Clean eating is about being aware of the food choices you are making and looking for simple, healthy options. It means consuming plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and healthy proteins and fats, and opting for organic, non-GMO foods whenever possible. Let’s explore in more detail why clean eating is so important and look at 10 tips for eating clean that can immediately begin transforming your relationship with food.
- Cut Back on Added Sugars
Americans consume a shocking amount of added sugars every day. On average, adults take in 20-22 teaspoons (3 ounces) of added sugars, which equates to around 355 calories. To help you visualize, 3 ounces is around the size of a deck of cards. Of sugar. Every day. Most added sugar is consumed in the form of soft drinks, the many different kinds of sugar additives in processed foods, and candy, cakes, cookies, pies, and pastries. Sugar adds calories to food while contributing zero nutritional value aside from energy (carbohydrates). A high-sugar diet is linked to:
- Metabolic syndrome
- Insulin resistance that can lead to diabetes
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
It’s important to be mindful of the amount of sugar in the food you are eating as well as the type of sugar. It also helps to eat foods with good amounts of fiber as it slows the body’s absorption of sugar.
Limiting consumption of highly processed added sugars is an essential part of clean eating. Distinguishing between natural and added sugars in prepared foods can be confusing for consumers—that’s why some consumer groups are petitioning the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require disclosure of added sugars on nutrition labels.
How much is okay? The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar a day.
- Ditch Refined Grains
Refined grains are less nutritious because they have been stripped of their bran and germ—the most fibrous parts of the plant. As in fruit, the fiber in grains is what slows the absorption of sugars. When blood sugar levels rise too quickly, the result is a spike in insulin, which over time can increase your risk of diabetes. There has been a lot of backlash against the idea that refined grains are less healthy, especially white rice, but we stand firm—whole grains are simply the healthier choice. Choose whole grains like whole wheat, steel cut or rolled oats, brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, flax, and barley.
- Watch Salt Intake
Americans consume far more salt on average than the recommended 1,500 mg maximum per day. Sodium easily “hides” in packaged foods, sometimes in surprising quantities. Read nutrition labels carefully, and choose wisely. When seasoning homemade food, start with herbs, spices, citrus, and vinegar—and then add salt. You might be surprised at how much salt you add to food while cooking. A high-sodium diet can lead to:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Heart failure
- Choose Minimally-Processed Foods
All food has been processed to some extent—even fresh fruits and vegetables must be harvested, cleaned, and (in some cases) polished before they make it to your local market. How do you know a food has been minimally processed? A good rule of thumb is to choose packaged foods and healthy snacks with ingredients you can pronounce. A fruit and nut bar that contains ingredients like dates, cherries, almonds, and walnuts —in other words, easily identifiable ingredients—is a good choice. Avoid heavily processed foods with a laundry list of ingredients, especially unrecognizable ones.
- Pick Your Fats Wisely
In years past, dietary fat had a bad rap. The low-fat craze led to fats being removed from packaged foods, only to be replaced by sugar (which, as we discussed above, is not a good substitute). Today we know that not all fats are created equal, and that good fat (the polyunsaturated and monounsaturated varieties) are essential for health. Industrial-made fats, including “trans” fats, should be avoided. Trans fats are a byproduct of hydrogenation, which involves forcing hydrogen molecules into oil to turn it into a solid at room temperature and prevent rancidity. Good for shelf life, bad for your arteries. On food labels you’ll typically see trans fats as “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.” These fats increase your “bad” LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, which can clog arteries and lead to a host of health problems.
What about saturated fats? These are mostly solid at room temperature and are found in foods like red meat, butter, whole milk, and palm oil. Americans generally consume more saturated fats than they should, although whether saturated fats are bad for us is still hotly contested. The latest report released by the World Health Organization has linked processed meats with an increased cancer risk.
Your best bet is opting for products that contain “expeller pressed” or “cold pressed” vegetable oils, and, better yet, monounsaturated oils from avocados, nuts and nut butters, olives, and high oleic variety sunflower oil.
- Increase Vegetable Intake
Pile those veggies onto your plate! Most of us don’t get enough vegetables every day. The USDA recommends 2-3 cups of vegetables per day for women and 3 cups per day for men, but, go ahead and eat more—we dare you! It’s easier than you think. Dress your sandwich with lettuce and tomato, whip up a veggie-fruit smoothie after a workout, tuck a bag of baby carrots in your bag, and up the amount of veggies in your stir fry. There are a myriad of ways to increase your daily intake of veggies.
- Cut Back on the Booze
“I cook with wine; sometimes I even add it to the food.” –W.C. Fields
Most of us by now have heard the reports that moderate alcohol consumption may help protect against cardiovascular disease. This is because moderate levels of alcohol increase levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), our “good” cholesterol. The problem comes in defining what constitutes moderate drinking—whether it’s one drink per day or three is contested even among alcohol researchers. Here are some good rules to follow:
– Stay within the recommended one drink per day for women or two for men.
– Avoid binge drinking (sorry, folks, imbibing your weekly allotment of adult beverages on a Saturday night isn’t part of a moderate drinking program).
– Just say no to fruity drinks loaded with sugar.
- Cut Back on Meat and Dairy
Most Americans eat far more meat and dairy than is recommended by the USDA. Many of us don’t know what our daily protein needs are, which is part of the problem. The average woman needs just 46 grams of protein a day, while a man needs around 56 grams a day. That’s less than two ounces. A six-ounce steak contains as much protein as a woman needs for an entire day. But that same six-ounce steak comes with increased risks from carcinogens and saturated fat, unlike other sources of protein, such as beans, peas, lentils, nuts, grains, and even some leafy green vegetables. We’ve been told since we were little to drink our milk for strong bones, but many might be surprised to learn that dairy may actually leach calcium from bones, and three-quarters of the world is lactose intolerant. Best to cut back on meat and dairy consumption, and up alternative sources of protein like beans, nuts, and protein-packed veggies and grains.
- Up Your Fruit Intake
It’s a common misconception that we should limit our fruit intake because fruit contains sugar. In our first tip we explained the importance of the fructose-to-fiber ratio. The fiber content in fruit helps the body absorb sugar more slowly. So, go ahead— indulge in daily doses of delicious fruitiness. And don’t forget that all natural snacks like fruit bars made from fruit juices and purees count toward your daily fruit intake.
- Drink More Water
Water is essential for every single one of our bodily functions. It also flushes toxins from the body. Plain water is the best option for staying hydrated, but fruits and vegetables with high water content, such as watermelon, lettuce, and tomatoes, can also help you stay hydrated. Your water needs can vary dramatically depending on the season and your level of physical activity, but at a minimum strive for 8×8—that is, eight 8oz glasses a day. Use this hydration calculator to determine your specific hydration needs.
Eating clean is about taking control of your health and understanding how our industrialized food system affects our health and the environment. Here’s to a fresh start and a clean-eating future!