Clean eating is an easy concept: Eat more real foods and fewer processed foods.
It’s that simple. At least, almost.
As with many things, even “clean eating” isn’t always as easy as the key components make it seem. The rules are more fluid, and personal preferences can change how you adopt the principles for yourself.
However, clean eating is a great guide many people use to redirect their healthy-eating intentions, eliminate processed foods, and eat a diet that’s healthier and better for them. And while it’s not meant to be a diet for weight loss, some individuals do find that eliminating heavily-processed foods and eating more plants helps them shed pounds.
Here, a basic guide to clean eating, which foods are allowed and which ones aren’t, and how to make a Clean Eating Meal Plan work for you.
What Is Clean Eating?
Each person’s subjective take on clean eating can mean you get a variety of opinions. Can you eat bread or not? Are all meats clean? Are there any clean yogurts?
No one-size-fits-all definition applies to clean eating, but at its core, clean eating is a philosophy that helps people eliminate processed foods and eat more whole foods. Foods that contain artificial flavorings, colors, and sweeteners, and foods that are fried or sugary are on the cutting block. Vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, and healthy fats are encouraged.
As you work to craft your own clean eating criteria, keep in mind that the best clean eating plan is one that works for you. You don’t have to eat clean 100 percent of the time. In fact, no one does.
Instead, use the four main principles (below) to guide most of your food choices, and you’ll already be leaps and bounds beyond where you were.
How to Start Eating Clean
Don’t think of clean eating as a diet. A diet is an on-again-off-again plan. It’s meant to only be used for a short period of time, and then you’re back to your “regular” eating.
Clean eating is a lifestyle choice. Once you start eating clean, you can easily continue eating in this way for the rest of your life.
Vegan, vegetarian, omnivores, and pescatarians alike can eat clean. The variety of clean foods means finding clean eating recipes that you like and enjoy eating is easy.
The 4 Main Principles of Clean Eating
- Eat whole foods, as close to their original form as possible.
- Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits. Organic is preferred, but not necessary.
- Eat whole grains, not ones that have been processed or stripped of their nutritional components.
- Read ingredient labels, and avoid foods with added colors, sugar, flavorings; preservatives; trans fats; and other processed ingredients.
What Foods Are Clean?
Start eating clean by slowly eliminating the processed foods you typically buy. How do you know if a food is processed? Good question!
Foods exist on a spectrum of clean to highly processed.
For example, those handy bags of spinach you use for quick salads are minimally processed. The little green leaves are often cut, washed, and spun before packaging. Almost no one will argue that spinach isn’t “clean,” however, because it’s very close to its original state, even if it’s handled for packaging.
Highly-processed foods like fried snack cakes are on the opposite side of the spectrum. These snack foods are made from refined flours, sugars, and oils. They’re often filled with preservatives to make them shelf-stable for long periods of time, and the ingredients list often contains no recognizable foods.
The easiest way to know if a food is clean is to read the label, or look for one-ingredient foods like spinach, salmon, blueberries, and avocados. If you can recognize all the ingredients on the label, it’s clean. Then, look to see if any sugars have been added. If so, this is a processed food, and it needs to go back on the shelf.
How to Grocery Shop for Clean Foods
Challenge yourself to replace one or two ingredients each week with their clean counterparts, and you’ll eventually find that your entire fridge and pantry are filled with the clean-eating ingredients you need to craft clean eating meals and snacks every day.
Bread—How is it that some loaves of bread can last over a month? One word: preservatives. That means most breads in the bread aisle are a no-go if you’re eating clean. And while we’d love to all be able to bake bread from scratch each week, we have to be realistic. Look in the freezer and bakery sections for clean options. Read the labels, and find a bread that sticks as close as possible to the only four ingredients bread requires: flour (preferably whole grain), water, salt, and yeast.
Oils—Coconut and avocado oils are your go-to high-temp oils. Extra-virgin olive oil and unrefined safflower and sunflower oils will be your choices for cold cooking (salad dressings, for example). Skip the highly processed canola and vegetable oils.
Dairy—Sticklers to the most extreme clean eating rules would say only raw, organic dairy is clean, but that’s just not realistic for many individuals (raw milk is also illegal in some states). Instead, opt for organic, full-fat milk. Lower-fat milk and dairy products have been processed to remove fat and often have added sugar to boost flavor satisfaction.
The same goes for cheese. Look for full-fat cheese, grate your own if you need shredded, and skip cheese “products” like slices or spreads.
Meat—Opt for grass-fed, organic, or range-free options when you can. Wild seafood is the best option, too. These proteins can be expensive, however, so eliminate some cost by eating fewer protein-based dishes in the week and boosting your plate with plants.
Grains—Throw out the white, bleached flour and white rice. Swap in whole-grain flours and brown rice, as well as other quick-cooking whole grains like quinoa, amaranth, and barley. Many stores now offer pre-cooked varieties that can be clean. Just read the label to make sure the only added ingredient is oil.
Healthy Fats—A whole bounty of healthy fats are on your clean eating diet. These include nuts, avocados, eggs, and fish. Again, look for organic options when you can afford them, but don’t sweat the additional cost if you can’t. Eating these foods, even the conventional form, can go a long way to boosting your health.
Vegetables—Pass the peas, please! There’s almost no time that’s not right for vegetables when you’re eating clean. Make space for vegetables at each meal, and aim for five to seven servings in a day. Like with other foods, organic vegetables are preferred—they’re raised without GMOs or pesticides—but they’re not necessary if your budget can’t stretch for the more expensive option.
Fruits—Fruits, like vegetables, are a welcome part of the clean eating diet. Just eat them in moderation. While they’re filled with vitamins and minerals, fruits also contain a lot of sugar. Even natural sugars like the type found in fruits can affect blood sugar levels.
Hydration—Water is your friend when eating clean, and you can spruce up your glass with slices of fruit for flavor. You can also drink green tea, coffee, and coconut water when plain H20 is just too boring.
Is Clean Eating Legitimate?
Unlike Paleo or Whole30, clean eating is a “fluid” eating style. It’s not one-size-fits-all, and even clean eating “experts” don’t agree on what’s clean and what isn’t sometimes. In other words, there’s no right or wrong way to eat clean.
With that said, clean eating is still a reliable way to help you and your family eliminate processed foods—bye-bye, boxed mac and cheese—and eat more whole, real foods. Whether you follow the clean eating guidelines by the letter or you adapt them to your family’s lifestyle, clean eating is a technique almost anyone can benefit from trying.
Remember, as with anything, clean eating is not meant to be followed 100 percent of the time. Give some room to treat yourself—birthday cake, anyone?—and aim to eat clean 80 to 90 percent of the time. If you reach that high percentage, you’re doing better than most. Be realistic, and be flexible.