So, the main question is: Where do you start?
Well to start with, you need to understand that clean eating is a dietary lifestyle. It’s not a fad, it’s not a trend, it’s not a short term diet. If you want to clean eat you’re very likely going to need to purge your kitchen and all its food stores. And to do that it starts with how you shop. In reality it’s all about three things:
- Reading labels for listed ingredients.
- Understanding how some products are made and processed and why you should (or shouldn’t) have it.
- Determining what a particular product is going to give to you on a nutritional level.
A great tip is to shop the perimeter of your supermarket. In most cases supermarkets all have a similar layout. You’re going to want to visit the produce section (fresh fruits, vegetables – both starchy and non-starchy, herbs), the seafood and deli counter (fish, whole-fat cheeses, cold cuts like prosciutto), and the refrigerated section (whole milk, nut milks, eggs, yogurt, whole meats- beef, chicken, turkey, bacon etc). This makes up the bulk of your stores. The middle aisles are a bit more complicated but in essence you’ll be looking for things such as dried spices, healthy oils, nuts, and whole grains (like stone ground whole wheat flour, brown rice and whole grain pastas) natural sweeteners, and other items such as dried beans and legumes, and even specialty items such as almond flour.
As you read the labels and check the ingredient list and nutritional panel don’t get distracted by claims made on the front packaging and don’t be duped by fancy wording. A perfect example is whole wheat bread: in most cases many whole wheat breads are made using at most only 50% of actual whole wheat flour and once you see the essay listed for the ingredients you will realize that it is not truly clean.
Any food that is highly processed, pre-packaged and pre-made is likely not clean. There are tons of things added to those products to increase their shelf life (not your life) that do not provide any benefit to your body. So throw out those pre-packaged breaded chicken nuggets, throw out that jar of alfredo sauce, throw out those branded granola bars and pre-packaged oatmeal packets. We can do better than that. Any item containing refined sugars, grains, flours, (think white sugar, white rice, bleached white flour) are a no-go.
Beginners to the clean-eating bandwagon might find it easier to apply a 5-ingredient or less mark on the listed ingredients label. Meaning if there are more than five listed ingredients, it’s probably not a clean source. Or another way to get your feet wet is to use the “Do I know what this ingredient is?” rule whereby if it seems like a chemical sounding name, or if it’s something you cannot pronounce or never heard of, or wouldn’t buy yourself then it is most likely not a clean ingredient. That being said, there are naturally many exceptions to these “rules”, but from a starting perspective it is a great way to get an understanding about your ingredients, and in time, and with research, you will quickly learn what is and isn’t considered clean (and why).
In a sense, clean eating is almost like a minimalist eating lifestyle. Less is more. And while this may seem daunting, while it might seem like an impossible task and one you have no time for, consider that this [food] is what you’re going to be putting into your body, this is what you will be using to fuel yourself throughout your day and throughout your life. So…
Let’s talk COLORS!
Take a look at a fast food ad for burgers, do you know what really makes it so appealing? It’s the colors. The fresh green lettuce, the plump, bright red tomato, the very yellow cheese, maybe even some purple-colored red onion slices on a beautifully bronzed bun with a sizzling reddish-brown meat patty with blackened char marks. The ingredients look fresh, and healthy and they are popping with colors. That’s what you want your plate to look like. You want a myriad of colors on it, it’s enticing, it’s wholesome, it’s delicious!
Cut to the all-too-often reality of buying the burger itself. The lettuce is mostly white, limp, and shredded, the tomato looks a little pale and seems soggy, the patty seems almost grey and the bun is a bland beige color. The only thing that seems accurate is the highly processed slice of cheese that has to be labeled “cheese product” because it’s not enough of a cheese to call itself cheese. Cue the sad trumpets. 🎺🎺
With clean eating, by using fresh and wholesome ingredients you’re taking back control of your plate. You’re being responsible for making your own rainbow of food. You are your own poster child for making the ad the reality, and I think there is something simply beautiful about that. Don’t you?
Quantity and Quality:
When you look at your dinner plate you should be happy and see a rainbow of colors on it. As visual beings we do eat with our eyes first. Personally, I try my best to abide by the 70/20/10 rule whereby 70% of my plate is (non-starchy) vegetables, 20% is a protein source and 10% are my starchy carbs (always fresh produce like potatoes or whole grain). If you keep this in mind it makes things a little easier to follow.
That being said, while you are encouraged to use primarily vegetables and you are encouraged to enjoy healthy fats don’t forget that you still need to practice portion control! The mantra of “everything in moderation” comes into play here. Be aware of your serving sizes and try to stick to them. Clean eating is not just about using great ingredients but it’s also about forming a healthy relationship with food on the whole and that includes how much of that food you eat. A great rule of thumb is to eat only if you are hungry (aka your stomach is performing a whale’s call), eat until you are full, and while you eat, slow things down and enjoy and savor each bite of your meals (we’ll talk more about this point and the science behind it in a moment).
Let’s Talk PRICE! 💲💲💲
So I know this is a major factor for a lot of people. Now, I’ll admit that in the beginning it was a bit more costly than usual. Pre-packaged items tend to be a lot more in number and as such tend to be on sale a lot more than produce and meats. However, after the initial pantry restock what I’ve noticed is that the cost almost evens itself out for several reasons:
- Shopping deals and using what’s in season – buying seasonal fruits and vegetables (your local farmer’s market will be a heaven send for this) has proven to make life easier and is less stressful on our bill. For example: summer is the only time we buy and use fresh peaches, and if there is a deal, I have no issues in buying extra and freezing for later use in smoothies or my favorite: Peach Sorbet. Similarly with squash or pumpkins, when September rolls around I stock up. Raw cubed squash freezes beautifully for year round use!
- More room in the freezer for proteins – This one might seem like a reach but it’s true. Now without the frozen pizzas, bags of fries, onion rings, garlic bread, ice cream cones, etc., my freezer seemed a bit empty and it was the perfect excuse to stock up on meat. Whether on sale at the supermarket for a really good price or at your local butcher/fishmonger, we all know how cost efficient buying in bulk can be. And if there’s a little extra space leftover, stocking it with frozen veggies is always an option as well!
- Less impulse buying and getting only the essentials – We all know the woes of a last second cash register candy bar grab, (that’s why they’re strategically placed there to begin with!) With clean eating you go in with a plan and it’s much easier to stick to it. Since we’ve stopped buying junk/processed food, our shopping cart seems sparse but we buy what we need for the week to eat, not junk to stash away for midnight cravings just because it’s on sale. With a limited range to choose from you are able to focus and stock up on the clean and healthy essentials which reduces random purchases that you may or may not want or need.
- We actually eat less because our food keeps us fuller for longer – So here’s a bit of truth, many of us are emotional eaters or habitual grazers or even pleasure eaters, and when those cravings hit we tend to reach for those empty carbs which are not only addictive, but they are easily broken down and digested by the body in record time. And because our bodies make such short work of them, we get hungrier faster which means we tend to eat more. In switching up our diet, my meal portions are not only smaller but that I feel fuller for longer, and more to that, by being more aware of what I am using and putting into my body, I’ve found that I tend to enjoy and savor my food more. Here’s why this is interesting: in savoring my food more I eat slower and in doing so my brain is able to relay the message that I am full (this takes about 20 minutes) which helps me to not overeat. (Ann MacDonald over at Harvard Health explains in brief why this works). Paired with proper portion control, I’ve even found that I’m not piling up food on my plate that I would have happily scarfed down which would have led to me feeling overfull once my brain and stomach relayed their message to each other. And, in the event that I do feel peckish or need a snack, I typically reach for a fruit or some nuts which can go a long way and is significantly better than reaching for a candy bar.
- Less stashing things away that we forget about or don’t use but still paid money for – I’m sure you know this one well. You see something on sale, you pick it up just because it’s on sale with the intent to maybe do something with it at some point, and then it goes into your fridge or cupboard and is promptly forgotten (until the annual fridge cleaning or charity canned food drive motivates you to check the expiration date whereby you then realize that this weird can of rice and beans is three years expired and has been sitting “on standby” in your cupboard for almost five years). I’m not saying that this won’t happen with clean eating, but since you’re more mindful about what you’re buying and fruits and vegetables don’t stay fresh for long you tend to buy what you need and use what you buy.
So to recap; here’s are the main tips to go about clean eating:
- Avoid artificial, go natural.
- Shop the border of the supermarket for the bulk of your ingredients.
- Shop for in-season produce.
- Shop local and shop in bulk to reduce costs. Freeze excess perishables when you can.
- Use raw whole ingredients as much as possible. Avoid premade and prepackaged items.
- If buying anything packaged, always be mindful and read the ingredient list and nutritional panel of what you buy.
- Don’t be afraid to stand in the aisle on your phone doing research.
- Skip anything containing preservatives, artificial colors, flavors or additives.
- Cook your meals at home so you are in control of what goes into your meals.
- Eat lots of vegetables, lean meats, and whole grains.
- Try to understand and research how ingredients are made and processed.
- Try to understand the nutritional offering of each ingredient you’re about to put into your body.
- Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full.
- Savor your food and eat slowly. Enjoy it. Food should be an experience.