What Is “Clean Eating”?

Healthy Living

March 2, 2021

Healthy eating is important, but conflicting messages about what’s good for you and what isn’t can make meal planning a challenge. One of the simplest approaches to building a healthy diet is to prioritize clean eating.

With a clean eating lifestyle, you’ll emphasize whole foods while reducing foods that fall into the refined and heavily processed categories. By doing this, you’re more likely to take in more beneficial vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.

The Basics of Clean Eating

Getting started with clean eating doesn’t have to be tough. The idea is to focus on foods that are as close to their natural state as possible rather than ones that have been extensively processed in manufacturing plants.

Consider, for example, the contrast between a fresh, juicy apple and a package of gummy fruit snacks. Of course, there’s not always such a dramatic leap from fresh to processed foods. But thinking about foods as they appear in nature — vs. how they get manipulated or packaged — can help you decide which options to shoot for.

The goals of clean eating can include increasing your nutrient intake, reducing your consumption of unhealthy fats and calories, and choosing foods that will fuel your body instead of leaving you feeling sluggish.

Food Groups for a Healthy Diet

Clean eating doesn’t have to be restrictive or overwhelming. In fact, you can focus on whole foods that appeal to your personal preferences. Just keep in mind that striving for variety in your snacks and meals will expose you to a greater range of nutrients.

Options include:

  • Fruits and vegetables, and plenty of ‘em
  • Nuts, seeds, whole grains and legumes
  • Skinless poultry and fish

Also, rest assured that eating clean doesn’t have to mean cutting any basic food categories out of your diet. You can be a clean eater and still have meat, carbohydrates or dairy if you like. Just choose the cleanest forms of these vital nutrients, like lean proteins and whole grains for carbs.

Clean vs. Raw Eating

Clean eating won’t keep you from using your stove. The ingredients that you purchase can be prepared in a myriad of ways. If you want to bake, sauté or roast them, you’re free to do so.

The focus of clean eating is on using foods that have been provided by nature without introducing unnecessary additives or removing nutritional value. 

That’s different from a raw diet, in which you’d be encouraged to keep all foods in their original state. So if you like the idea of loading up on raw fruits and veggies, go for it. But clean eating isn’t synonymous with this more restrictive dietary choice.

Conventional vs. Organic Food

Many fans of clean eating emphasize the importance of organic food, but it’s not an essential component of a clean diet.

Organic foods are grown without man-made fertilizers or pesticides. The process isn’t completely free of chemicals, but organic farmers may use alternatives that are considered more “natural” or more environmentally sound.

Some people believe that organic foods are automatically healthier than their conventionally grown counterparts. And in some cases, organic foods may have slightly elevated levels of certain vitamins or minerals. But the nutrition levels of conventional versus organic foods are actually fairly comparable.

Organic foods can be tough on the budget, too. And for some people, organic produce may be totally out of the question. Fortunately, you can build healthy, well-balanced snacks and meals around conventionally grown foods just as you can with organic ones.

Navigating Packaged Food

Food from cans, jars and boxes might seem like the enemy of clean eating. To that end, some nutrition advice suggests sticking to the outside edges of stores and avoiding the middle sections, since that’s where you’re more likely to find food in packages.

That doesn’t have to be your approach, though. 

The middle aisles typically contain a variety of products that can play a key role in your clean diet. For example, that’s where you’ll find canned tuna, dried apples and frozen green beans — all of which can contribute to your health goals.

In fact, frozen vegetables sometimes offer more vitamins and minerals than the fresh variety because they’re packaged shortly after being picked. They’re also cheaper and last longer than fresh produce, making them budget-friendly and convenient. 

Canned produce can be healthy, too, but look for juice-packed fruits and low-sodium vegetables. Some varieties of canned vegetables might come without added salt as well, another nice feature in your quest for clean eating.

Box Labels and Marketing Claims

As you browse the grocery aisles, you’re sure to spot a plethora of items making bold health claims. Some may indicate that a packaged item will fit into your clean-eating lifestyle, but a marketing claim is no guarantee of a healthy product.

Terms you might see include:

  • Organic: Labeling for organic products can range from “Made with Organic Products” to “100% Organic,” depending on what portion of the ingredients are certified organic. Even at the lowest level, at least 70% of the ingredients must qualify as organic to boast this label.
  • Vegan: While this claim is generally understood as applying to products with no animal products or byproducts, there’s no official government standard that spells out what the term means. Some third-party organizations do offer vegan certification programs.
  • Gluten-free: Glutens are proteins that are present in various grains. A “gluten-free” label denotes a product that doesn’t have gluten-containing ingredients and hasn’t picked up an appreciable level of gluten through manufacturing cross-contamination. Food processors are expected to support this claim through testing.
  • Non-GMO: Genetically modified organisms have undergone some form of genetic engineering. Non-GMO foods don’t include such ingredients. This label is backed by independent certification organizations rather than government standards.
  • Natural: Perhaps the most misleading of all, this claim is one of the least helpful because there aren’t specific guidelines for what constitutes a so-called “natural” product. And, unfortunately, manufacturers often choose their own interpretations. It sometimes denotes a product that’s free of food dyes and other artificial ingredients.

There are two critical things to remember when it comes to marketing claims and clean eating. First, you can stick to a clean diet without ever buying any of these products. Second, choosing products that carry these labels doesn’t ensure that you’ll maintain a clean-eating lifestyle. (A gluten-free brownie is still a brownie, after all, even if it has no gluten.)

The Fine Print on Food Labels

To figure out how to fit packaged foods into your clean eating diet, start by reading ingredient lists. Short lists that feature ingredient names that you recognize are usually good signs. The fewer ingredients there are, the more likely it is that the food item hasn’t been overly processed.

Of course, the general concept of food processing isn’t necessarily bad. 

Anything that’s done to agricultural products to prepare them for sale and consumption can be considered processing. In some cases, processing a food can make it safer or more convenient for consumers without damaging the nutritional impact. Helpful examples include freezing strawberries, chopping broccoli florets or pasteurizing eggs.

The more processing a food undergoes, however, the more likely it is that you’ll end up with a product that’s high in additives and low in nutritional value.

Even a short ingredient list doesn’t ensure that a food item is an excellent choice. It’s also smart to read the nutrition facts. Products that are high in sodium and sugar or low in fiber could sabotage your clean eating goals. As we said earlier, a brownie is still a brownie even if it only contains a short list of ingredients.

Balancing Convenience and Clean Eating

Choosing a clean eating approach doesn’t have to mean shunning bagged or boxed foods forever. Sometimes, you need a quick snack or an easy meal. By learning to decode marketing claims and read food labels, you can opt for convenience foods that will support your healthy eating goals.

Then, by filling the majority of your diet with clean, whole foods like fresh produce and lean meats, you’ll establish a habit of healthy eating that fuels your body for daily living.