Whether while reading up on nutrition or browsing the diet section at the book store, likely you’ve stumbled across the phrase “clean eating” at some point in the past.
More and more frequently, the “eat clean” strategy is being touted as a simple and effective method for learning to develop long-term healthy eating habits.
However, while the general idea behind eating clean is mostly straightforward—eat whole foods and avoid anything artificial or “processed”—there are a few grey areas that might make you wonder, “Does this food fall into the clean category?”
For example, depending on how stringent you are about the word “clean,” foods like bread, cheese and milk can be considered a healthy part of a clean diet, even though some processing is required to make them.
For this reason, reading labels is an important part of eating clean. The main idea is to choose packaged foods whose ingredients don’t include anything artificial. In more simple terms: look for products whose ingredient lists read like a recipe you could create on your own using everyday, familiar ingredients.
That’s just one aspect of eating clean, though. There are a few more simple guidelines that dictate this healthy eating method.
Here’s everything you need to know outlined in a three-step plan to help get you started.
1. The Basics
Eat Real Food: As mentioned earlier, eating clean places a large focus on consuming mostly whole foods (think fruits, veggies, lean animal protein, legumes, nuts—essentially, anything that comes from nature) and encourages avoiding artificial and “processed” foods (think packaged products like cookies, sugary cereals or gummy fruit snacks).
Avoid “Artificial” Ingredients: Cut out all foods made with artificial ingredients, preservatives and chemical additives. Many advocates of eating clean commonly recommend avoiding all ingredients that sound like a “science experiment” or that you can’t pronounce or are not familiar with. Use this tip at your own discretion, though, as it’s quite possible that some “science experiment” sounding ingredients may be perfectly safe for consumption (like ascorbic acid, which is actually just vitamin C or maltodextrin, which is a type of starch made from corn).
Focus On Whole Grains: When it comes to items like bread and pasta, opt for whole grain alternatives instead of the refined (white) version. Other examples in this category include whole grain quinoa and brown rice. These types of grains are unrefined meaning the bran (outer skin) and the germ (the inner sprout) have not been removed which makes them a more nutritious option.
Place a Greater Emphasis on Food Quality: Where as other eating styles tend to place a large focus on food quantity, eating clean stresses the importance of food quality more than anything else. Essentially, don’t worry so much about calories, but still practice balance and moderation.
Make More Meals at Home: Eating clean encourages cooking at home and preparing your own meals as well as creating your own versions of items like salad dressings and sauces using all-natural ingredients instead of buying them at the store where they’re likely to include unwanted additives. Basically, if you made it, you know what’s in it.
2. Getting Started
One Step at a Time: Like with all other habits, changing your eating style will take time. Instead of trying to overhaul your entire diet in one day, start by slowly introducing “clean” staples into your meals, one at a time.
Start Keeping More Whole Foods on Hand: Several studies have shown that we’re more likely to make smart food choices when healthier options are more convenient and attractive. This means, if you stock your kitchen with plenty of fresh produce where you’ll see it often and it’s easy to reach, you may be more likely to stick to your clean eating strategy and avoid foods that don’t fit the "eat clean" bill.
3. Sticking to It
Don’t Think of it as a Diet: When we hear the word “diet” we tend to think of short-term plans that will help us reach a specific weight loss goal. So many dieters fail before reaching the end of their plan (usually because the “rules” were too rigid and restrictive), or, if they do make it to the end of their plan, revert back to their old habits once it’s over. Even if you have a weight loss goal, it doesn’t make sense to place a cutoff date on eating healthy.
One of the biggest advantages of eating clean is that it’s extremely flexible. Unlike other diets that set up rigid rules or specific procedures, clean eating is more like a set of guidelines that you can integrate into your life as you see fit.
It doesn’t mean that potato chips, Oreos, donuts and ice cream are completely off limits for eternity. Instead it means, you don’t eat these kinds of foods frequently, but there’s room for them every once in a while when you’re really in the mood for a treat.
The Bottom Line: You can eat clean 25 percent, 75 percent or 100 percent of the time—it’s totally up to you. But, of course, the more you implement this strategy into your daily routine, the healthier you’ll feel and be.