By Ed Shepherd CHC, CPT“
The best diet is the one that works for you. There are over hundred diet books presently, and many of those have made the best seller list. So, they must work, right? They do, for some, but seldom are they lasting or sustainable. Fad diets are all temporary at best.As one who has lost a lot of weight but also gained strength, got healthy and improved posture, and did so without the aid of any pills or supplements, I found out what works for me and it’s not a really diet at all, it’s instead a way of life that includes exercise and eating clean.
Let’s Talk About Eating Clean
There is no such thing as typical when it comes to eating clean foods. We’re all different and our lives are very demanding, and that eating clean isn’t a standard based on somebody else’s needs. It is can only be defined by you. Eating clean is about being empowered with knowledge, making the best choices that we can, going easy on ourselves, and doing the best that we can do from day to day.
A Bit of History
Eating clean is nothing new. The clean eating movement began in the 1960’s when a lot of things were changing, including people’s approaches to food and health. In a sense, this is when the “health food” movement really began. Eating processed and refined foods was frowned upon, probably more due to the changing values and mores of society at that time than to health and nutrition. However, people were beginning to think more holistically about their health and clean eating became popular with bodybuilders and fitness fanatics.
Skip ahead a few decades and clean eating began to make another resurgence. Companies like Wild Oats and Whole Foods became more mainstream as consumers were paying more attention to their lifestyles and the foods they were eating. Clean eating may not be a familiar term for you, but chances are you’re like me and have been paying more attention to the food you eat and perhaps practicing clean eating without realizing it!
Clean Food 101
The basis of clean eating is consuming primarily whole, unprocessed food. It is individualistic – it means different things to different people. However, all followers of this approach agree that processed foods are not included. Eating clean revolves around maintaining a balanced and personalized diet of fresh, unprocessed food including fruits, vegetables, grains, healthy fats, and some meats, fish, and dairy.
THE BASIC PRINCIPLES OF EATING CLEAN
Keep it whole.
Stick to whole foods – those that occur in nature and don’t go through a lab or another manufacturing unit. Examples include fresh fruits and vegetables, grass-fed and free-range meats, dairy, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Go for brown rice, quinoa, and whole wheat. Try the “new” ancient grains like teff, spelt, or freekeh. White bread, white pasta, and white rice are refined and have been stripped of a lot of their nutrients. Plus, refined foods are more likely to have a larger effect on your blood glucose levels.
Get in the kitchen more and ditch the processed foods.
When you cook for yourself, you’re almost guaranteed to up the nutritional value of your food. Restaurant food is more processed, less fresh, and often over seasoned. Okay, that may not always be possible, since sometimes time and convenience dictate what we are able to eat, but void packaged and canned foods, like boxed mac and cheese or salty soup in a can that comes with a whole list of unrecognizable ingredients. So, that means cooking from scratch, for the most part. And fresh is best.
Eliminate refined sugar and carbohydrates.
You’ll want to remove white foods (like white sugar and white flour) from your diet if you’re aiming to eat clean. This includes all standard desserts containing white sugar as well as white pasta, rice, bread, and pastries.
Eat a lot of plant foods.
You don’t have to become a vegetarian to eat clean, but one of the main principles is to eat a lot of vegetables, beans, and fruits.
Possibly the most simple yet difficult aspect of clean eating is to purchase local foods. By buying local you cut out travel and possible packaging or processing. Unfortunately, even though buying local is healthier for you and the environment and helps support local businesses, sometimes it’s a bit more expensive than what you’ll find at grocery store chains. But it’s worth it and doesn’t cost that much more in general—even less if you shop at farmer’s markets with certain foods like fruits and vegetables often cheaper right from a local farm than a grocery store.Maintain blood sugar and balance your meals. In other words, include some carbohydrate, protein, and fat at each of your meals. Many of us don’t eat enough protein at meals; protein helps to sustain fullness so that you’re not craving something two hours after eating. Also, eat a variety of foods.
Keeping your blood sugar stable greatly contributes to healthy food choices. When you wait too long between meals or eat processed foods that spike blood sugar – leading to a crash in energy – you’re more likely to reach for sugar, fat, or caffeine to keep your energy up. If you continue this cycle, you’ll always feel irritable and exhausted. If you ensure you eat whole foods every 3–4 hours, your blood sugar and mentality will remain stable.
Have little meals all day.
Food should be entering your body regularly throughout the day. The body responds well to this type of eating by staying out of starvation mode (where calories are stored and held onto when deprivation dieting). Eating this way keeps your blood sugar low, and steady and energy levels are maintained.
Read labels and ingredient lists.
Yes, serving size, total carbohydrate, and saturated fat are important to look at. But don’t be fooled into thinking that “fat-free” or “sugar-free” foods are the best choices for you. Most likely, these foods have a whole bunch of unpronounceable ingredients in the list. And a lot of these ingredients are the very ones that clean eaters try to avoid.
Drink plenty of water.
Water is vital for your body and impacts more of your health than you may know. It can flush out toxins and other harmful waste in the body, enhance and maintain healthy muscles, and decrease joint pain. Staying hydrated is also known to help control your appetite. Hunger is often mistaken for thirst, causing people to eat and overeat instead of the body what it really needs – water. Drink water throughout the day, at least the standard 8, 8-ounce servings, though your activity level and health impacts how much you should drink. By helping your body thrive from staying well-hydrated all the time you’ll be on your way to keep your body clean.
Do not drink your calories
If you are drinking caloric beverages often, you are taking in unnecessary empty calories. Clean eating emphasizes avoiding the diet-busting beverage pitfall by drinking calorie-free drinks like water, unsweetened tea and coffee. Coconut water and sparkling water are additional clean eating options.
Exercise portion control
Even if you’re an exercise fanatic or are training for something physically demanding, portion control is an important aspect of clean eating that’s doable regardless of your situation. Everyone requires different amounts of food, depending on their age, sex, weight, medical history, and lifestyle. Through portion control you can still get the added protein you need to train, while loading up your body with vital nutrients that will help your overall health.
Then there’s the added environmental benefit of following appropriate portion sizes—you won’t likely have waste. Throwing out food because there was more than you needed is quite common, a eating smaller meals several times throughout the day is a win for your health, environment, and wallet.
Shop the perimeter
If you consider how grocery stores are typically laid out, you’ll notice how most of the items are in boxes, jars, and other packaging. And thinking further about it, you’ll realize how those inner aisles and shelves contain pre-made, frozen and ultimately, heavily processed foods. When you follow the lifestyle of clean eating, processed foods aren’t just about the numerous additives and preservatives they contain. It encompasses the full process from the beginning to where it ends up.
By sticking to shopping the perimeter of your grocery store, you’ll pretty much avoid the worst processed foods. It’s not a perfect answer to clean eating since produce, meats, and dairy found in grocery stores still go through a sometimes long process to get there, but it limits not only the more unhealthy food but the ones that go through a much longer journey to become what they are and arrive at the store. Committing to perimeter shopping will pay off, too—buying and eating the healthy foods will impact your diet and overall health. And of course, buy local products as often as possible.
AN EMPHASIS ON QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
The clean eating approach emphasizes quality over quantity – not all calories are equal. When you stick to whole foods, you’re much more likely to keep your caloric intake at an appropriate level for your body and maintain a healthy weight as a result. It’s easy to eat your way through an entire bag of potato chips, but more than one or two apples would be laborious – see the difference?Whole foods actually fill you up and fuel you, whereas empty calories – like those found in candy and chips – fill a mental craving, but don’t physically fill you up. Your mindset will improve when you switch to whole foods since it’s hard to feel guilty after filling up on genuine nutrients. Whole foods also regulate cholesterol levels and ward off cancer, dementia, and a plethora of other conditions. In addition, the high fiber content of fruits, vegetables, and grains keeps the digestive system in tip-top shape, which is essential to optimal health.
Eating whole foods ensures you get adequate amounts of essential nutrients and minerals, like vitamin B12, magnesium, calcium, and more. Whole foods boast incredible nutrition profiles, and it’s best to eat a wide range of all the recommended foods to ensure any nutritional void is filled. Sure, you could pop vitamins in pill form all day, but nutrients are much more available to you – and more readily absorbed – when consumed through food.
What Counts as Processed Foods? Processed foods are those that typically come in a box or bag and contain more than one item on the list of ingredients. Some processed foods include:
- White bread, white pasta, and white rice are refined and have been stripped of a lot of their nutrients.
- Low-fat foods like crackers, cookies, and salad dressings often have added sugar and salt to make up for flavor, and gums or stabilizers are added to make up for texture. Some even have more calories than their higher-fat counterpart.
- Breakfast cereals: Whether flaked, puffed, shredded, or extruded (think Cheerios), nearly all breakfast cereals are highly processed. Look for those made with whole grains and little to no added sugar, salt, or artificial colors and flavors. Aim for five ingredients or less. Your best bet? Try muesli, a mixture of raw rolled oats, nuts, dried fruit, and seeds.
- Whole-wheat loaf bread: There’s a reason those perfectly sliced, long rectangular loaves sit on the shelves for weeks at a time without spoiling. They contain artificial preservatives to help maintain freshness. Buy whole-grain bread from your local bakery, where ingredients are kept simple with just flour, water, yeast, oil, and salt.
- Many condiments are filled with sodium, sugar, preservatives, gums, stabilizers, artificial colors, and artificial flavors. Whoa! Try seasoning foods first with herbs and spices.
The Perks of Clean Eating
- Help with weight loss
- Improve energy levels
- Improve sleep
- Give us clearer skin and shinier hair
- Improve our mental well-being
Extensive research has linked eating whole foods with good health. We do know that largely plant-based diets are healthy, Multiple studies have shown that diets heavy on fruits and vegetables can curb or prevent certain life-threatening conditions and diseases, such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Plus, there’s research linking diets high in fruits and veggies to healthy weight management and glowing skin and hair — as if you needed more motivation.