The term clean eating is very popular nowadays, but what does “clean eating” even mean?

Margaret McCartney, GP, notes in the British Medical Journal,

“The command to eat cleanly implies that everyone else is filthy, being careless with their bodies and lives. It comes with promises of energy boosts, glowing skin, spirituality, purity, and possibly immortality. But this nonsense is all based on a loose interpretation of facts and a desire to make the pursuit of well-being an obsessive, full-time occupation.”

I don’t know about you, but most of my clients come to me because they’re trying to figure out this “clean eating” thing – and realize in the process that they don’t have time for half of what they think they should be doing, let alone sustain their new “clean eating” practices.

To add to the confusion, there really is no single, specific definition of clean eating. For example, here are a few…

  • At its simplest, clean eating is about eating whole foods, or “real” foods — those that are un- or minimally processed, refined, and handled, making them as close to their natural form as possible.  Fitness Magazine
  • It used to imply eating lots of whole, real foods — veggies and fruit, whole grains, animal and plant-based protein, nuts, seeds, and oils. It also meant that what you eat should be as close to nature as possible — minimally processed, not packaged or originating from a factory. Good Housekeeping
  • The soul of eating clean is consuming food the way nature delivered it, or as close to it as possible. It is not a diet; it’s a lifestyle approach to food and its preparation, leading to an improved life — one meal at a time. Clean Eating Magazine
  • Eating clean is simply the practice of avoiding processed and refined foods and basing your diet on whole foods. Eating Clean for Dummies Cheat Sheet

There are also a ton of clean eating programs that fill social media, websites, books, and more. Some ban all grains, legumes, dairy, and most ban sugar; some ban any food that isn’t sourced locally; while others ban any food that’s not organic. What starts off sounding like a great concept gets so jumbled up that you wind up demonizing whole food groups – how many of you have stared at an overwhelming list of food that are off “limits” – let’s not forget that there’s little to no research to back any of these extremes.

It’s clear from the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans that eating plenty of vegetables, fruit, protein foods, healthy fats, starchy vegetables, as well as whole grains and dairy if tolerated, while limiting added sugars, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium results in a healthy eating pattern.

Note: “Clean Eating” Is Not Mentioned

So, to help sort through it all, let’s start with a common thread of all clean eating programs: Avoid  Processed Foods. Note, I did not say “Eliminate”, I said: “Avoid”. Why? Because strict elimination diets are unsustainable, can result in increased anxiety, and if you “cheat”, you wind up feeling really guilty  – so much so that you may wind up throwing your hands up altogether, and resort back to the habits you were trying to lose in the first place.

So, let’s start with defining processed food:

The term processed food includes any food that has been purposely changed in some way prior to consumption. It includes food that has been diced, sliced, minced, frozen, dried, liquefied, emulsified, cooked (such as boiling, broiling, frying, or grilling), pickled, pasteurized, canned, packaged or changed in nutritional composition with fortifying, enriching or preserving in a variety of different ways.

While we likely all agree that Oreos or frozen meals are processed, what about bread, or cheese? Do you have to make your own bread to avoid processed foods? Let’s take it a step further – should you mill your own flour? What about ready to eat salads – they’ve been washed, and bagged – technically, they are processed.

Here’s the thing – with the bagged salad, the nutrient profile of the greens has not been changed, and nothing has been added –  like preservatives, vitamins, or seasonings such as salt. The difference with problematic forms of processed foods is when things that are good for you, like fiber and vitamins, are removed, and/or unhealthy ingredients such as sodium, trans fat and sugar are added.

Here’s my take: Three easy rules for clean eating:

Read the list of ingredients, and choose foods that:

  1. Have ingredients you are familiar with.
  2. Have ingredients that you can pronounce, visualize, and understand.
  3. Have no more than 3-5 ingredients.

For example, if one cracker label states that it is made with: 100% whole grain brown rice, sunflower oil, and sea salt, but another cracker label states that it is made with:

Enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate -Vitamin B1, riboflavin- Vitamin B2, and folic acid), vegetable oil (sunflower, olive, canola and palm kernel oil), leavening (yeast, baking soda, mono-calcium phosphate), and contains two percent or less of dextrose, salt, maltodextrin, rosemary, spices, dried garlic, malt extract, onion powder, sugar, whey, natural flavor, and soy lecithin.

Which should you choose? Of course, the cracker that contains ingredients you are familiar with, can pronounce, visualize, and understand, and has no more than 3-5 ingredients.

Michael Pollan, a journalism professor at the University of California at Berkeley, has said this of food companies: “It is one of the reasons that we have the obesity and diabetes epidemics that we do … If you’re going to let industries decide how much salt, sugar and fat is in your food, they’re going to put [in] as much as they possibly can … They will push those buttons until we scream or die.”

Deciding which foods are processed, and to what degree you are opposed to them can get pretty complicated. A simpler approach is to focus on my Three Easy Rules For Clean Eating. Also, start to focus on what you can eat, rather than on what you cannot eat. Think variety and think colors – and eat a wide array of whole foods that are either unprocessed such as fresh vegetables and fruit, or minimally-processed such as bagged greens, dried fruit, dried or raw nuts, milk and plain yogurt as tolerated, whole grain bakery store bread and legumes as tolerated. Look for whole rather than refined grains, fruits rather than fruit juices, and plain vegetables that are whole, raw or frozen, rather than canned or packaged in sauce or syrup. Choose a variety of fresh, wild caught fish, grass fed beef, and all different types of poultry. Keep your meals simple and make half your plate vegetables and/or fruit,  1/4 starchy vegetables, legumes or whole grains, and another 1/4 animal or plant protein. And if you must buy a packaged food, use my simple guide: The Three Easy Rules For Clean Eating.

To learn more about how to avoid food sensitivities, how to plan meals that include whole foods that heal, nurture, and maintain a healthy mind, body, and soul, contact me at 973.852.3335