Whole foods in their most natural form are the backbone of eating clean. While fresh produce is an essential component of a clean diet, you don’t have to be a vegetarian to eat clean. Fresh meat, fish, poultry, and game are also an important part of a clean eater’s meal plan, as are whole grains and fresh dried beans. Eating clean is simple as long as you follow these easy steps.
Fresh foods are generally more fragile than processed or packaged foods, particularly if they have to travel long distances to get to you. That’s because they don’t have any preservatives or additives. This is especially true for meat, fish, poultry, produce, and dairy. At the store, be sure and check the “sell by” or “best used by date” if it has one. Then give it a good once over, making sure if it’s wrapped the seal is not broken or leaking and, if it’s produce, it’s not too soft, too hard, moldy, or bruised.
Second, use it right away. Unlike processed or packaged foods, which can often last on the shelf for months, fresh foods go bad quickly. Don’t buy more than you can eat in a sitting or two, unless you plan to freeze it. Eat your fresh food within two to three days.
This leads me to my third tip: handle your fresh foods with care. Most meat, produce, and dairy needs to be refrigerated immediately. Dry goods need to be stored in the pantry in a cool, dry place. While some dry goods do have a long shelf life, it is usually still shorter than refined, processed food.
Mother Nature provides a bounty of complex carbohydrates in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. In the body, these carbs give us the energy that fuels our muscles and feeds our brain. So why get rid of them? You don’t get rid of all of them—just the bad ones. Complex carbohydrates are considered “good carbs” because they are nutrient dense and often found in the company of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They’re essential for good health. Studies show they lower the risk of chronic illness, keep you regular, and are digested slowly, so energy is released at a steady pace, ensuring you can perform your best throughout the day. Complex carbohydrates are the foundation of the clean eating diet.
“Bad” carbohydrates are highly refined and processed, making them automatically off-limits when eating clean. They are mostly found in packaged or processed foods—strike two against them—and although they are a concentrated source of calories, they contribute very little nutritionally to your daily diet, making them bad news for people watching their weight. The most common refined carbohydrates are white flour, white sugar, and white rice.
How much protein do we really need? Recommended Dietary Allowances for protein are at ⅓ gram per pound of body weight—or 45 to 55 grams—of protein daily for average normal weight men and women. Physically active people, athletes, and older adults may need more—some experts say as much as twice that amount depending on how active you are. Even so, average American protein intakes can easily reach 95 grams per day. So, getting enough protein isn’t a problem. More important is the quality of the protein and how you eat it.
There are plenty of reasons to avoid eating too much fat. First of all, consuming too much fat makes you fat. Fat also increases your risk for chronic illness, and consuming too many fatty foods leaves little room for more nutritious foods. The worst fat offenders are saturated fats and trans fats.
Saturated fats are found in the visible white fat and fatty streaks in rich cuts of red meat. In chicken it’s found primarily in the skin and dark meat. Plants aren’t immune to saturated fat, either. Coconut oil, palm oil, palm kernel oil, and cocoa butter are loaded with saturated fat. Clean eaters minimize their intake of these fats.
Trans fats are man-made fats found in fried foods, store-bought cookies, cakes, icings, and other processed foods. They should be completely eliminated from your diet because they raise blood cholesterol levels. Fortunately, trans fats have recently been banned in many restaurants and foodservice establishments in cities across the country, including New York City. Most food manufacturers have also stopped using them.
The typical clean diet features three small main meals and two to three substantial snacks every day. Eating this way prevents you from overeating, skipping meals, and feeling fatigued or jittery from unstable blood sugar levels. It also helps you lose weight. Several studies show people who eat small frequent meals accumulate less fat than those who eat the same number of calories in fewer larger meals.
By substantial snacks, we mean 100 to 200 calories in each snack. All snacks, as well as meals, should include balanced portions of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. One of my favorite snacks is a hard-boiled egg with some crackers; another is a sliced banana topped with almond butter sprinkled with a bit of dark chocolate, all rolled in a whole wheat flour tortilla.
Main meals should generally range from 200 to 400 calories. This is considerably smaller than most Americans are used to eating. Since you eat so frequently, hunger isn’t a big deal. The biggest issue is getting used to your new lifestyle of eating often and in small portions.
Here are a few tips that can make the transition easier:
Water makes up about 60 percent of the human body, and it is involved in every system in the body. It regulates body temperature, cushions and protects vital organs, transports nutrients, and eliminates waste.
So how much water should you drink? For years health organizations recommended 8 (8-ounce) glasses of water a day in addition to your other beverages, but these guidelines have lightened up. While drinking 8 glasses of water is still a good idea, if you don’t meet that goal don’t beat yourself up. The 2006 Healthy Beverage Guidelines say drinking 2½ to 6 (8-ounce glasses) of water a day plus other beverages is perfectly acceptable. Here’s what you need to do to keep your body clean and healthy:
Drink when you’re thirsty. Thirst and hunger are two separate mechanisms; unfortunately, many people mistake thirst for hunger, which leads to piling on unnecessary calories.
Sip rather than gulp. Keep a glass of water nearby to sip throughout the day.
Drink a glass before meals. Many people drink a glass of water before dinner to fill themselves up, so they eat less. If this works for you, go for it.
Make water your first choice. Americans consume 21 percent of their daily calories from beverages. Few people are aware of all the “liquid calories” they drink. Sugar-sweetened sodas with high-fructose corn syrup or other refined sugars are not included on a clean diet. Water is your best bet. If you do want something else, choose natural fruit juices. To cut the sugars dilute these drinks by 50 percent with water, sparkling water, or seltzer.
Know when to drink more. If you are physically active, sweat a lot, live in a hot climate, or are sick, you need more water. To prevent dehydration when you exercise, drink before, during, and after workouts. An extra 1½ to 2½ cups is all you need for short exercise bouts of an hour or so.
Eat foods with high water content. Lettuce, broccoli, watermelon, and yogurt contain more than 85 percent water. Foods high in water volume—like broth-based soups, fruits, vegetables, and oatmeal—boost your fullness factor so you eat less.
The best clean drink choices:
The eating clean lifestyle is an active lifestyle that involves exercising 5 or 6 times a week, 30 to 60 minutes a day. In addition to making you look great and feel fabulous, working out regularly has plenty of other benefits. First, regular exercise slims you down by decreasing fat and building muscle. Having more muscle raises your metabolism, so that you burn more energy even at rest, making it easier to keep the weight off. Exercise also acts like a natural appetite suppressant, curbing cravings and hunger pangs. Physically, working out strengthens your heart and lungs, builds strong bones, jump-starts your immune system, and produces glowing skin, not to mention reducing your risk for chronic illnesses. Since muscle weighs more than fat (because it contains more water) it’s also possible to lose inches without budging the scale.
Mentally, exercise improves mood, counters depression, and makes you feel good. Clean eaters who also regularly exercise report better sleep, clearer mental focus, and less stress.
Eating clean is the best way to feel great, lose weight, and improve your overall health. And now that you know how to do it, you can get started right away. Good luck, and happy (clean) eating!
From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Eating Clean by Diane A. Welland, M.S., R.D.