Do you feel like food controls you? Are you looking for a solution to weight issues or to your overall health? Are you exercising but not seeing or feeling the results you want? If so, I want to share with you about eating clean.
I am enthusiastic about this topic for several reasons. For one, I think “eating clean” is so important that I’m practicing it with my family. Also, every day I have patients ask me about losing weight, feeling better, preventing illness, and getting off medication (or not having to start medication). I truly believe that clean eating is an important part of being healthy and living well.
Choosing foods that are as close to their natural state as possible is the basis of eating clean. This is a way of eating that is sustainable over your entire life. It is a well-rounded, balanced diet that does not exclude any food group or require you to use unfamiliar, hard-to-find ingredients.
Clean eating has so many benefits. In addition to weight loss, it has been shown to improve your immune system, sleep, and energy levels. It may help improve mood, improve mental clarity, and even improve the health of your hair and skin.
What Clean Eating Is—and Isn’t
When you’re at the grocery store, labels lead you to believe that many items are healthy--things such as organic, gluten-free, low fat, sugar-free, etc. However many of these foods are altered and processed, and have lost the nutrients in the most beneficial natural state. Clean eating is pretty simple--eat foods in their natural state.
With clean eating it is important to know what you are eating. A major component is to avoid processed foods, refined ingredients and sugar. We all need complex carbohydrates, lean proteins and good fats for our bodies to be healthy. Below are some suggestions for clean eating for each of these nutrients.
Carbs is not a bad word! We should all have 6-10 servings per day of complex carbs. They stabilize blood sugar, improve digestion, boost energy and reduce food cravings.
Non-starchy Complex Carbs:
- Brussels sprouts
- Green beans
Starchy complex carbs:
- Brown rice
- Split peas
- Sweet potatoes
- Oats (old fashioned)
Notice that this list is full of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. These foods are the basis for good health. Reasonable portion sizes still matter, but with all the fiber in these foods, you will feel full on less, and also, they’re not calorie-dense compared to processed food.
Lean protein is also an important part of our diets. Protein usually comes from meats, fish, poultry, eggs but also some dairy, grains, and even vegetables. A few servings of the following foods are needed daily:
- Lean beef
- Fresh fish
- Unsalted nuts
- Peanut butter, other nut butters
- Greek yogurt
- Cottage cheese
- Almond and soy milk
Again, lean is better, as you want to limit animal fats (which often accompanies animal protein).
“Fat” isn’t a bad word either! Good fats are essential to our health. Many people are afraid of fats when dieting, but with clean eating it is actually important to have around 15% of daily calories from good fats. Good fats are the monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, and 2-3 servings per day are recommended. Examples include:
- Fish (baked or grilled)
- Peanut butter, other nut butters
- Nuts (unsalted)
- Olive oil
- Canola oil
Clean Eating “Super Foods” In Your Own Grocery
I live in a small town, and therefore shop in a small town grocery store. Below is a list of some of my favorite whole, clean eating foods you can find at even small town grocery stores.
- All fruits- fresh and frozen (note: canned produce often has added salt/sugar)
- All vegetables- fresh and frozen
- Applesauce, unsweetened
- Brown rice
- Canned tuna and salmon (in water)
- Cream cheese
- Dark chocolate
- Dried fruit
- Eggs (free range if possible)
- All fish grilled or baked (limit any high in mercury)
- Granola (homemade or some store bought unsweetened)
- Greek yogurt
- Lean beef, extra lean ground beef (in moderation)
- Green tea, other herbal teas
- Ground chicken and pork (lean)
- Nuts (unsalted)
- Pork chops or roast, trimmed
- Whole grain bread, pitas, tortillas
- Whole grain flours
- Whole grain pasta
What To Avoid
I’ll briefly discuss what foods to avoid, so you can make the comparison. The tips below are about identifying and avoiding processed food.
Avoiding processed foods is the essential clean eating rule. Look at the labels! Aim for foods with less than 5 ingredients and look for unrecognizable ingredients and food additives on the label. I know this is hard but use it as a general rule: when seeing a label with 15-20 ingredients it’s usually best to avoid it! Additives enhance flavor, texture, shelf life but do not belong in the clean eating lifestyle. Some of the most common ones include acids, artificial flavors and sweeteners, chemicals, dyes, hormones, preservatives, salt, and sugar!
Refined grains--aka white flour. When whole wheat is processed it turns into a starchy powder that loses a great deal of its good values. White rice vs. brown rice is the same way.
Trans fats and saturated fats. Trans fats are artificial fats and really should be completely avoided when on the clean eating diet. Saturated fats should be consumed in very small quantities--for me these are things such milk, some red meats, cheese, and butter (real butter—not margarine.
Refined sugar is one of the biggest problems with processed foods. It is surprising how many things have sugar in them. Seriously—start looking at labels and you will be shocked! Sugar, corn syrup, etc. is added to so many foods, but it is nothing but empty calories. (I was buying yogurt tubes for my kids-- thinking this was a healthy snack. I looked at the label and the third ingredient was refined sugar. I switched to a Greek yogurt for them which only has natural sugars.) I have had patients really improve their health and lose weight by simply greatly reducing or cutting out sugar in their diet!
Others--drinks such as soda, energy drinks. These are empty, useless calories, with lots of chemicals that are bad for your body. Drink water, unsweetened tea, unsweetened coffee, 100% juice (with no sweeteners) or milk, but not sweetened beverages. Also, artificial sweeteners are not better for you, and for some people, can increase cravings for sweets.
Avoid these foods at the grocery. If you eliminate or greatly reduce these, you will see results--whether it is weight loss, improved general health, or both.
- Artificial sweeteners
- Foods high in trans-fat, saturated fats
- Frozen dinners
- Fruit drinks/cocktails not 100% juice
- White flour
- White rice
- White pasta
Making Clean Eating a Little Easier
These are tips that I’ve found make clean eating easier and more convenient.
- Carry clean food snacks with you. I like to carry organic granola bars (without sweeteners), nuts, fruit or raw veggies with me. The kids love them too.
- Prep foods on weekend. Cut up veggies for recipes. Hard boil some eggs for lunch. Portion out baggies of healthy snacks to take to school or work. Pre-cook some “real” oatmeal to reheat for breakfast every day. An hour of prep on the weekend can help you eat healthy all week long.
- Don’t skip meals! This leads to fluctuations in blood sugar causing cravings, lack of energy and overeating.
- Drink LOTS of water. This is with any healthy living plan-- it really is important to stay hydrated!
Remember, make small changes, a few at a time. Aim for a goal of clean eating 75-90% of the time and allow yourself to have the occasional treat. It is important to not go overboard and create a plan that’s hard to follow or will make you feel deprived and frustrated. Once you start this, I promise you will start to be so much more aware of what is in the food you eat every day.
Also many of us are busy--I know I am. I’m always looking for quick and easy healthy options. Create a strategy for you that is successful, enjoyable and sustainable.
Finally, I’d like to share some books/resources that I personally use, that I refer my patients to often:
- The Clean Eating Cookbook and Diet by Rockridge Press
- Clean Eating Made Simple by Rockridge Press
- 100 Days of Real Food by Lisa Leake
- Pinterest - LOTS of ideas and recipes—just search “clean eating”