We pay a lot of attention to the food we eat. It’s hard not to. Food advertising is everywhere, and it seems like there’s a new theory about the healthiest way to eat every day. It’s a challenge to sort through the information and decide on the right diet.
One thing that’s been getting a lot of attention lately is the concept of Clean Eating. It’s one of those things that sounds appealing. After all, who doesn’t want to be clean? Very few people would find the concept of Dirty Eating attractive.
But, what is Clean Eating? Will it make you healthier? Here’s what you need to know.
What is Clean Eating?
What does it mean to eat clean? According to the Mayo Clinic, it boils down to four simple principles that guide your diet.
1. Eat whole, real foods and avoid processed foods as much as possible. Whole foods include fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats.
2. Eat with nutrition in mind. We all need a balance of macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to be healthy.
3. Replace at least some of your meat intake with plant-based foods. A plant-based diet has many health benefits.
4. Make healthy lifestyle choices, including exercising, maintaining good sleep habits, minimizing stress, and having a healthy social life.
That’s a short list but it may represent some significant changes from the way you’ve been eating. Keep in mind that you don’t need to change everything at once. Even cutting out a few processed meals a week and replacing them with something healthy can help you get on the road to Clean Eating.
What is a Processed Food?
Processed foods get a lot of negative press but it’s important to understand the difference between a bad processed food and a good one.
Keep in mind that any food that’s not in its original, whole form has been processed to some degree. If you buy a container of chopped onions at the supermarket, that’s a processed food.
Does that mean you can’t buy prepped foods? Of course not. A chopped onion is minimally processed. The chopping is the only processing involved. It’s still just an onion and it’s a healthy thing to eat.
The kinds of processed foods that are not part of a Clean Eating diet include:
Prepared meals with a list of unpronounceable ingredients
Snack foods that have sugar and additives
Processed meats like sausage, deli meat, and bacon
There are some things you can look for to help you make healthier choices at the supermarket. Here are some tips to evaluate processed foods:
Avoid any food that has a lot of added sugar. The FDA now requires food manufacturers in the United States to list added sugar on the nutritional label. Added sugar is processed differently by your body than naturally occurring sugars like the ones in fruit. A good rule of thumb is to avoid foods that list sugar as one of the top ingredients.
Avoid foods with very high sodium content. The FDA recommends that people limit their sodium intake to no more than 2,300 milligrams per day.
If you choose to eat processed meats, look for versions that contain no nitrates or nitrites. Nitrates and nitrites are compounds that are not unhealthy on their own – they occur naturally in most vegetables. However, when they’re cooked at high temperatures – as bacon and sausage usually are -- they can turn into nitrosamines, a known carcinogen.
A good rule of thumb at the supermarket is to buy most of your food from the perimeter of the store. Highly processed foods tend to be in the aisles, while produce, meat, and dairy foods are located on the outside edges.
Tips for Clean Eating
Now, let’s walk through some common foods people eat and talk about how to make Clean Eating choices in each category.
Eating meat can be healthy. The key is to try, whenever possible, to avoid highly processed meats like the ones we’ve discussed. Clean Eating also involves choosing meat from animals who weren’t mistreated.
For example, you might choose to eat only pasture-raised beef and pork. Organic and free range meat tends to be more expensive than factory-farmed meat, but it’s also less likely to contain hormones or antibiotics. You should stick to leaner cuts of meat since toxins and other harmful agents can accumulate in animal fat.
Not all fat is bad for you. In fact, many fats play important roles in human health. For example, fish contains Omega-3 fatty acid, which is essential and supports your immune system and cardiac health.
Healthy plant-based fats include nuts (walnuts, almonds, cashews, and pecans), seeds (chia seeds, flax seeds, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds), vegetable oils (olive oil, walnut oil), avocados, and free-range eggs.
Unfortunately, it’s common for people not to eat enough vegetables in a day. Try adding a wide array of vegetables to your diet. You may have heard of “eating the rainbow,” and that’s a good guideline. The various colors in vegetables indicate the presence of different nutrients.
When you choose vegetables, buy organic if you can afford it – or better yet, buy food at a local farmer’s market. Also, be aware that if you can’t afford to buy organic everything, you should avoid non-organic versions of the dirty dozen – foods that tend to contain high amounts of pesticides. These include kale, spinach, and potatoes.
Fruits are a healthy part of any diet. The one caveat is that they are naturally high in sugar. If you’re sensitive to sugar, then you should keep your fruit intake under control.
There are several fruits in the dirty dozen, including strawberries, apples, grapes, and peaches. Buy organic if you can. The fruits with the highest sugar content are figs, grapes, mangos, pomegranates, cherries, and bananas.
Human beings need to be well-hydrated, but beverages often cause a problem in our diets. Why? Because a lot of them contain high amounts of sugar and other unhealthy ingredients.
The best thing to drink with your Clean Eating diet is water. Unsweetened green tea is also a healthy choice. As much as possible, steer clear of sugary drinks. We’re talking about highly-processed coffee drinks, fruit juice, energy drinks, and things like that.
Lifestyle Changes to Make
As we mentioned before, Clean Eating is not just about food. It’s also important to make healthy lifestyle choices.
Human beings need sleep to be healthy – and a lot of us don’t get enough. Here are some quick pointers for improving your sleep:
Create and stick to a sleep schedule. As much as possible, go to sleep at the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning.
Don’t eat before bed. Snacking after dinner is a major culprit in insomnia and weight gain. If you stop eating at 7:00 or 8:00, you’ll naturally get tired at about the time you want to go to bed.
If possible, expose yourself to bright sunlight in the morning. If you can’t, consider buying a Vitamin D lamp.
Avoid caffeine late in the day.