You’ve probably heard the buzzword “clean eating” being tossed around left and right lately. Friends on your Instagram feed proudly showcase their clean dinners; nutritionists extol the virtues of a clean diet; and blogs and cookbooks offer a multitude of clean eating recipes. But for the uninitiated, what does it actually mean to eat clean? And is this diet merely a passing trend, or is it actually worth jumping aboard the clean eating train?
The ethos of clean eating is surprisingly simple. It’s a lifestyle approach that advocates for consuming food in its most natural state—eating only “real foods,” essentially. This means cutting out all processed, refined foods (white flour, sugar, bread and pasta) and instead opting for whole, organic foods whenever possible (whole grains, legumes, fruits and veggies).
“Clean eating is a wellness-focused lifestyle that emphasizes whole, unprocessed foods,” explains Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian and writer. “The goal is to promote overall health and boost energy through healthy eating.”
A good rule of thumb: If your grandma or great-grandma wouldn’t recognize it as food, then it’s probably not “clean.” Also, if it could survive an apocalypse, then you almost certainly shouldn’t be eating it. (That’s your cue to put down that Twinkie).
The best part about the clean eating diet? It’s refreshingly sane. You don’t have to go to extreme measures, like obsessively counting calories or sacrificing entire food groups (yep, even that glass of wine is a-okay!). And because it’s not as stringent as some other diets on the market, it will be much easier to stick with in the long-term.
The basic premise of the clean eating diet is built upon several guiding principles:
Check labels. Because clean eaters strive to eat as close to nature as possible, anything that’s heavily processed is off-limits. The fewer ingredients, the better. Similarly, the shorter the shelf life, the better. Be a savvy consumer and scrutinize the nutrition label—if the ingredient list looks like a freaky science experiment, this is a tipoff that it’s probably loaded with additives and preservatives.
Drink plenty of water. The human body is composed almost entirely of water, so it’s no wonder that our bodies require ample hydration in order to function optimally. H20 promotes better digestion, keeps you energized, and helps transport waste (toxins) out of your kidneys. Aim to consume an ounce of water for every pound you weight. So, for example, if you weigh 115 pounds, try to drink 115 ounces of water daily, etc.
Increase your consumption of organic foods. Fruits and veggies are great, but unfortunately, conventional produce is often contaminated with traces of toxic pesticides. For that reason, stock up on organic produce whenever possible, even though it may cost you an extra dollar or two. (Check out our nifty buyer’s guide to organic produce!). On the same page, opt for organic chicken and beef, which tend to be free of harmful added antibiotics and hormones.
Eat at home. The single easiest way to slash unwanted processed foods from your diet? Cook more! When you make meals from scratch, you have more control over what’s going into your food, so you can ensure that you’re eating only top-notch, quality ingredients. Also, “meals should be balanced,” Cording says. “Choose a source of protein, a vegetable or fruit, and a healthy source of carbohydrate at each meal.”
Eat clean, train dirty! “Exercise is an important part of the clean-eating lifestyle, as combining an adequate, healthy diet with physical activity promotes overall wellness,” says Cording. When you nourish your body with whole foods and stay active, you’ll feel your best.
Foods that are encouraged on a clean-eating diet:
- Whole grains: oats, quinoa, brown rice, bulgur, barley, millet, etc
- Beans, peas, lentils
- Low-fat and small amounts of full-fat dairy, preferably from grass-fed sources
- Fish, especially fatty fish rich in omega-3s and vitamin D such as salmon, tuna, trout, and sardines.
- Nuts and seeds
- Olive oil
- Fruits and vegetables, healthy sources of protein and fat, plus whole grains
- Herbs and spices
Foods that are discouraged on a clean-eating diet:
- Processed foods: chips, cookies, crackers, packaged snacks, pastries, candy
- Processed, jarred condiments like mayonnaise, ketchup, etc
- Refined flours
- Excess amounts of saturated fat found in meat and dairy
- Trans fats found in processed foods
- Excess salt
Anyone is a good candidate for the clean eating diet, says Cording, but it might not be suitable for those with a previous history of eating disorders, she warns. “It’s possible to become overly focused on clean eating,” she says. “These individuals should check in with a registered dietitian to help them maintain a balanced approach to clean eating.”
Bottom line? If you’re looking to shed a few pounds, gain more energy, and eat more mindfully, the clean-eating diet might be up your alley. And even if you don’t adhere to a clean-eating diet to a “T,” the basic teachings can still be useful for anybody: Select fresh, quality, nutritious foods rather than processed, sugary junk. Drink lots of water. Move more. Such simple advice, yes, but something most of us could stand to follow!