Hello everyone! I had promised this post on my Instagram a few days ago, and so I tried my best to pump it out real quick for you all. Some of the more frequently asked question(s) I receive pertain to food, particularly the concept of clean eating; what it is, what sorts of foods to be eating/eliminating, and how to start improving your diet, so I am hoping to shed some light on all things food with this post! I started cleaning up my diet my senior year of college after taking a science prerequisite on food and health. A lot of the concepts and ideas that I use when picking and choosing what I eat is based on what I learned in that course!
I will remind you all again that I am in no way a dietitian or nutritionist, just someone who was interested in learning about food and improving my health. As a result, I did lots and lots of research on top of what I was learning in class to make sure I was educating myself properly. I know that those concepts have proven to work for me, and the goal is to help you find what works for you, too!
With all that being said, food is something that is unique to all of us. Our bodies are all different, and as such we all process food differently. Some of us have intolerance to lactose or gluten, others (the lucky ones) can eat whatever they like and let their metabolism do the rest. At the end of the day, what you put in your body does matter. Food is the fuel with which your body functions. Eating less isn’t always the answer, eating right is. Food is your friend not the enemy, and the relationship we each have with food is one of the most important ones we’ll all have. Some of the things I eat regularly might not work with your body, but for others it might work great! The key is to take the time to experiment and see which things make you feel and perform at your very best.
Clean Eating: What Is It?
When people (myself included) say that they are “eating clean,” there are a multitude of meanings behind it. Everyone’s definition is different, just like everyone’s preferences and tolerances are. Some people eliminate all processed foods, others choose to keep a few of their favorites. There is no right or wrong, but the general principle is the same; clean eating is the elimination or minimization of processed and refined foods from the diet. Now what do I mean by that? What counts as a processed food? What is a refined food? You could probably make an educated guess, but for those out there who are learning about this for the first time let me explain.
Now think, how many items in your refrigerator or pantry have labels like “low in fat” or “may reduce the risk of heart disease.” How many have been packaged in a can, frozen and ready to eat?
Processed or refined foods are defined as any food that has been deliberately changed or altered before it is ready to eat. There is a spectrum to this, though. Being “processed” can be as simple as freezing or drying foods, or as complex as adding and reducing nutrients through formulas and scientific methods, which is more commonly identified as being “refined.” Now think, how many items in your refrigerator or pantry have labels like “low in fat” or “may reduce the risk of heart disease.” How many have been packaged in a can, frozen and ready to eat? More than you expected? That is how I felt too, and when I realized just how many foods were processed I was convinced that there would be no options left to choose from.
This brings me to my second point:
Clean Eating: How To Do It
As I said before, everyone’s definition of clean eating is going to be different. That is in large part thanks to the spectrum I mentioned, but it also depends on their living and cooking situation. If you are a student then it will be more difficult to find unprocessed foods while eating at a dining hall. If you are fresh out of school like me, it isn’t always cost effective to shop at Whole Foods each week. When deciding to eat clean there are many factors and decisions that play a part in what you actually eat, but always keep in mind that there is wiggle room!
If you are a student, then you are likely dealing with the dining hall food I mentioned. How do you navigate the dining hall? How do you eat well when nearly everything has been processed? The key is understanding that there are good and bad processed foods. Foods like vegetables or fruits that have been pre-cut and washed before bagging are not the same as a frozen meal that has been filled with preservatives, sodium and sugar despite the fact that they are both considered processed.
Our bodies don’t recognize that we are eating cake or ice cream or a cheeseburger. Our bodies recognize nutrients and fats and sugars.
Generally, you want to avoid the ones that have added sugar, sodium, fat, and preservatives. Those are the ones that can be responsible for weight gain, high cholesterol, and other health issues. To eat clean, in my opinion, means to eliminate as many unnatural ingredients from our food as possible. Strip things down to the minimum, and to cook as many meals from scratch as possible. This way we can decide what ingredients are in our foods.
Eating Clean When In School
When eating in a dining hall, go for the plain foods; stick to your salad bar, ask for the chicken or meat plain, steer clear from the pasta dishes and sauces. Eliminate those frozen dinners from your diet and replace them with whole ingredients. It is the things that have a tendency to go bad quicker that are ultimately better for our bodies. And yes, that is extremely frustrating but it is a fact.
You will always have those special nights, parties and celebrations with friends or family; eat the slice of cake. Enjoy the cookie. One bad treat won’t undo a week of hard work and eating well.
What if you are short on time? Have a busy schedule and kids? I don’t have children so I won’t pretend to understand just how hectic life can be, but I do know that understanding food labels can make the greatest difference here. If you find a pre-prepped meal, make sure there aren’t any added sugars, flavors, fats or sodium. Stick to frozen and pre-packaged veggies with no sauces or syrups. Buy organic, free range or wild caught meats. Swap out fruit gummies and candies for real fruit! Look for Rye, Pumpernickel or Sprouted breads instead of white. Small changes like these can help to minimize the amount of highly processed foods you and your family are consuming.
If you are cooking for your self and are navigating a grocery store, where do you look? What aisles do you avoid? Your grocery store may be different than mine, but generally it is good to stick to the perimeter. The foods that line the shelves are packed with preservatives that in tern give them a long self life. Foods on the outside (i.e. dairy, meats, vegetables) are the most untouched. If you want to eat clean you have to be willing to cook. You have to be willing to meal prep, or at the very least you have to know what to order in order to minimize the amount of added sugar, fat, sodium and preservatives you’re consuming.
If you want to be successful with eating clean, you may also consider meal prepping! Removing pre-packaged and ready made foods from your diet inevitably means that you will need to start cooking and preparing your own meals, which if done properly can actually prove to be rather easy. Choose a day of week to go grocery shopping where you are less likely to make impulse buys, for me that is Sunday nights. Write up what you want to eat for the week before hand and stick to that list. If the foods you turn to when binge hunger strikes are not longer in the house, it helps steer you towards healthier options; out of sight, out of mind. Try and prepare your meals the night before work or cook all at once at the start of the week. Adopting these habits will allow you the convenience of a ready made meal but with the peace of mind that comes with preparing it yourself.
Now, do I eat things like canned tuna, sprouted breads or bagged and pre-cut veggies? Yup, sometimes! And those are just a few examples of the minimally processed foods that I will eat. When I bake muffins and cakes and sweet treats I try to substitute refined sugars with natural ones like cane or coconut sugars. I will use coconut or whole wheat flour instead of white. I use Greek yogurt instead of oils and butters. I avoid anything with labels that say”reduced fat” or “low sodium,” or contain any ingredients I do not recognize or can’t pronounce. I do not eat empty and processed carbs like white breads or pasta. Simply put, I have tried to strip my foods down to the bare minimum, and to me that is my definition of “eating clean.”
Sure, I have slip up and have a slice of pizza or a cheeseburger sometimes, and I think that if I didn’t I’d probably go crazy. Whenever you are making a major change to your diet you need to remember that life happens. You will always have those special nights, parties and celebrations with friends or family; eat the cake. Enjoy the cookie. One bad treat won’t undo a week of hard work and eating well. Our bodies don’t recognize that we are eating cake or ice cream or a cheeseburger. Our bodies recognize nutrients and fats and sugars. Remember that the next time you feel guilty about treating yourself. The phrase “everything in moderation” is oh so very true.
What does clean eating mean to you? As always, feel free to leave any questions or comments below.