Clean Eating Isn’t a Fad Diet …. It’s The Real Deal. Learn the Basics of Eating Clean and Reap The Health, Weight-Loss and Fitness Rewards.
At any given time, more than two-thirds of Americans are “on a diet.” Yet only 5 percent will experience lasting weight or fat loss. We’re a nation on a perpetual diet, yet America continues to lead the world in obesity, heart disease, Type II diabetes and metabolic syndrome — a combination of risk factors that predispose people to developing heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Here’s the irony: Even though American’s are “dieting” more, we’re getting fatter each day.
Enter “Clean Eating” — a simple, common-sense approach to diet and nutrition that ditches the complicated menu plans of dieting gurus; avoids the single-food focus of the worst fad diets; eschews the loopy pseudo-scientific underpinnings of “Detox Diets” and instead emphasizes sensible, nutritious eating.
In other words, follow this approach and you’ll be less hungry, more satisfied, healthier, and slimmer … for good.
Clean Eating is the ultimate “un-fad” diet. And once you get the hang of it, you’ll never be able to imagine that you thought eating cabbage soup everyday was the key to getting lean.
The Origins of Clean Eating
The concept of “clean eating” isn’t new.
While it’s a phrase you’ll hear tossed around a lot by bodybuilders, athletes and fitness models, the Clean Eating philosophy has its original roots not in the bodybuilding and fitness communities, but rather in the co-op-shopping-Birkenstock-and-granola-crowd.
That’s right, thousands of buff beach bodies can thank tofu-eating, Deadheads for helping them shape better abs, drop body fat and improve their cholesterol profile to boot.
The Clean Eating philosophy is really based on the natural health food movement of the 1960s, which then got transformed into the “whole foods” approach to eating, which emphasizes consuming foods (preferably organic) that are unprocessed or refined as little as possible before consumption.
Canadian fitness model and author Tosca Reno is often credited with popularizing this approach to eating with her series of Clean Eating cookbooks, but the basics of this diet have been around for decades. Fitness trainer, natural bodybuilder and Burn the Fat, Feed The Muscle author Tom Venuto has been talking about “eating clean” for years, and makes it a central part of his fat-loss and muscle gain plan.
At it’s root, the diet is so common-sense and back-to-basics, that no one really can take credit for developing this approach to diet and nutrition.
In fact, all of the recipes and nutrition articles on Answer Fitness are been based on the Clean Eating philosophy. Until recently, I wasn’t even aware that there was an “official” Clean Eating movement out there … it was just a term that I and a lot of others had been using for years to describe healthy eating habits.
Eating Clean: What Exactly Is It?
The basics of Clean Eating are simple:
- Eat a wide-variety of whole, unrefined and unprocessed foods in a form that’s as close as possible to how the foods appear in nature
- Avoid processed sugars, especially sugary beverages like soda
- Avoid saturated fat and trans fats, and instead substitute healthy, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats
- Always combine complex carbohydrates with lean protein and some healthy fats at every meal
- Spread your food out over 5-6 smaller meals, consumed every 2-3 hours
- Eat for maximum nutrient density. In other words, avoid “empty” calories found in fast food, soda, snacks, cakes and cookies, and substitute in nutrient-dense snacks.
- Pay attention to proper portions and practice portion control
- Drink lots of water (at least 8 cups a day.)
Benefits of a Clean Eating Diet
So why would a person want to try Clean Eating? There are a number of proven benefits to Clean Eating:
- Decreased body fat
- Increased lean tissue (muscle)
- Improved energy
- General improvements in overall health and immunity
- Decreased risk of certain types of diseases like diabetes, stroke, heart disease and cancers
- Less consumption of pesticides, artificial food additives and preservatives, sodium and sugar
- Less impact on the environment, since Eating Clean is also Eating Green; the foods you preference in a Clean Eating diet are minimally processed, and thus use less energy and produce less waste than highly-processed foods
- Less expensive. Contrary to what you might believe, Clean Eating is actually more cost-effective and less expensive than eating pre-packaged food or fast food. For instance, for the price of a Super-Sized Big Mac Meal Deal, you could prepare an entire pot of healthy soup that would make more than a half dozen meals that are healthier, more satisfying and more nutritionally-dense.
- Sustainable. Unlike fad diets, Clean Eating is a holistic approach to eating that a person can practice for their entire life. You don’t “go on” a Clean Eating diet — you’re always clean eating.
The Clean Eating Principles Explained
Now that we know the the basics of Clean Eating, let’s take a closer look at why each of these principles work.
Clean Eating Principle #1: Eat a wide-variety of whole, unrefined and unprocessed foods in a form that’s as close as possible to how the foods appear in nature
If there is one rule of Clean Eating, this is the one that rules them all. In fact, if you understand this principle, all of the others pretty much fall into place.
The concept is pretty easy to grasp: If you can’t go pick, reap or acquire the food in the field, farm or orchard and then eat it, you’re on the wrong track.
Now, does that mean that you are destined to eat wheat berries and nuts and berries the rest of your life? No. The key here is to use this principle to make better choices between foods.
A Tale of Two Breads
Let’s take a real world example: bread. For a lot of people, bread is a lily-white, fluffy, doughy loaf of air made by someone named “Wonder.” But for most of human history, bread was dense, heavy, grainy, and dark. It contained four ingredients: ground wheat from the field, some yeast, a pinch of salt and water. Sometimes it would be sweetened with honey.
While you can’t go into a wheat field and “pick” a loaf of bread (the wheat obviously has to be ground into flour first), a loaf of 100% whole wheat bread made with these four ingredients is about the closest you’ll get to eating wheat off from the stalk.
White bread, on the other hand, is made with flour that has had most of the naturally-occurring components (and vitamins and minerals) of the wheat berry removed, including the bran and germ. The flour is then “bleached” to remove any of the pigments that would give it dark color (pigments, which ironically, may have potent antioxidant properties.) It’s mixed up in huge batches in a factory somewhere, dough conditioners and chemical preservatives are added, and then it’s “enriched” by dumping a bunch of synthetic vitamins and minerals back into the dough.
This isn’t “natural.”
The irony here is that if the flour had been left in it’s whole wheat form, much of this “re-enrichment” would be unnecessary.
So, based on the Clean Eating guidelines, which food would you choose? The highly-processed white Wonder Bread or a bread made from the whole wheat berry?
Solving this question is easy. Just ask yourself which one is closer to its natural form? Of course, it’s the 100% Whole Wheat version.
Apple Juice Isn’t An Apple
Same goes for fruits and vegetables.
When Eating Clean, you want to try whenever possible to choose fruits and vegetables in as close to their natural state as possible.
Take apple juice.
Apple juice seems to be a pretty healthy food, right? But ask yourself: Have you ever seen an apple tree that produced juice? Of course not. Humans have to press the juice out of the apples, and then throw away the pulp that’s left over.
When you eat a whole apple, you get all of the benefits of the fruit: the fiber in the flesh; the vitamins, minerals and energy in the juice, and the powerful antioxidants in the skin. If you only drink the juice, you are consuming a third of what the fruit has to offer nutritionally, not everything.
Clean Eating, first and foremost, is about maximizing the nutrition available in a food. There is also mounting scientific research to support the idea that substances in the flesh, skin and juice of fruits and vegetables work together to protect the body from damage and disease. If you eat only one of these substances, you are shortchanging yourself.
So when eating fruits and vegetables, try to always eat them in their whole form. If you want an apple, eat a whole apple, skin and all. Same goes for a carrot, or potato, or pear.
Clean Eating Principle #2: Avoid processed sugars, especially sugary beverages like soda.
Sugars are everywhere, and they power our workouts, daily activities and our brains. All carbohydrates eventually get broke down into simple sugars, but how quickly they are broke down and when, determines whether they are utilized effectively, or get packed on as excess body fat.
Some simple sugars, like table sugar (sucrose) and dextrose or maltodextrin (common sweeteners in processed foods and candies) are digested very quickly by the body and cause blood sugar spikes. These spikes typically cause a rush of energy and then a “crash” later on. Blood sugar spikes also cause a complex cascade of bio-chemical reactions in the body that encourage fat storage.
Of course, sugars are also extremely calorie dense gram-for-gram and have zero vitamin or mineral content.
So simple sugars violate the Clean Eating concept of nutrient density and don’t qualify as a ”whole food” since they require extensive processing to create them.
A better alternative is to utilize sugars that appear naturally in nature — things like fruit or whole food sources of fruit sugars like honey, agave nectar, or maple syrup. These sweeteners also have their own unique flavors that can enhance the foods that you add them to.
Processed, simple sugars like table sugar and dextrose are very sweet and our taste buds become accustomed to this intensity. It’s like a drug, and the more sugar we consume, the more “resistant” to it’s sweetness we become. So we crave more.
However, as you pull back on processed, simple sugars your taste buds adjust — and even fruit can taste very sweet after a few months away from the processed stuff.
If fruit is a “clean” source of natural sweetness, the dirtiest source is soda. If you’ve heard people describe soda or pop as “sugar water” they are right. The main ingredients in soda are sugar and water. Heavy soda drinkers have been known to drop pounds of body fat just by ditching their daily Big Gulp or super-sized Mountain Dew.
So Clean Eating really means carefully looking at the sugars in foods, and choosing the lower-sugar varieties or sweetening things yourself naturally with fruit, or a touch of honey, agave nectar or pure maple syrup.
Clean Eating Principle #3: Avoid saturated fat and trans fats, and instead substitute healthy, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats
Despite the “Low Fat” craze of the Eighties and early-Nineties, fat is not your enemy. But “bad” saturated and trans fats are.
Good fats — the kind that come from things like nuts, fish and oils that are high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats — can be liberally consumed without having a detrimental effect on your overall health. In fact, studies have shown that people who consume even large amounts of healthy fats have better cholesterol profiles, less body fat and less risk of certain kinds of cancers.
Your body needs a certain amount of fats to produce hormones and repair tissue. Fat also lowers the glycemic load (the rate at which carbohydrates induce insulin release into the blood) of foods, so when you eat healthy fats with complex carbohydrates, it slows digestion and keeps blood sugar and energy levels more stable. Fat is also satisfying to the taste buds, so people who eat more healthy fats tend to be less hungry and eat less overall.
Good sources of healthy fats, as part of an eating clean diet, include oily coldwater fish like salmon, nuts (especially almonds, walnuts and pecans), nut butters, flax seed, avocados, nut oils, and olive oil.
Clean Eating Principle #4: Always combine complex carbohydrates with lean protein and some healthy fats at every meal
While many diets suggest reducing entire food groups (like carbohydrates or fats) from meals, Clean Eating encourages you to always combine carbohydrates, lean protein and fats in each meal.
This approach ensures that you are getting maximum nutrition and balance in your meals, which will translate into sustained energy, less hunger, and eventually, increased fat loss. Combining a variety of foods may also take advantage of synergistic characteristics between foods and the phytochemicals in them, amplifying the impact of antioxidants in the body.
One of the advantages of Clean Eating is it’s flexibility. So while it encourages always combining complex carbs, lean protein and healthy fats, you can feel free to play around with the ratios here. Individuals respond differently to these macro-nutrients, so you may find eating a little more lean protein and healthy fats — and fewer carbohydrates — produce better results for you. Other people do fine with a lower overall protein intake, and higher carbs. So the key is to keep track of your food for a while and see what ratios work for you.
Remember though, you should be aiming to always have some amount of these foods together in your meals.
Clean Eating Principle #5: Spread your food out over 5-6 smaller meals, consumed every 2-3 hours
This is the Clean Eating principle that many people scratch their heads over, especially since we’ve had the “three-square meals” idea pounded in our heads since childhood.
This principle isn’t necessarily about eating more food (although you might), but rather distributing your daily food over smaller, more frequent meals. This has four benefits:
- By keeping your meals smaller, you make sure you are only eating an amount of food that your body can utilize for energy and recovery over the next 2-3 hours. This discourages overeating, or calorie intake in excess of what your body needs, which will keep you lean or help you shed body fat.
- Better, more sustained energy. Eating smaller meals, more frequently, helps keep your blood sugar levels stable which prevents energy crashes. Blood sugar spikes also encourage excess calories to be stored more readily as body fat, so when you keep blood sugar stable, it can help you lose fat or at least maintain leanness.
- Improved metabolism. It takes energy to digest food. Eating more frequently can have a slight positive impact on resting metabolism.
- Improved macro-nutrient availability. This is especially important if you are performing weight or resistance training. Reducing body fat, while building muscle, requires food — and your muscles need carbs, fats and protein to recover and grow. By consuming food every 2-3 hours, you always make sure there is enough energy available to fuel recovery.
So under the Clean Eating approach, your meals for the day might look like this:
- Breakfast: Bowl of oatmeal with fresh fruit and scrambled egg whites with one whole egg
- Morning Snack: And apple with almond butter
- Lunch: Sliced chicken breast (from a home-cooked chicken breast, not deli lunchmeat) on Ezekiel 4:9 sprouted grain bread with lettuce and tomatoes and a side salad with olive oil and vinegar dressing
- Afternoon Snack: Low-fat, low-sugar homemade granola
- Dinner: Salmon filet with herbed brown rice and steamed asparagus in Dijon mustard sauce
- Evening Snack: Cup of low-fat cottage cheese with a handful of almonds
Six small meals and snacks, all balanced with protein, carbs and healthy fats, none over 500 calories each, spread out over the day. Depending on your goals (fat loss versus building muscle), the amount of calories in each meal can be adjusted up.
Clean Eating Principle #6: Eat for maximum nutrient density. In other words, avoid “empty” calories found in fast food, soda, snacks, cakes and cookies, and substitute in nutrient-dense snacks.
As we’ve already discussed, Clean Eating emphasizes eating foods that are nutrient-dense.
With the exception of a “treat” or “cheat meal” once a week, when eating clean, you generally want to stay away from foods that are high in “empty calories.” These will usually be highly-processed, boxed foods and foods with a high amount of sugar, as well as sodas and juices that are not 100% fruit juice.
You can spot empty calories by look at nutritional labels and ingredient lists on foods. Empty calories will usually have very low fiber (if any fiber at all) and will be high in carbohydrates (especially sugars), high in fat, and low in protein. They will also often list either sugar or white flour as one of the first ingredients on the label. And if the ingredient list has all kinds of words you can’t pronounce, it’s probably not a clean food. The shorter the ingredient list, the better.
What you do want to eat are foods with short ingredient lists composed primarily of whole food sources, and foods that are high in protein and fiber. They should also have very little saturated fat, although total fat (if it’s the healthy monounsaturated or polyunsaturated kind) isn’t necessarily a red flag — especially if the food is also high in protein and fiber (like almonds or mixed nuts, for example.)
In general, if you follow the first principle of Clean Eating, you’ll naturally preference these types of nutrient dense foods.
Clean Eating Principle #7: Pay attention to proper portions and practice portion control
Clean Eating isn’t a blank check to eat all your want as long as they are “clean foods.”
You also need to eat with a goal in-mind. If that is to lose some body fat, you’ll need to structure your meals to keep you within a certain calorie range that results in a slight calorie-deficit by the end of the day. On the other hand, if you are trying to gain lean tissue like muscle, you’ll eat slightly more calories than your body requires to maintain your weight.
Once you know your goal and calculate your target calories for that goal, you’ll then need to pay attention to portions. Most Americans, thanks to Super-Sized menus and all-you-can-eat-buffets, have very whacked out concepts of what a serving is. A serving of brown rice, for instance, is a 1/2 cup of cooked rice — not a mound of it (which could actually be 2-3 servings.)
If you are underestimating serving and portion size, you’ll be eating more food than you need. This is why initially when you start a Clean Eating diet, you should weigh out portions and use some type of calorie tracking program to get an idea of how much energy you are actually consuming in food and how much you are expending with activity and exercise.
While you may not need to do this permanently, weighing and tracking your food initially for a period of a few weeks, will “recalibrate” your sense of what a portion actually is. Once that’s done, you can usually “eyeball” portions accurately.
Clean Eating Principle #8: Drink lots of water (at least 8 cups a day.)
Water keeps you hydrated, helps aid in digestion, can improve concentration and energy and can help you feel fuller and more satisfied over the course of the day. And when you drink water instead of empty calories like soda, you can dramatically decrease your overall calorie intake for the day.
If ice water get’s boring after a while, don’t forget that there are ways to make water more exciting and flavorful. And, yes, even moderate consumption of tea (black, green or white) and coffee can count toward your daily water requirements.
The Challenges of a Clean Eating Diet
While Clean Eating is simple and straight-forward, actually practicing Clean Eating can be challenging for some people. It’s important to know a few key things ahead of time if you want to successfully follow a Clean Eating diet:
- Expect to cook more. Processed food is processed in large part to make it more convenient and easier for people to prepare. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese can be made in less than ten minutes by just boiling water, but brown rice takes 20-30 minutes to cook. You will need to prepared to spend more time in the kitchen preparing clean foods.
- Be prepared initially for some blandness. Many of the foods in a Clean Eating diet plan will initially taste “bland.” Processed foods have all kinds of natural and unnatural chemicals and flavorings (and loads of sodium) added to them, all carefully researched by “food scientists” to tickle your taste buds, even if it’s causing you to develop Type II Diabetes in the process. When people switch to whole foods, their taste-buds basically go through withdrawal and nothing seems to have the flavor of that box of Hamburger Helper. Eventually, as you eat more clean, whole foods, your taste-buds will adjust and you’ll start to appreciate the natural flavor of the whole food, and not the additives. Using plenty of fresh and dried herbs and spices can help with this.
- Eating out isn’t as easy. Eating clean at a restaurant is one of the most frequent sticking points for people following a Clean Eating diet. While it can be difficult to find clean food options when eating out, it’s not impossible. Look for salad options, or dishes that feature one food with a simple side of veggies, for example lean cuts of steak or fish or chicken breast. If it has a sauce, it’s probably not very clean, so ask the waiter how it’s prepared. Many restaurants will make modifications to the dish based on your request, so it pays to talk to the staff.
- Planning ahead. Clean Eating requires a certain amount of pre-planning and pre-preparation when it comes to eating. You’ll need to pack your own lunches and snacks for the office or work, since the options available to you will probably not be “clean.” The good news, however, is that once you get in the habit of this, you’ll save money and develop some techniques for making this more efficient.
- Cost. Some people perceive “clean food” to be more expensive, but as we pointed out earlier, it generally tends to be the exact opposite. Yes, some foods like leaner, organic cuts of meat, poultry or fish may be more expensive, but because you’ll be combining them with other, less expensive sources of whole carbohydrates and healthy fats, you’ll make up for the difference.
- No white flour or sugar. This scares a lot of people away, but it’s important to point out that Clean Eating doesn’t mean no flour, no sweeteners and no bread, period. When you’re on a Clean Eating diet, you can still consume flour and bread — you just need to substitute 100% whole wheat flour or bread. And in terms of sugar, you can use whole sugar sources like honey, agave nectar or fruit to sweeten things. After a few weeks, you’ll adjust to this and be fine.
What About Cheat Meals?
Once you get in the habit of Clean Eating, you’ll generally find that your cravings for less healthy foods are reduced. However, even the cleanest eaters will want to celebrate a birthday with some cake or maybe eat a dish of Fettuccine Alfredo at a nice Italian restaurant.
Clean Eating is about averages, not the exceptions. Many people give themselves one meal each week when they get to break the rules a little bit. There is nothing wrong with this provided the rest of the week, you’re eating properly. The benefits of the other six days of healthy eating will far outstrip one indulgent meal — especially if you are exercising regularly. A lot of people won’t even try Clean Eating because they get hung up on what they can’t have. Don’t. Focus on what you can eat, and give yourself one meal as a reward for your hard work. This will help you stay committed to Clean Eating as a style of eating for the long haul.
Getting Started with Clean Eating
Since Clean Eating is intended to be a permanent change to the way you approach food and consume it, you’ll want to view eating clean as an evolution, not a revolution, in your diet. The revolution part will come later, when you suddenly realize after eating this way for 3-6 months that you’re leaner and healthier and more filled with energy than ever before.
Here are a few tips to get you started on cleaning up your food and diet. Start with modest, attainable goals like removing the worst offenders first, and then gradually make other improvements in the coming weeks:
- Ditch the soda pop (and that includes diet soda– which is still nutritionally-empty) and opt instead for tea, flavored waters, sparkling water, and some 100% fruit juices (but don’t go overboard on the juice)
- Start packing your own lunches to the office — this will reduce the temptation to dash to Burger King or In-and-Out for lunch.
- Keep healthy snacks with you at all times: in your desk at the office, in your laptop bag and in your car. Things like almonds, mixed nuts, granola, apples, and other fresh fruit. This will give you a healthy, clean eating option when the afternoon munchies hit.
- Always eat breakfast and start substituting healthier breakfast foods for the usual Slim Fast bar or sugary cereals. Good choices include oatmeal; hot oat bran cereal; muesli; Kashi; Ezekiel 4:9 sprouted grain cereal; low-sugar/low-fat granola sweetened with fresh or frozen fruit; or some of the lower-sugar, organic breakfast cereals on the market.
- Start substituting 100% whole wheat bread for white bread. Also check out some of the whole wheat, high fiber wraps and tortillas, like La Tortilla Factory’s Low Carb Tortillas as alternatives to the usual loaf of bread.
- Work hard to break your food consumption up into 5-6 smaller meals.
- Learn to cook. Subscribe to a magazine like Cooking Light or Clean Eating Magazine to find healthy recipes and learn basic cooking and prep techniques. Cooking is not that difficult, once you learn a few things.
- Get in the habit of always reading food and nutritional labels. Understanding what you are actually eating and it’s nutritional characteristics is key to Clean Eating.
- Spend the majority of your time at the grocery store shopping the “perimeter“: the fresh produce area, the meat counter, and the milk, dairy and egg lanes. These are typically the places you’ll find the most whole, least-processed foods.
- For the first few weeks, pay close attention to portions. Buy an inexpensive food scale and weigh out portions. Track your food using a site like The Daily Plate. This will allow you to get a real sense for portions.
- Be careful of consuming too many empty calories in the form of alcohol. While an glass of wine each night has health benefits, moderation is the key.
Finally, don’t expect instant fat or weight loss with the Clean Eating approach to diet. While that will come, it will take some time. The good news, is that unlike other fad diets or eating plans, the fat you lose will come off slower, but you are much less susceptible to rebound weight gain. In the long run, you’ll be much more satisfied (and healthy) with the Clean Eating approach than with quick fix diet solutions.
About the Author (Author Profile)Leader of the Best Internet Marketing Team in the World By Day, Fitness Nerd By Night.
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