What is clean eating? Plus a meal plan for getting started

As the world learns more about food, the human body, and the ways in which both interact, there are many new terms that pop up every day. From a KETO diet to vegan to pescatarian, there’s a wide variety of ways in which people can decide which foods they choose to eat. For many, diet culture can be harmful, but terms like “clean eating” can help us get back to a lifestyle that focuses on food’s true purpose: nourishing our bodies. Like most people, you might find yourself asking, what is clean eating?

Well, “what is clean eating?” is a more complex question than it seems because “clean eating” is not an official nutritional term. But basically, what clean eating means is that you are dedicated to a lifestyle of eating unprocessed, whole foods that provide nutrients to the body.

“What us ‘city folk’ call clean eating is what people who live in more rural areas often just call eating,” said Debra Palmer, Assoc. Extension Specialist in Community Nutrition at Rutgers University.

What is clean eating: what does clean eating really mean

There is confusion around clean eating because it is not an official term. As a result, there are no definitive guidelines that deem a food or drink “clean.” But that does not mean that you can’t adopt a clean eating lifestyle. It’s important to note that this is a lifestyle, not a fad diet.

“I feel like it gets a lot of bad rep, but to me it just means eating less processed food and eating more whole foods,” Ligos said.

“People get really caught up on the word ‘clean,’ but I don’t think it’s a harmful word” said Laura Ligos, a registered dietitian nutritionist and author of The Complete Clean Eating Cookbook. “There are a lot of harmful words out there as far as diet culture goes, but we need to take a step back and really think about is clean eating really all that detrimental to someone’s health? No. It’s not restrictive and it’s not judgmental.”

According to Ligos, there are five core principles of clean eating:

  1. Choose whole foods. For example, choose to eat a potato instead of a potato chip.
  2. Limit sugar. It’s not that you can’t have sugar, it just shouldn’t be the main part of your diet. You should consume carbs naturally through fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  3. Mind your portions. In clean eating, you aren’t restricted from eating a certain food group, but you are encouraged to examine the main food groups and make sure you’re getting enough protein, fats, and carbs on your plate. You also want to be mindful of eating to satisfy your hunger and take into account your activity level. 
  4. Drink plenty of water. Water is extremely important to the body’s natural processes. You should focus on water first as opposed to other hydration sources. 
  5. Move your body. Part of a clean eating lifestyle also involves taking care of your body on all fronts. In your daily life, incorporate walking, hiking, running, or whatever type of exercise works best for you and your lifestyle.

What is clean eating: how clean eating is different from eating organic foods

Organic foods can become certified but the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). In order to gain organic certification, a food item must be grown and manufactured in accordance with the federal guidelines, which include soil quality, animal farming methods, pest control, and the use of chemicals and additives.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not provided a formal definition for what “natural” means. Even so, regarding human food labeling the FDA believes the term to mean without artificial or synthetic ingredients. The FDA has not decided if the term “natural” should be related to nutritional or health benefits (FDA, 2018).

Foods are able to gain a “clean label”, which has emerged as consumers  interest in the food they eat increases over the past few years, according to a paper from the Department of Food Science and Technology, University of Georgia Griffin campus. While the phrase “clean label” has no official definition, it promotes labels with ingredients that are “natural,” recognizable, marginally processed, and that provide clear information about manufacturing processes.

The term “clean labeling” has emerged as consumers interest in the food they eat increases. Clean labeling means different things to different people, but generally involves the following:

  • Natural ingredients: no artificial flavors, artificial colors, artificial preservatives, or synthetic additives.
  • Simplicity: less chemicals and recognizable ingredients that do not sound chemical or artificial.
  • Transparency: information on how ingredients are sourced and how products are manufactured.
  • Minimal processing: processing using techniques that consumers don’t understand to be artificial.

What is clean eating: how to get started with clean eating

5 ways to get into clean eating:

  1. Start cooking your own meals“For most people I tell them to just get in the kitchen and start cooking,” Ligos said. ” That is the most powerful way for people to actually see change. When they have control over it they tend to actually take action because they feel responsible for it.”One of the most important aspects of clean eating is cutting out processed foods and eating whole foods, instead. The most efficient, effective, and long-lasting way to do this is by cooking your own meals. Instead of eating frozen pre-made meals, cooking your own meals from scratch will eliminate many unwanted and unnecessary harmful ingredients.”Highly processed foods tend to be the ones with more fat, salt, sugar in them,” Palmer said. “So if you go with less processed food, you’re also getting less fat, salt and sugar. The more processed it is, the less clean it is.”
  2. Buy organicBuying organic foods is an amazing thing to do for your health, but buying strictly organic can be expensive. Many people cannot afford to make their shopping list completely organic, but that is okay.   What many people don’t know is that it is more important to buy certain fruits and vegetables organic over others. The Environmental Working Group, an American nonprofit group, releases a list every year of 15 fruits and vegetables that are safe to buy nonorganic, and a list that tells shoppers 12 foods they should splurge to buy organic, if possible. The “clean 15” and “dirty dozen” lists can help you get started buying organic produce without breaking the bank. 

    The 2019 clean 15:
    1. Avocados
    2. Sweet corn
    3. Pineapples
    4. Frozen sweet peas
    5. Onions
    6. Papayas
    7. Eggplants
    8. Asparagus
    9. Kiwis
    10. Cabbage
    11. Cauliflower
    12. Cantaloupe
    13. Broccoli
    14. Mushrooms
    15. Honeydew
    The 2019 dirty dozen:
    1. Strawberries
    2. Spinach
    3. Kale
    4. Nectarines
    5. Apples
    6. Grapes
    7. Peaches
    8. Cherries
    9. Pears
    10. Tomatoes
    11. Celery
    12. Potatoes 
  3. Join a CSADue to how the broad supply chain on food in the U.S. works, most of our fruits and vegetables travel a long distance from being picked to being put on our plated. As a result, many fruits and vegetables lose nutrition in the form of water soluble vitamins that aren’t as strong by the time they enter our body, according to Palmer.One way to avoid this vitamin loss and begin to eat clean is my sourcing locally grown produce. Palmer shared with Ladders one of her best kept secrets, which is tp join a Community Supported Agriculture, or a CSA.CSAs allow consumers to subscribe to the harvest of a certain local farm. The way these programs work is that a consumer will buy an upfront subscription to a farm at the beginning of the season, allowing farmers to purchase the supplies they need. Throughout the season, you will receive produce that is priced at a lower rate to you than to other consumers. All CSAs work differently, but some will deliver the produce right to your front door.Palmer encourages anyone looking to eat clean to research your local CSA to see if it is a right fit for you.

    “The cool thing about CSAs are usually most of them are organic farms,” Palmer said. “They’re smaller farms, so you’re supporting local agriculture.”

    By shopping local, you are eliminating food safety risks that pop up in a complex supply chain and are also shopping more environmentally friendly by cutting out the transportation factor of getting your food to your table.

  4. Grow your own food

    One other way to cut the supply chain out of the foods you eat is by growing your own food. Even if you live in a tiny apartment, you can still grow your own fruits, vegetables, and herbs with your very own hydroponic system.If you have the space to have your own garden, that’s great as there are many options for growing your own foods in a garden, depending on where you live.By growing your own foods, you are limiting the amount that your food is processed and decreasing food safety risks.”You have people butchering, other people processing and other people carrying it…the more hands it goes through, the more food safety risks you have,” Palmer said. “It’s much cleaner to just go somewhere where it’s very fresh.”You can’t get much more fresh than bringing food from your backyard to your kitchen.

    If growing your own foods intimidates you, Palmer has another “best kept secret” for you. Palmer recommends utilizing the services of your local Cooperative Extension Service, which is available to any person with questions about gardening, soil, and anything relating to your at-home garden.
    According to the USDA’s website, Cooperative Extension Service exists “to improve the quality of people’s lives by providing research-based knowledge to strengthen the social, economic and environmental well-being of families, communities and agriculture enterprises. Extension experts focus on, among other subjects, food safety and quality, plight of young children, revitalizing rural America, sustainable agriculture, and waste management.”

  5. Pick clean fish
    It’s tricky to know which fish is healthiest. Since farmed fish used to have a really bad rep, it’s difficult to keep track of when you should buy farmed fish or when you should opt for fresh fish.To make this decision, Palmer recommends checking out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch tool. On the website, you can enter any kind of fish you are interested in and it will give you recommendations for buying and eating each type of fish.

What is clean eating: why now is a great time to start this lifestyle

As commutes and social obligations are cut out, most of us have extra time during the coronavirus pandemic, meaning there is more time to devote to creating a healthier lifestyle for ourselves.

With extra time, you can begin to think about growing your own food and cooking your own meals.

“This is a really good time for people to start doing clean eating because we don’t want many people having touched our food right now you know and if you go to a local farmers market or CSA, you won’t have to worry about that,” Palmer said. “You have a little bit more time…people are staying home and have more time to cook and purchase less processed foods, so this is a great time.”

What is clean eating: how registered dietitians feel about “clean labels”

“I am overjoyed to see a growing interest in the foods we eat!” said Joel Hamilton, a registered dietitian at Clemson University. “Many labels contain words that are not readily recognized by most. I can see how this could be off-putting. However, I recommend consulting your doctor, a Registered Dietitian, or the food company themselves if you have questions regarding an unknown item. Not recognizing an ingredient does not necessarily mean it is detrimental to your health, and vice versa.”

Hamilton speaking with your doctor or a registered dietitian in order to make an informed decision about any changes to your diet. One aspect of clean eating that Hamilton endorses is making your own meals.

“Making your meals gives you more control on what you include and exclude from your diet,” Hamilton said. “That flexibility might come in handy when following a subjective diet plan, such as clean eating. I urge you to continue caring about what you eat, continue to ask questions, and continue to think about your health.”

Jennifer Fabiano is an SEO reporter at Ladders.