The term “clean eating” has become very popular among the health conscious.
Clean eating is an eating pattern that focuses on fresh, whole foods. This lifestyle can be easy and enjoyable, as long as you follow a few general guidelines.
This article explains what clean eating is and provides 11 simple tips to eat clean.
What Is Clean Eating?
Clean eating doesn’t have anything to do with food being clean or dirty.
Rather than focusing on the number of calories or grams of carbs, protein or fat you consume, clean eating involves choosing minimally processed, real foods that provide maximal nutritional benefits.
The idea is to consume foods that are as close to their natural state as possible.
Selecting foods that have been raised with integrity and protecting the health of animals and the environment is also part of clean eating.
Bottom Line: Clean eating involves choosing foods that are minimally processed, ethically raised and rich in naturally occurring nutrients.
1. Eat More Vegetables and Fruits
Vegetables and fruits are undeniably healthy.
They’re loaded with fiber, vitamins, minerals and plant compounds that help fight inflammation and protect cells from damage ( 1).
In fact, many large observational studies have linked eating more fruits and vegetables to a reduced risk of cancer, heart disease and other diseases ( 2, 3, 4, 5).
Fresh vegetables and fruits are ideal foods for clean eating, as most can be consumed raw immediately after picking and washing.
Choosing organic produce can help you take clean eating one step further by reducing pesticide exposure and potentially increasing the health benefits of fruits and vegetables ( 6).
Here are some easy ways to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet:
- Make your salad as colorful as possible, including at least three different vegetables in addition to greens.
- Add berries, chopped apples or orange slices to your salad.
- Wash and chop veggies, toss them with olive oil and herbs and place them in a container in the refrigerator for easy access.
Bottom Line: Vegetables and fruits should form the basis of a clean eating lifestyle. They are whole foods that require little preparation and provide many health benefits.
2. Limit Processed Foods
Processed foods are directly opposed to clean eating because they have been modified, to some extent, from their natural state.
Most of them have lost some of their fiber and nutrients, yet gained sugar, chemicals or other unhealthy ingredients during processing. Processed foods have been linked to inflammation and an increased risk of heart disease ( 7).
Even if unhealthy ingredients aren’t added to processed foods, these foods still lack many of the benefits provided by whole foods.
What’s more, processed foods take less energy to digest and absorb than whole foods do, making them more likely to cause weight gain over time.
In one study, healthy adults consumed a 600-calorie meal containing either whole or processed foods. The group that consumed whole foods burned twice as many calories digesting their meals ( 8).
In order to eat clean, it’s important to avoid processed foods as much as possible.
Bottom Line: Processed foods conflict with clean eating principles due to the loss of naturally occurring nutrients and the addition of preservatives and other questionable ingredients.
3. Read Labels
Although clean eating is based on whole, fresh foods, there are certain types of packaged foods that can be included.
Examples include packaged vegetables, nuts, meats and other foods.
However, it’s important to read labels to make sure there aren’t any preservatives, added sugars or unhealthy fats.
For instance, many nuts are roasted in vegetable oil, which can expose them to heat-related damage.
It’s best to purchase raw nuts and consume them as is or toast them at a low temperature in your oven.
As another example, salad mixes that are pre-washed and ready to eat can be a huge time saver. However, be sure to check the ingredients label for additives, especially on the salad dressing that often comes with it.
Bottom Line: To maintain a clean eating lifestyle, read labels to ensure that packaged produce, nuts, meats and other foods contain no questionable ingredients.
4. Stop Eating Refined Carbs
Refined carbs are highly processed foods that are easy to overeat yet provide little nutritional value.
Research has linked frequently consuming refined carbs to inflammation, insulin resistance, fatty liver and obesity ( 9, 10, 11).
By contrast, whole grains provide more nutrients and fiber, and controlled studies suggest that they may reduce inflammation and promote better gut health ( 12, 13).
In one analysis of 2,834 adults who took part in a large health study, people who consumed mostly whole grains were shown to be less likely to carry excess belly fat than those who consumed mainly refined grains ( 14).
If you are going to eat grains, choose the kinds that have been least processed, such as sprouted grain bread and steel-cut oats. Stay away from ready-to-eat cereals, white bread and other refined carbs.
Bottom Line: Refined grains are inflammatory and lack fiber and other valuable nutrients. In order to eat clean, choose minimally processed grains or avoid them altogether.
5. Avoid Vegetable Oils and Spreads
Vegetable oils and margarines don’t meet the criteria for clean eating.
For starters, they are produced by extracting oil from seeds and vegetables using chemicals, making them highly processed.
They also contain very high levels of the omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid, which studies have linked to inflammation and an increased risk of weight gain and heart disease ( 15, 16, 17).
Additionally, the chemical structure of these oils makes them vulnerable to damage and rancidity, particularly under conditions of high heat or exposure to air.
Some margarines and spreads still contain artificial trans fats as well, though many food manufacturers have removed these fats due to health concerns ( 18, 19).
Although all vegetable oils and spreads should be avoided, it’s important to include a moderate amount of healthy fats in a clean eating regimen.
Choose oils and spreads that are minimally processed and provide the greatest health benefits, such as extra virgin coconut oil, olive oil and butter from grass-fed cows.
Bottom Line: Vegetable oils and trans fats are highly processed, inflammatory and linked to an increased risk of disease. Opt for healthy, minimally processed oils and fats.
6. Steer Clear of Sugar in Any Form
Sugar is one of the most important things to stay away from if your goal is to eat clean. Unfortunately, it’s found in many foods, including those that don’t taste especially sweet, like sauces and condiments.
Both table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are high in fructose. Table sugar contains about 50% fructose, while high-fructose corn syrup contains about 55% fructose.
The results of several studies suggest fructose may play a role in obesity, diabetes, fatty liver and cancer, among other health problems ( 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27).
Depending on your health, you may be able to occasionally tolerate small amounts of natural sugar, such as honey or maple syrup, while following a clean eating lifestyle.
However, if you have diabetes, metabolic syndrome or similar health problems, it’s best to avoid all forms of concentrated sugar, including those from natural sources.
Moreover, even natural sugar sources contribute very little nutritional value other than calories.
For truly clean eating, try to consume foods in their natural, unsweetened state. Learn to appreciate the sweetness of fruit and the subtle sweetness of nuts and other whole foods.
Bottom Line: Sugar is highly processed and has been linked to several health problems. Using small amounts of natural sugar occasionally or avoiding sugar altogether makes sense from a clean eating perspective.
7. Limit Alcohol Consumption
Alcohol is made by adding yeast to crushed grains, fruits or vegetables and allowing the mixture to ferment.
Moderate intakes of certain types of alcohol, particularly wine, have been credited with heart health benefits ( 28).
However, aside from the antioxidants in wine, alcohol does not provide any nutrients.
What’s more, frequent alcohol consumption has been shown to promote inflammation and may also contribute to a number of health problems, such as liver disease, digestive disorders and excess belly fat ( 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35).
When following a clean eating lifestyle, alcohol intake should be minimized, if it’s consumed at all.
Bottom Line: Although moderate wine intake may help protect heart health, alcohol is also linked to an increased risk of several diseases. Alcohol consumption should be restricted when practicing clean eating.
8. Substitute Vegetables in Recipes
In addition to including more vegetables in your salads, you can bump up your veggie intake by using them in place of refined grains in recipes.
For example, cauliflower can be chopped finely to mimic rice, mashed like potatoes or used in pizza crust. Here are a few recipes that use cauliflower as a substitute:
Spaghetti squash is a natural replacement for pasta because it separates into long, thin strands after cooking:
Zucchini makes great “zoodles” and other alternatives to pasta and starches:
Bottom Line: When eating clean, replace pasta, rice and other refined grains with veggies that taste great and improve the nutritional value of your meal.
9. Avoid Packaged Snack Foods
If a clean eating lifestyle is your goal, packaged snack foods should definitely be avoided.
Crackers, granola bars, muffins and similar snack foods typically contain refined grains, sugar, vegetable oils and other unhealthy ingredients.
These processed snacks provide little nutritional value and fail to satisfy.
In order to avoid grabbing these items when you get hungry between meals, make sure to have snacks on hand that meet clean eating criteria.
Good snacks include nuts, vegetables and fruits. These foods are tasty, rich in nutrients and may help protect against disease ( 1, 36, 37).
Bottom Line: Instead of packaged snack foods made from refined grains, choose nutrient-dense whole foods like nuts, fruits and vegetables.
10. Make Water Your Primary Beverage
Water is the healthiest and most natural beverage you can drink.
There are no additives, sugars, artificial sweeteners or other questionable ingredients. It is by definition a “clean” beverage.
Water can also be consumed liberally as an excellent source of hydration. In addition, drinking plenty of water may also help you achieve a healthy weight ( 38).
By contrast, sugar-sweetened beverages have consistently been linked to diabetes, obesity and other diseases. What’s more, fruit juice may cause many of the same problems due to its high sugar content ( 39, 40).
These are drinks that everyone should stay away from, especially those interested in eating clean.
Unsweetened coffee and tea are also good choices and provide several health benefits, but people who are sensitive to caffeine may need to moderate their intake.
Bottom Line: Water is free of ingredients that may harm your health. It should be your main beverage when following a clean eating lifestyle.
11. Choose Food From Naturally Raised Animals
In addition to fresh, unprocessed foods, clean eating involves selecting food that comes from properly raised animals.
These days, many animals are raised on large complexes commonly referred to as “factory farms.”
Overcrowded, dirty conditions are the norm on these farms. To help prevent infection, the animals are typically given antibiotics, and many are injected with hormones like estrogen and testosterone to maximize growth ( 41).
Moreover, most cattle on industrial farms are fed grains rather than their natural diet of grass. Studies have shown that grass-fed beef is higher in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats and antioxidants than grain-fed beef ( 42, 43, 44).
The environmental impact of raising animals on large-scale farms is also concerning, particularly the high amounts of wastewater that result from this practice ( 45, 46).
By choosing to purchase meat grown on small farms that treat animals humanely, feed them their natural diets and don’t use antibiotics or growth hormones, you can help support the health of animals and the planet, as well as your own.
Bottom Line: Choosing meat from animals raised naturally on small farms is consistent with clean eating principles.
Take Home Message
Clean eating focuses on choosing fresh foods that have been minimally processed and retain their nutritional value.
This way of eating can help you learn to appreciate the natural flavors of foods, as they were meant to be consumed.
In addition, it’s a lifestyle that can help support the health of people, animals and the planet.