This article was written by Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, our lead dietitian. The premise is “clean eating explained.”
Over the past five to ten years, “clean eating” has become synonymous with healthy eating. But what exactly does it mean to “eat clean?” You’re not alone if you’re not 100% sure, so I’m breaking down the basics of this trend.
In its broadest and most agreed-upon sense, clean eating means centering one’s diet around whole and minimally processed foods and ingredients. But it’s important to first note that “clean eating” has no official definition or defined protocol. Because of this, the eating approach can be interpreted and twisted to also include a variety of additional restrictions. For example, clean eating for one individual may also include avoiding dairy and gluten, while for another individual it may mean eating primarily organic produce and grass-fed animal products. These variations often originate from an influencer’s opinion or personal health goals—not necessarily science. And they can also (quickly) turn a healthy, long-term eating approach into a restrictive and unrealistic diet that’s unrealistic to follow long-term.
These variations that aren’t always grounded in science are why the “clean eating” trend tends to irk dietitians like myself. However, the general premise behind clean eating—shifting food choices to more whole, minimally processed foods—is healthy and beneficial for everyone.
Wondering what eating clean looks like from a food perspective? Here are some widely accepted guidelines and tips for how to eat clean.
Tips for Clean Eating
Choose whole, minimally processed foods.
Eating a diet centered around whole foods is at the root of clean eating, but this doesn’t mean all processed foods are off limits. The term “processing” is broad and includes things like adding sugar and artificial colors, but also washing, cutting, and preserving produce. This means minimally processed foods like bagged salad greens, canned tomatoes, frozen berries, pasteurized milk, and some nut butters are all acceptable choices. The trick to determining what’s “clean” and what’s not is making sure the packaged food still bears a very close resemblance in taste, nutrition, and appearance to how the food originally started.
Avoid moderate to highly processed foods.
Be choosy when shopping by checking the ingredient list. While it’s easy to spot highly processed foods (such as cheese puffs colored a shade not found in nature, or cereals with rainbow-colored marshmallow charms), it’s the processed foods in between that are tricky. Manufacturers’ packaging and use of terms like “natural” and “GMO-free” can easily make one assume a food is healthy and minimally processed. So I’ve found it’s always a good idea to glance at the ingredient list. Typically, the shorter the list, the “cleaner” the food. For store-bought items like marinara and salad dressing, I look at the ingredient list. Are they ingredients I might use if making the pasta sauce or dressing from a healthy recipe at home? If so, this signifies a clean, minimally processed food to me.
Skip refined grains.
Refinement is a heavier type of processing that strips off most of a grain’s fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. This means that products made with refined grains like crackers, pretzels, and cookies are not usually considered “clean foods.” Many people will also avoid refined grains themselves like white rice and pasta.
If you’re wondering where whole-grain bread falls, you’re not alone—and this one is subject to interpretation. Some clean eaters may incorporate bread made predominantly with a 100% whole grain flour and minimal ingredient list, while purists may argue this doesn’t follow clean eating guidelines.
Be picky about ingredients.
Clean eating usually means being picky about ingredients by minimizing added sugars, as well as opting for less refined forms like honey or maple syrup when sugar is consumed. For most, it also means avoiding artificial colorings and sweeteners, unnecessary additives, and foods made with refined vegetable oils. Preferred oils that many consider “cleaner” are olive, avocado, and coconut oils. Additionally, some clean eaters may take this a step farther by choosing organic produce when possible and/or purchasing only organic dairy and grass-fed animal proteins.
How-To Implement Clean Eating
When used as a framework to help one eat more whole, less processed foods and to choose healthier ingredients, clean eating is a great eating philosophy to follow for all ages. In fact, this is what we worked to model the Cooking Light Diet around—using real foods to create simple but delicious dishes that you can’t wait to eat. Here are a few examples of “clean eating” recipes you could expect to find in your daily menus.
If you’re a Cooking Light Diet member, use the Search tool to find these recipe names and schedule them into your weekly meal plan!
Beef and Broccoli Stuffed Sweet Potatoes
Carne Asada Bowls
Chicken Breasts with Brown Butter-Garlic Tomato Sauce
Fall Vegetable Curry
Remember, though, that there is no official definition for clean eating, or a defined protocol for eating clean. You may find others who may choose to adopt additional clean eating guidelines, such as also avoiding dairy, gluten or caffeine, or only eating organic produce and grass-fed animal proteins. They can lead to restrictive eating, as well as overcomplicate a pretty simple and healthy eating approach. So make sure any additional parameters actually address specific healthy goals you have.
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Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, is the author of Meals That Heal: 100+ Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, and a culinary nutrition expert known for her ability to simplify food and nutrition information. She received a 2017 James Beard Journalism award, and her work is regularly featured in or on respective websites for Cooking Light, RealSimple, Parents, Health, EatingWell, Allrecipes, MyFitnessPal, eMeals, Rally Health, and the American Heart Association. You can follow her on Instagram @realfoodreallife_rd or on carolynwilliamsrd.com.