Eating “clean” means different things to different people. There isn’t just one way to eat a healthy diet, as demonstrated by studies showing that people can improve their overall health whether they adhere to a plant-based, paleo or ketogenic diet (among many others).
Clean eating is often described as a “lifestyle approach,” rather than a short-term diet. It may not be that quick-fix when it comes to weight loss — although it can definitely be helpful — but, it’s a smart and sustainable way to eat if you want to maintain a good quality of life well into older age.
What is clean eating?
Clean eating describes a way of eating that includes plenty of whole, unprocessed foods and few (if any) that are packaged, modified and purposefully made to be “highly palatable” (meaning they make you crave more and more).
While many people may be motivated to transition to a more nutrient-dense diet in hopes of dropping some excess weight, a clean diet has many other benefits too, such as:
- Improving health markers like cholesterol, blood pressure, triglyceride and blood glucose levels
- Reducing inflammation, which can be triggered by processed foods made with added sugar, refined grains, unhealthy fats, chemical, and allergies
- Supplying you with essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and enzymes
- Giving you more energy and improving your mood
- Enhancing your exercise capacity, motivation and recovery
- Improving your sleep, and therefore your daytime productivity
- Being more sustainable and environmentally friendly, since “clean” foods tend to be raised humanely and are ideally organically and/or locally produced when possible
- Reducing your grocery expenses. Yes, eating healthy doesn’t necessarily have to cost you more, since you can save by avoiding big-brand packaged items that are costly (such sweet snacks, desserts, cereals, chips, juices, etc.).
How to Eat Clean in 6 Simple Steps
Ready to make this happen? Here’s a plan to help get you started as you gradually move to a more nutritious way of eating:
1. Eat as close to nature as possible
It’s ideal to fill up on foods that don’t require a nutrition label at all because they are a single ingredient — such as vegetables, fish, eggs and fruits.
Anti-inflammatory foods that are emphasized in most clean eating meal plans include:
- All types of vegetables
- Nuts and seeds
- Whole/ancient grains
- Healthy fats and oils like olive oil, avocado oil and coconut oil
- Quality protein sources like wild-caught seafood and pasture-raised poultry
- If you tolerate it well, organic, unsweetened dairy products (especially those that have been fermented, like yogurt and kefir)
When you do purchase foods that come in packages, read ingredient labels diligently and try to avoid those that contain lots of difficult-to-pronounce fillers, preservatives and additives.
By purchasing less packaged foods you’ll automatically reduce your intake of added sugar and unhealthy fats, such as hydrogenated (trans fats) and refined vegetable oils (including soybean oil, canola oil, safflower and sunflower oil).
Limit foods that tend to cause overeating, spike your blood sugar, and are low in nutrients, such as:
- Most cereals
- Sweetened drinks
- Packaged snacks like granola bars, chips and crackers
- White rice, white pasta and white bread
- Sugary condiments
- Canned soups
- Processed lunch meats
- Frozen meals like pizzas, breaded chicken nuggets, etc.
One of the most important steps you can take to clean up your diet is to remove all of the unhealthy options from your kitchen (or wherever you spend most of your time), this way you aren’t tempted. Stock your cabinets, office drawer, and bag with healthy snacks like nuts and fresh fruit, which can keep you satisfied between meals and lower the chances you’ll hit the drive through, take out joint, or vending machine when hunger strikes.
2. Consume your calories from food, not beverages
In small amounts, 100% vegetable and fruit juices can be included in a clean diet, however it’s generally recommended that you eat your nutrients rather than drink them in order to obtain more dietary fiber.
By avoiding sweetened juices, coffee and tea drinks, as well as diet soda and energy drinks, you’ll be able to cut hundreds of empty calories from your diet each day, not to mention artificial sweeteners, preservatives and other chemicals.
What should you drink instead? Plain water should be your primary beverage of choice, but coffee, teas, sparkling water, herbal teas, and bone broth are also good choices.
3. If your budget allows, opt for organic
For most people, it’s not realistic that their diet will be 100% organically produced, however this doesn’t mean that it’s not worth purchasing at least some organic foods.
The best way to drastically reduce your exposure to pesticides and other chemicals is to purchase organically-grown fruits and vegetables that are on the “Dirty Dozen” list. This list is released by the Environmental Working Group each year in order to inform shoppers about which produce is most likely to contain chemicals and genetically modified ingredients. Veggies and fruits that tend to be included on the list of “dirty” foods every year include strawberries, spinach, apples, peaches and celery — so splurging on organic varieties of these foods will be money well spent.
In addition to supporting organic growers, you can also reduce your environmental impact and obtain fresher food that supplies more nutrients by eating what’s in season and grown locally.
4. Focus on quality animal products (wild-caught, pasture-raised and grass-fed)
If you aren’t part of the roughly 5% of people living in the U.S that identify as being vegetarian, then you have a choice about which types of animal products to purchase each week.
Because animals that are raised humanely — with access to the outdoors and a high-quality diet — tend to produce more nutrient-dense foods, it’s worth spending a bit extra money to purchase these types.
Look for meat labeled as grass-fed/grass-finished, pasture-raised poultry, wild-caught fish and eggs that are free-range. Choosing organic animal products is also encouraged, as this makes it much less likely that you’ll consume foods raised with antibiotics or hormones.
5. Aim for variety
One way to keep things interesting when eating a clean diet is to eat a large variety of foods, including seasonal produce (aim to “eat the rainbow”), herbs and spices, both plant and animal sources of protein (including things like beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains), and healthy recipes from different types of cuisines.
Cooking at home more often is highly encouraged, since this gives you control over the quality of ingredients in your meals. When you’re able to cook at home, try making enough for several meals, this way you can pack a healthy lunch for the next day or freeze leftovers for another fast meal.
6. Pay attention to hunger and fullness cues
While the quality of the foods in your diet is very important, the quantity shouldn’t be overlooked either. Even healthy foods can contribute excess calories to your diet that overtime can lead to weight gain.
Start paying attention to portion sizes and getting into the habit of stopping eating when you’re satisfied but not stuffed. Try eating in a calm, quiet environment that allows you to take your time and to pay attention, rather than while multi-tasking and rushing. These steps can help you more easily maintain a healthy weight year after year.