Eating a lot of processed and convenience food has been linked to all sorts of health problems; from obesity and heart disease to liver issues and even early death. With all of this reported in the media every single day, is it any wonder that in recent years many people have moved away from the quick-and-easy option to cleaner ways of eating?
Many Americans now consider themselves to be ‘clean eaters’ – while the term might sound a little bit pretentious, the idea is pretty simple. It basically means to eat a diet high in fresh, unprocessed, high quality food; what exact form that diet takes is up to you. For example, while conversations around clean eating often go hand in hand with conversations about veganism, it’s entirely possible to have a ‘clean’ diet that includes meat, fish, dairy and other animal products; you just need to make sure they’re good quality and unprocessed.
Dietitians and nutritionists tell us that eating a healthy diet is one of the most important things we can do to stay well in our day-to-day life; it gives us more energy, prevents certain diseases and helps us live longer. By contrast, recent studies have shown that eating processed convenience foods can mean we eat faster, we eat more calories, and we gain weight. More than 40% of American adults are obese, and obesity and obesity-related disease causes tens of thousands of deaths every year.
Getting started with clean eating
First things first – no matter what you decide to eat on your new diet, you should choose whole foods and ingredients, and food products that are unprocessed and don’t contain additives. If you can, you should also give up foods with added sugar or sweeteners, artificial flavors, fungicides and preservatives. That sounds like a long list but don’t think of it as what you’re giving up; think of it in terms of what you’ll gain in health and energy. Also, don’t beat yourself up if you’re having an off day and just want to order pizza from Pizza Hut; like all diets, the odd ‘cheat day’ is fine. Just don’t make it a regular thing.
You also need to get into the mindset of cooking at home more often; if you’re a regular visitor to your local restaurants, or have an entire drawer of takeout menus, it’s time to start thinking about filling out your cookery skills. Eating clean encourages us to know exactly what is in everything that we eat, and the only way to truly know that is to cook at home. Cooking at home also helps us develop a stronger relationship with what we’re putting in our bodies.
Always remember that the idea of ‘clean eating’ isn’t meant to be an exact science; merely a set of guidelines by which you can build your own ideal diet for your health and wellbeing. ‘Clean eating’ is just a framework; the details are entirely up to you based on what works best for your personal taste and situation. Stay informed and make informed choices and you’ll be fine.
Clean eating myths debunked
Perhaps the biggest myth about ‘clean eating’ is that it is a diet designed for weight loss. It isn’t – sure, many people lose weight when they start, but that’s more likely due to the weight gain associated with eating a lot of processed foods. The clean eating guidelines themselves contain no reference to calorie-counting, or weight loss goals, or portion sizes; you can eat whatever and whenever you want, as long as it’s unprocessed.
The second is that it is an exclusionary lifestyle, but as mentioned above – meat eaters, pescetarians, vegetarians and vegans can all find a clean eating diet that suits them easily. You can also adapt your plan to accommodate any food allergies or intolerances you may have, or to exclude any foods you simply don’t like to eat. It doesn’t matter!
Many people also think that adopting ‘clean eating’ means spending tons more money on food. It is true that organic food, for example, is more expensive; but eating healthily doesn’t have to break the bank. There are plenty of ways to go ‘clean’ without going bankrupt.
Shopping for a ‘clean eating’ diet
When shopping for a clean diet, think about building your plan around whole foods. A ‘whole’ food is simply a food item that doesn’t require an ingredients list; it is the whole of the product in itself. For example, an apple. The only ingredient in an apple is apple, but an apple candy has several other ingredients. Buy and eat as many whole foods as you can.
Read ingredients lists carefully, and put back any foods that have long lists of chemicals, addtiives, pesticides, added sugars, artificial colors or flavors. These are exactly what you don’t want to be eating. Eliminate refined sugars and flours too. If the ingredient doesn’t look like food, or sound like food when you read it out, it probably isn’t food. Don’t treat unwanted chemicals like food – avoid them like the plague wherever possible.
Oils are not, contrary to what the diet industry would have us believe, bad for us. Good fats are essential to a healthy diet. However, not all oils are created equal; stick to healthier, unrefined options such as olive or avocado oil rather than vegetable.
It goes almost without saying that you should buy organic wherever you can; it is more expensive, but worth the splurge if the budget allows. Choose organic fruit, vegetables, milk, cheese, butter and yoghurt, and make sure any meat products you buy have not been treated with antibiotics or hormones (poultry and eggs are not allowed to be hormone-treated, but other meat products are). Avoid processed deli meats.
For people who are following a clean vegan diet, the principles remain the same. Make whole food choices when considering proteins that can substitute for meat; avoid meat alternatives, as many of these are extremely processed and ‘padded out’ with artificial ingredients and additives. Always read the label!