There is an overwhelming amount of information about food available from cooking shows, diet trends, studies and research, and general conversation, whether cultural or in our personal day-to-day interactions. We may have a vegetarian spouse, a vegan coworker, a relative with a sweet tooth, or a best friend who is wary of all food fads (and another friend who obsessively follows them). This can have the ironic effect that while there is so much more information about food, we can actually be more confused about what nutritional rules and philosophies to live by. In fact, many people may realize that they have simply never been educated on the very basics of good nutrition. Our aim with this article series is to present how to eat well, in the most basic elements.
We are going to begin by talking about clean eating. This is a great eating philosophy you can apply in both general and specific ways to your grocery shopping, cooking, and eating out. To begin with, what is clean eating? The term clean eating refers to choosing foods that are seasonal, closest to its whole and natural state (as in, not modified) and have gone through minimal contact with chemicals. Examples would include potatoes, fruit, and vegetables. Clean eating means that you would likely buy and prepare meals that consist of more vegetables like eggplants and broccoli than diet (low-fat) food or prepackaged foods that contain preservatives.
One of the reasons clean eating is beneficial for your body is that it is naturally low in fat, salt and refined sugar. Saturated fat, high sodium levels and refined sugar are staples in processed foods, and contribute to unnecessary daily calories, excess weight, heart disease, diabetes and other health risks. Clean eating helps us minimize these risks. While of course, there are healthy fats that our bodies do need, choosing whole and unprocessed foods will give us more unsaturated fats and complex carbohydrates, which are better for us.
Here are some guidelines for building clean eating habits:
Eat as clean as possible. A little bit of processed meat or prepackaged will not harm you, but making the conscious effort to limit processed food as much as possible will mean you are feeding your body food that has been through less contact with chemicals and is less modified. Look up some clean eating meals before you go grocery shopping so that you know what healthy food you will buy ahead of time. If you are going out to a restaurant, look up the menu ahead of time and know what healthier menu items you will choose. You can also plan healthier substitutions you will request from the kitchen (grill instead of frying the meat).
Minimize Intake of Processed Food. Another approach to bringing whole foods into your kitchen is by first eliminating processed foods, which you may be in the habit of buying and eating. You can do a sweep and either compost or donate the processed foods in your home, noting the items not to repurchase on future grocery runs. This may be a helpful method for those starting out with clean eating, because it helps remove what is normal for many North Americans. Once the canned soups, cereal boxes, bags of chips, microwave dinners and ready-to-heat meals are out of your kitchen, you will have a clean slate to bring in more nutritious whole foods.
Eat whole food, in season. To eat clean, we want to increase our intake of foods that are whole in the sense that they are purchased in the same state that they are grown in. For example, potatoes, wild salmon, fruit, and vegetables are all foods that are less modified than say, breakfast cereals, refined/enriched grains, or fast food. Avoid foods that claim to be low fat or low in sugar since these means other unhealthy ingredients or excessive sugar, salt, or empty calories. Choose fruits and vegetables from local farmers’ markets and ask them about their products and processes. Do the same with your butcher and learn about your local sources for clean eating.
Choose natural over added sugars. To be clear, it is important to limit sugar in general as even healthier sugars can put you at risk for obesity and health issues. However, it is especially important to limit added and artificial sweeteners, compared with natural sugars present in whole food, such as fruit. Processed foods have high amounts of refined sugar, and the rule of thumb is that if sugar is in the first few ingredients, it would be wise to avoid or limit the product. Learn how to read food labels and recurring ingredients on them. For example, high fructose corn syrup sounds natural but it is a man-made sweetener that shows up in a lot of processed food. High fructose corn syrup is used in soda drinks, fast food and many grocery store items. If you have a sweet tooth and want to treat yourself from time to time, use a small amount of natural sweeteners like honey, sugar cane juice or maple syrup to add some sweetness to your food and drink.
Ultimately, it’s a lifestyle. It is best to see clean eating as part of a healthy everyday lifestyle instead of a type of diet. It can take time and energy to buy and prepare meals with whole foods, and you want to make sure that your hard work and intention gets the best results by making healthy choices all around. Healthy habits you want to build along with choosing whole foods include regular exercise and activity, avoiding soft drinks/alcohol/sugary caffeinated drinks, and eating small meals during the day to maintain consistent metabolism and blood sugar levels.
Hopefully clean eating will help inspire healthy choices in the other areas of your life, and that you will be encouraged to continue as you begin to notice better energy and improved health. We wish you all the encouragement as you begin your health journey this year!