7 Tips for Clean Eating
You've probably heard of clean eating, but you may not know exactly what it is. For us, it's about eating more of the best and healthiest options in each food group and less of the not-so-healthy ones. That means embracing whole foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy proteins and healthy fats. It also means cutting back on refined grains, additives, preservatives, unhealthy fats, large amounts of added sugar and salt, and avoiding highly refined foods with ingredients you'd need a lab technician to help you pronounce.
Some clean-eating plans call for eliminating many food groups— coffee, dairy, grains and more. We don't believe in being that restrictive. Not only will you take away some of the enjoyment of eating, but there isn't much science to back up any benefits. You need to find a clean eating style that works for you. If you only take a few steps toward eating cleaner—cutting back on processed foods, for example, or eating more fruits and veggies (and, if it works for you, buying a few more organic)—it can still make an impact on your health. Here are some helpful tips to get you started.
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1. Load Up On Fruits and Vegetables
When it comes to fruits and vegetables, most of us aren't getting enough. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 10% of Americans eat the recommended servings of vegetables and fruits daily. Eating more fruit and vegetables can help significantly reduce your risk for a number of chronic diseases, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity and cancer. The fiber in whole produce also helps keep your microbiome (the collection of good bacteria that live in your gut) happy, which can reduce your risk for autoimmune diseases, fight off pathogens and infections and even improve your mood. Choose organic produce where you can, focusing on buying organic foods from the Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen list and cutting yourself some slack with the Clean 15 foods list.
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2. Go Whole Grain
The cleanest whole grains are the ones that have been touched the least by processing. Think whole grains that look most like their just-harvested state—quinoa, wild rice and oats. While some people abstain from eating any processed grains, we think that whole-wheat pasta and whole-grain bread made with simple ingredients are also part of eating clean. Sometimes you just need a hearty slice of avocado toast or a bowl of pasta. Don't get duped by "whole-grain" claims on labels though, to eat clean packaged whole grains you're going need to take a closer look at the ingredients. Whole grains should always be the first ingredient, the ingredient list should be short and recognizable, and it should have minimal (if any) added sugar. When you swap out refined carbs (like white pasta, sugar and white bread) for whole grains, you'll get more fiber, antioxidants and inflammation-fighting phytonutrients. Plus, people who eat more whole grains may easily lose weight and keep it off long-term.
Pictured Recipe: Mushroom & Tofu Stir-Fry
3. Eat Less Meat
More and more research suggests cutting back on meat is healthier for you and the planet. Veganism isn't a requirement for clean eating though—just eating less meat can help reduce your blood pressure, reduce your risk of heart disease and help keep your weight in check. Plus, eating more plants helps bump up the fiber, healthy fats and vitamins and minerals in your diet.
And if you're worried about getting enough protein by cutting down on meat—that shouldn't be an issue. Most Americans get much more than the recommended 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (approximately 56 grams daily for men and 46 grams daily for women). It's also easy to get that much protein from a vegetarian or vegan diet. Eggs, dairy (for a clean option, choose dairy with no added sugar and simple ingredients), beans and nuts all offer protein—see our list of top vegetarian protein sources for even more options.
When you do eat meat, choose options that haven't been pumped with antibiotics and even better if they've lived and eaten as they would in the wild (think grass-fed beef, wild-caught salmon). Clean eating also means cutting down on processed meats like cold cuts, bacon and sausage.
4. Watch Out for Processed Foods
We're not opposed to all processed foods. Technically when we chop, mix and cook at home we are processing foods. The trouble is that so much processed food at the grocery store is processed beyond the point of recognition. Nature certainly didn't color those chips that neon-colored of orange or make blue candy-colored cereal. Keep an eye out for anything with lots of sugar and refined grains, super-long ingredient lists with foods you don't recognize and anything with partially hydrogenated oils. Clean processed foods exist like plain yogurt, cheese, whole-wheat pasta and packaged baby spinach.
And while you can make salad dressings, pasta sauce, mayo, hummus and broth at home, you can also find clean versions at the store. Just read the ingredient list. Our bodies digest processed and unprocessed foods differently. In the case of white bread versus whole wheat bread, the machine has already started to process the white bread for you—stripping away the bran and germ—leaving your body with less work to do. Limiting packaged foods can also reduce your exposure to BPA (found in some canned foods) and other chemicals found in plastics.
Pictured Recipe: No-Sugar-Added Oatmeal Cookies
5. Limit Added Sugar
Most people eat too many added sugars. The American Heart Association recommends no more than about 6 teaspoons per day for women and 9 teaspoons per day for men. The average American gets about 4 times that amount—28 teaspoons of added sugar per day. To clean up your diet, reduce added sugars by limiting sweets like soda, candy and baked goods. But it's more than just desserts—keep an eye on sugars added to healthier foods like yogurt (choose plain), tomato sauce and cereal. Look for foods without sugar as an ingredient, or make sure it's listed towards the bottom, which means less of it is used in the food.
And you don't have to worry as much about naturally occurring sugars in fruit and dairy. They come packaged with fiber, protein or fat to help blunt the effect of sugar on insulin levels. They also deliver nutrients so you're not just getting empty, sugary calories.
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6. Keep an Eye on Sodium
Like sugar, most of us get far more sodium than we should. The Institute of Medicine recommends capping sodium at 2,300 milligrams daily, about one teaspoon of salt. If you're over 50, of African-American descent or have high blood pressure, chronic kidney disease or diabetes, you may want to go even lower, to 1,500 milligrams per day. 80 percent of the sodium in our diets is coming from convenience foods. Cutting back on processed foods will help you reduce your salt intake, as most packaged foods contain more sodium than homemade versions.
To help minimize salt while you cook, flavor your food with herbs and spices, citrus and vinegar. Clean-eating recipes can still use salt, which is essential for bringing out the flavor of foods, but use it smartly and sparingly. Coarse sea salt or kosher salt can add punch when sprinkled on dishes at the end of cooking, and they contain less sodium (teaspoon for teaspoon) than table salt.
Pictured Recipe: Broccoli & Parmesan Cheese Omelet
7. Consider the Environment
Clean eating is better for you and the planet. The food we eat takes resources to get to our plates. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, agriculture accounts for 11 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. The meat industry is one of the biggest offenders—It takes a lot of resources to raise and feed an animal and the methane released from digestion and manure (especially for cows, goats and sheep) makes that carbon footprint even bigger, according to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Animal Science. Some modern fishing practices have destroyed natural marine habitats and overfished certain seafood species.
Produce production can also take a toll with the types of herbicides, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers impacting water and soil quality. Eating clean comes in because going veg heavy and light on meat can help preserve the earth's resources. A vegetarian diet requires three times less water and 2.5 times less energy to produce than a meat-heavy diet. Broccoli has a carbon footprint that's 13 times lower than that of the same amount of conventionally raised beef. Shifting from a meat-forward style of eating to a plant-based style could slash greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2022 study published in the Journal of Cleaner Production. Choosing organic or grass-fed meat and purchasing sustainably caught or farmed seafood makes your proteins a more environmentally-sound choice. Fruits and vegetables can be purchased organic, as well as local and in-season to help cut down on their carbon footprint.
Hopefully, these tips have inspired you to add more whole foods to your diet. For more, check out our 30-Day Clean Eating Challenge to give you a jumpstart.
Some original reporting from EatingWell Quick & Clean