Clean Eating—What is it?

The number of food choices out there seems endless and the same goes for eating habits. With so many different options available to us in a variety of combinations, it almost feels impossible to put labels on all of them — that doesn’t stop people from trying, though! Clean eating is another one of those food-related catch-phrases that you may have been hearing more and more of over the last decade.

When talking about your own personal food choices and eating habits, it can be helpful to think of labels as overarching ideas and themes; general trends, rather than absolutes. It can do more harm than good to think in strict, narrow absolutes. Creating dichotomies, like good/bad, healthy/unhealthy, and clean/dirty, is very black-and-white thinking. Notions of right and wrong can make people feel shame and guilt around food, which is unnecessary and problematic.

So, what is clean eating, and how can you incorporate it into your lifestyle? The main ideas behind the term clean eating can be helpful when you are considering your eating habits in a broad sense. Here are the main ideas and the important things to keep in mind if you’re interested in creating a clean eating meal plan:

Make more plant-based choices.

One of the biggest tenets of clean eating is making more plant-based choices, and reducing meat and dairy consumption. Plant-based meals tend to pack more of a nutritional punch. For example, a non-dairy mac and cheese recipe might use cashews, carrots, onions, potatoes, lemon, nutritional yeast, spices, and other things in place of the cheese and milk, without sacrificing flavour or texture. Not only does it avoid dairy, it also gives you the added nutritional value of the nuts, veggies, and other ingredients. It works both ways.

Incorporate more fruit and vegetables.

The possibilities are endless for incorporating more produce into your daily meals and snacks, and every little choice adds up. Put some extra veggies in your sandwich, or in your morning scramble or smoothie. Keep some sliced fruit and vegetables at your desk. No matter what you’re making for dinner, there are ways to throw in more produce. Use a variety of colours, and you’ll get a variety of nutrients as well. Not only will the added fruit and vegetables up the nutrition-factor, it’ll taste better and be more interesting as well. 

Watch out for additives and over-processed foods.

It isn’t so much the number of ingredients, but what those ingredients actually are that matters. A big part of the idea of clean eating is keeping things simple and eating things in a state that is as close to their natural state as possible, without a bunch of chemicals and added sugar and sodium thrown in or nutrition stripped away. If you’re shopping for tomato sauce, choose the one that has just tomatoes; then, you have control over what you add to it later. If you’re shopping for nut butter, choose the one that only has nuts. You can find dried fruit where the only ingredient is the fruit, or you can find dried fruit that has tons of added sugar and sulphites. If you’re buying bread, whole grain breads with nuts and seeds pack more of a nutritional punch than highly-processed white breads. You get the point. These choices aren’t going to drastically change your diet—tomato sauce, nut butter, dried fruit, and bread were already on your list–but with clean eating in mind, you have the know-how to help you make decisions. Maybe you make a mean veggie patty, packed with veggies and seeds, and you love to have it on a processed white bun with processed ketchup—then do it, and don’t feel guilty. Remember: think in overarching themes rather than absolutes.

Watch out for health and diet claims on packaging.

Health and diet claims on food packaging are a red flag. Best-case scenario, they’re trying to jump on a popular food trend: you might see salsa labeled as “fat-free” or corn chips labeled as “gluten-free,” advertising facts that were always true of the product. Worst-case scenario, they’re trying to make foods seem nutritious, even though they aren’t. Maybe they have replaced the fat with lots of sugar, or replaced the sugars with chemicals. It’s best to always check the labels. Terms like fat-free, sugar-free, and gluten-free are not synonymous with “healthy”; we need fats to survive, and they’re part of a healthy diet; natural sugars are preferable to chemical substitutes; and some people need to avoid gluten because of allergies, whereas most people do not. If you know what to watch out for, you won’t get duped into making a decision for the wrong reasons.

It doesn’t have to be farmer’s-market fresh. 

Supporting local farmers is amazing, and it is a delicious treat to eat fresh, locally-grown produce; however, it can also be expensive, and it isn’t an option that’s geographically available to everyone year-round. The bottom line is that produce doesn’t have to be fresh to be part of a clean eating plan. Frozen and canned fruits, vegetables, and legumes have the nutrition locked in—you aren’t missing out on the benefits by choosing these kinds of products. It can be a lot more manageable to stock up your pantry and freezer with produce rather than trying to buy loads of fresh produce and having it spoil before you can use it. Fresh is great, but so are other options.

Watch out for sneaky sugars and sodium.

Hidden sugars and sodium are one of the biggest pitfalls of buying pre-made and packaged items. The good news is that they can’t actually be completely hidden—they may be unexpected, but you can find them on the label. Nutrition labels are our best friends in the grocery store, and it’s important to learn how to read them. There’s nothing wrong with a sugary or salty snack when you choose to have one; the key is that nutrition labels give you the power to decide, rather than accidentally eating something with a very high sugar or sodium content without even knowing it, accidentally thinking it was a healthier choice.

Convenience foods can be fine — read the labels.

Packaged convenience foods have a bad rap, but they are not necessarily poor choices in terms of nutrition. Read the labels to make sure that you’re getting what you think you are, without a bunch of additives. Buying a bag of pre-shredded cabbage, pre-spiralized sweet potato, or pre-riced cauliflower will set you back more money than doing the labour yourself, but you get to decide if it’s worth it or not. There are a lot of great plant-based products out there right now. Being in a package doesn’t mean that something isn’t a healthy choice.

Start small.

If you’re looking for clean eating recipes, look towards your favourite plant-based, whole food sources. Start small—there’s no need to overhaul your lifestyle in one fell swoop. Small, steady changes are more likely to stick, and won’t make you feel like you’re missing out. Look at the things that you eat most frequently and see if there are any easy swaps that won’t sacrifice flavour or enjoyment, like adding some greens or extra veggies to your favourite recipes, fresh fruit with dark chocolate for dessert, or experimenting with new brands and convenience products. 

These are all things that you can keep in mind when you’re making decisions in the grocery store or in your kitchen. If thinking about food is stressful, or if you find yourself upset over food choices, constantly counting calories, or feeling deprived, look into where this negative messaging is coming from, and take a step back. Some sources might make you feel as though clean eating is a restriction, making the alternate choices “dirty,” and that isn’t helpful for anyone. 

Clean eating doesn’t mean you are doing anything wrong if you decide to eat some candy one day, or put frozen spring rolls and French fries in your grocery cart. Think in broad strokes rather than strict rules—clean eating is about having the knowledge to inform your general choices, not about severe restrictions. 

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