairy, as many non-certified animals are given antibiotics and hormones that can negatively affect us.
A common comment about clean eating points to higher grocery bills. That is most likely true but, as I always say, “Your health is the best investment you’ll ever make!”
Check back (or sign up below) for three more posts in our weekly clean eating series: clean eating meal planning, easy clean eating recipes and clean eating grocery list.