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Clean Eating: Back to Basics

Updated on September 29, 2014

Does Your Plate Look Like This?

Tilapia topped with mango salsa with a side of avocado and grilled asparagus
Tilapia topped with mango salsa with a side of avocado and grilled asparagus | Source

Clean Eating: What is it?

The term "clean eating" has been popping up on the internet and in the news more and more these days. I've seen in on the covers of magazines at the grocery store check-out, in my news feed on Facebook, and in television commercials. I started wondering what "clean eating" actually meant and if it were just the next trendy eating fad to pop up, like the low-fat diets of the nineties or eating according to your blood type - here today, but tomorrow they'll be telling us something different. Clean eating, though, has in fact been around since the 1960s. It began alongside the other cultural and political revolutions of that era and in recent history, has become a tool of personal trainers and fitness competitors. Only recently has this approach to diet made it's way into the everyday vernacular of the rest of us. Simply put, clean eating is the elimination of processed foods and extra additives from one's diet. It is choosing to eat whole, unrefined foods, instead of heavily processed ones. It involves a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables along with whole grains and unprocessed meats, but it can easily be a vegetarian or vegan diet as well.

There are not many reputable studies on the benefits of clean eating, partially because the definition as I gave above, is rather broad. Each person has their own varying, more specific definition. One clean eater may look at a box of crackers and say, "Oh good! Whole grain! I can eat these!" While the next might say of the same box, "Ew, look at all the added salt! I can't have these!" The third one won't even go down the cracker isle, because crackers are too processed. Some people feel clean eating entails giving up dairy products like milk and cheese. Other's think these in small amounts are okay. My take on it: don't get too hung up on the particular definition. Try to cut down on your processed foods to whatever extent you're comfortable right now. Try to incorporate more fresh foods and see how it makes you feel.

Green Salad with Steak, Avocado, Pico, & Cheese

With some preparation, clean eating can be mouthwateringly delicious.
With some preparation, clean eating can be mouthwateringly delicious. | Source

Why Eat Clean?

Weight Loss

This is one of the top reasons people get interested in clean eating. A clean eating regimen has led many people to significant weight-loss. If reducing your weight is your goal, however, don't forget about portion control and balancing the types of foods you eat. If you ate one hundred organic mangoes a day, you'd technically be eating clean, but you'd be far from healthy. It's an extreme example, but you get my point. So, if you're in it for weight loss, good for you. Just remember about portion control and variety.

Increased Energy

If your diet is sugar-heavy you may have issues with low energy levels periodically throughout the day. Your body burns simple sugars quickly, leaving it hungry for more and lacking energy. Substances that take longer to break down, like the proteins in meats, nuts, avocados, or greek yogurt stay with you longer and allow your energy level to be more constant.

More Comfortable Digestion

This is a nice way of saying eating clean can make you more regular and cut down on gas and bloating. I say this because it is something I and others have noticed since reducing our processed foods. This is especially true if you aren't currently eating much fiber. The fiber content of raw/fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains can really help in the intestinal department.

Other Benefits

People have reported a myriad of other benefits to clean eating, such as clearer skin, shinier hair, sleeping better, and increased mental well-being. These may very well be true, if your current diet is lacking in certain nutrients. Drinking more water, as most clean-eating diets recommend can clear your skin if you have been living a life of dehydration. Eating more protein if you are lacking in that department can make your hair feel thicker and shinier. Eating foods that are minimally processed often means you are eating more valuable nutrients, since the heat and other processes used to preserve and package foods often lead to the breakdown of said nutrients. Many canned foods also contain a lot of salt as a preservative. Cutting down on salt intake can stabilize blood pressure and reduce water retention.


Not Too Much of This

  • Canned fruits and vegetables
  • Canned or packaged meats
  • White or non-whole grain cereals and breads
  • Sugary sodas
  • Packaged granola or protein bars
  • Fast food
  • Jellies or jams (lots of sugar!)
  • Coffee beverages with "stuff" in them (frappe-mochiatochino with whipped cream on top)
  • Canned beans (lots of salt)
  • Salt or seasonings like soy sauce that contain a lot of salt

Eat This

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Fresh meats
  • Whole grain cereals & breads (check ingredients carefully)
  • Natural nut and seed butters (ex: peanut butter ingredients should just say "peanuts" with no extra sugar, salt, etc)
  • Plain yogurts, especially greek, which contains more protein
  • Steel-cut oats, which have more of the whole grain than instant oats
  • Cinnamon, oregano, thyme, pepper etc (any non-salt seasoning)
  • Water!
  • Tea or coffee with small amounts of raw sugar, stevia or milk
  • Extra-virgin olive oil (1-4 tsp to flavor meals)
  • eggs

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Would You Eat This?

Dragon Fruit - cool name, cool look
Dragon Fruit - cool name, cool look | Source

Clean Eating Tips

So let's get practical. Clean eating requires more thought and preparation than most of us are used to. We are busy people with kids and jobs and responsibilities, not to mention, we'd like to sit down and rest every now and then. Clean eating is like anything else. At first, it feels awkward and takes a lot of time. As it becomes habit, though, it gets ingrained in your routine and you become more efficient at it. Here are some tips to make it easier:

  • TRY NEW FOODS. This is all caps, because it's one of the most important parts of clean eating. I have to admit, I was a little scared to buy guava for the first time, when one of my boys picked it out, because it was so little and cute, but there are some amazing foods out there you may just love if you give them a chance.
  • Planning is also an important part of clean eating. After all, if you don't have fresh food in the house, how are you going to eat it? Plan your meals for the week, go to the grocery store to get what you need, and even pre-cook some things. My husband often cooks up a bunch of steak, pork, and chicken on the grill Sunday night for us to cut up for salads during the week.
  • Make more small trips to the store, instead of one big one for the week. Fresh food, like spinach and bananas go bad much faster than canned goods. It might be a pain to shop multiple times a week, but at least those trips will be quicker.
  • When we started eating clean, my six-year-old opened the refrigerator and said, "Whoa! You need to clean out the fridge. There's no place for my lunchbox in here!" It was true. Fruits and veggies take up a lot of room. We were forced to jettison leftovers gone bad sooner than before. We were also motivated to eat more of what was in there just so we'd have some more space!
  • Eat out less. It's hard to eat clean at a restaurant when you can't be sure of how the food is prepared or where it comes from. You don't have to give up eating out all together, though. The great thing about clean eating is, it doesn't have to be an all-or-none thing. Scout out the menu ahead of time online, and do the best you can. Don't fret too much if there seems to be a little refined sugar in the salsa.
  • Take it slow. If you're a fast-food burger and fries, soda-drinking type of person, there's a long way to go to clean eating. Take it one step at a time. Try cutting out one or two processed foods at a time and make an effort to buy and eat more fresh produce to start. Slowly work your way towards a more complete, clean diet. It's the small, consistent, daily changes that lead to feeling better in the long run.
  • If you plan on eating away from home, to avoid making unhealthy snack choices, take meals and snacks with you. Invest in some small 1-2 cup sized containers for easy transportation. Nuts are great high-protein, on-the-go snacks.
  • Hire a maid. Okay, I'm kidding…sort of. The prep for clean eating can takes it's toll on your kitchen. All that chopping and seasoning can be quite a mess. I haven't hired anyone, but I have lowered my standards and decided to see the mess as a happy one, since it means I'm actually using my kitchen a lot more than I used to.

Bless this Mess!

A messy kitchen is a happy, clean-eating kitchen.
A messy kitchen is a happy, clean-eating kitchen. | Source

Foods that Pack a Punch

A few foods that are tasty, filling, and are nutrient-dense:

  • avocados
  • greek yogurt
  • peanut or almond butter
  • quinoa (great complete protein for the vegetarian)
  • bananas
  • eggs, hard-boiled or otherwise
  • lean steak
  • ground flax seed (not so much filling, but good added to other stuff)

A Word About Vices

We all have them - the things we know aren't great for our health but can't seem to do without. Maybe yours is sweets after dinner, multiple cups of coffee, or copious amounts of salt on your eggs. My kryptonite happens to be wine. I love wine, and left to my own devices with no responsibility, I might just drink it all day. Luckily, I do have some modicum of self control and drive to do something else with my life besides drink. My feeling is this: Life was meant to be lived and enjoyed. If you enjoy a cup of ice cream every so often or a glass of vino in the evening, don't feel guilty. Enjoy it. If that vice, however, starts to own you, if you feel sluggish because your ice cream habit has turned into a pint a day habit, you might feel it's time to cut down in the interest of health, energy, and feeling better. Some people do better cold-turkey. They rid the house of booze or cookies or cigarettes or whatever and never do it again, the end. In my experience, though, most of us do better cutting down on our vices slowly. So decide you'll cut out one cup of coffee per day for two weeks and see how it goes. After all, we do these things because we enjoy them and most of them aren't harmful at all in moderate amounts. Many of them can actually be beneficial from a stress-reducing standpoint. You have to be introspective and honest with yourself about your vices. Can you get to a place where you only drink one cup of coffee? Can you have candy in the house without eating it all in one day? If you can or you can at least see yourself getting there, there's no reason to eradicate an enjoyable habit all together, even if they may not fit in with some people's idea of clean eating.

Clean Eating, Balance, and Moderation

In a nutshell, clean eating is eating minimally processed foods. Whether you decide that means you only eat fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains or you think it's okay to eat whole grain tortillas or even an Oreo every now and then, is entirely up to you. There is no one right way to do it. There are a lot of fitness people and businesses out there with resources and prescribed diets for clean eating, and some of them are really wonderfully useful. I'd encourage you to explore those options if you're interested, but you can also make some simple choices for yourself to clean up your eating to whatever extent you're comfortable right now. So if you're ready, give up that Friday donut, buy fresh pineapple instead of canned, or cut down to two protein bars a week, instead of every day. Then, when you get a handle on that first step, take another and add, change, or cut out something else - whatever makes you feel good, because that's what any change in diet is ultimately about, what makes YOU feel good.

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    • April Garner profile image
      Author

      April Garner 3 years ago from Austin, Texas

      Erica - Glad to be of help! It's admirable you and your husband are making some healthy changes in your diet. All those little things add up!

    • Ericajean profile image

      Ericajean 3 years ago

      I am just now learning about clean eating, and I appreciate the colorful photos on how delicious and healthy clean foods can be. That helps.

      So far my husband and I have been taking note of our fat, salts, and sugar intake and have cut back on canned foods and fast foods. We ate out maybe twice this month which is not the norm for us, but reading this hub is encouraging. Thanks!

    • April Garner profile image
      Author

      April Garner 3 years ago from Austin, Texas

      Thanks, mshajid. I have really gotten a lot from incorporating more fresh foods and less processed ones in my diet. I hope you do, too. Thanks for reading.

    • April Garner profile image
      Author

      April Garner 3 years ago from Austin, Texas

      Eric, yes it is easier when you actually like healthy food, but that can be something you can train yourself to do as well. Eating healthily is a habit that can be developed over time, even if it doesn't appeal so much to a person at first.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 3 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      What an interesting notion and hub. "clean". is strange to me. I am a lucky one, I crave healthy.