Dieting, Featured, Nutrition, Weight Loss

What are the Clean Eating Basics?

It’s the catch-phrase of the past few years…. “clean eating.”  Magazines, books, blogs, websites…. all devoted to the clean eating movement.  What does it mean?  It is not about dirty foods or washing your produce well.  Instead, the clean eating movement is promoting fresh, whole and natural foods.  It is in response to the highly processed, refined and ‘junk’ foods that make up the majority of the American diet.

At first glance, the Clean Eating plan is a long list of “don’ts” and a shorter list of “dos.”  Looking closer, you will see some sound advice throughout the plan.  For example, a fresh whole apple is part of the clean eating plan.  Applesauce, which is somewhat processed, can still fit into the clean eating plan if no sugar is added.  Apple pie, however, with a significant amount of sugar in the filling and fat with white flour in the crust – now that’s not going to fit into the clean eating plan.  Anyone will admit that a fresh apple is healthier than a slice of apple pie.

To some people, clean eating simply means avoiding gluten or dairy.  To others, it may mean eating all organic and non-GMO foods.

Read on for more tips as to how to reach the goal of clean eating.


  • Fruits – all fresh, frozen or canned or dried without added sugar
  • Vegetables – all fresh, frozen or canned without added sauce, fats or salthealthy-food-1487647_1280
  • Whole Grains – popcorn, whole wheat pasta, millet, brown rice, quinoa, barley, oats, whole wheat pizza dough, whole grain bread and crackers (without added sugars)
  • Dairy – skim or 1% milk, cottage cheese from skim or 1% milk, plain yogurt (without added sugars or artificial sweeteners), unsweetened nondairy milk (soy, almond, rice, or coconut), cheeses (in moderation)
  • Protein – fresh chicken, turkey, pork, beef, eggs, wild game meats and seafood, unsalted nuts, tofu, dried beans, canned beans without salt.  Note: some clean eating sources advise grass-fed beef and free-range poultry/eggs.
  • Condiments – honey, pure maple syrup, unsulfured molasses, mustard without added sugar, plain single herbs or spices


  • Fruits – any added sugar
  • Vegetables – any added sauces, fats or saltpizza-386717_1280
  • Grains – foods with refined white flour as primary ingredient, bread/crackers/cereals with added sugars, convenience refrigerated bread doughs (biscuits, rolls, pizza crusts)
  • Dairy – any with added sugars or flavorings
  • Protein – salted/cured or processed meats such as bacon, sausage, lunch meats, pepperoni, Canadian bacon, hotdogs
  • Condiments – ketchup, barbecue sauce, teriyaki sauces, spice blends, garlic or onion salt, seasoning salt

Avoid Refined Flours and Sugars

salt-1073252_1280Refined flours and sugars are a large component of the diet in developed countries.  In this over-processing, we miss out on important nutrients such as fiber and certain vitamins and minerals.  And, let’s face it, no one needs extra refined sugars in their diet.  High sugar diets are a significant contributor to the growing weight issue in children and adults.  To replace the refined white flour, try whole grains in your diet such as brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, and millet.  These grains cannot replace flour in recipes, but can be ingredients in hardy side dishes.  Avoiding white flour and white sugar is challenging, but worth it in the end.

Avoid Packaged Foods, Artificial Sweeteners, and Additives

Face it… The majority of the supermarket consists of shelving with stacks of boxed snacks, canned foods, meal mixes and sugary goodies.  The clean eating plan insists on avoidance of packaged foods.  This can be extremely cans-1078628_1280challenging, as nearly every item in the grocery store is in boxes, cans or other packagings, with added preservatives, artificial coloring or flavoring, and artificial sweeteners.  Even salt is considered a preservative amongst strict clean eaters.  Other clean eaters will allow some packaged foods such as boxed dry whole wheat pasta, canned no-salt-added beans, or frozen bagged spinach.

Read the ingredient list on your food labels.  If the list is annoyingly long and there are a multitude of chemicals you cannot pronounce or recognize, chances are it is not included in the clean eating plan.  Just remember that if you purchase whole grain bread that does not have preservatives or mold inhibitors added, it will be growing old in just a couple of days.  Think fresh!

Increase Veggies and Fruits

banana-1245231_1280Undoubtedly, this is an obvious principle of any sound diet.  The more fruits and veggies, the better!  Fruits and veggies contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates and phytonutrients.  They fill you up and keep your calorie intake low.  The clean eating plan promotes vegetables in the diet, with some followers even allowing purchasing pre-cut, pre-shredded fruits, and vegetables, as long as they are fresh.  You can’t get much cleaner than fresh fruits and vegetables straight from a local farm or farmer’s market … just make sure you wash them thoroughly!

Eat the Right Kind of Fats

The type of fat you eat influences your health and risk of certain diseases.  Decreasing saturated fat from bacon, salmon-560987_1280sausage, fried foods, cheese, butter, mayonnaise, sour cream and whole milk can maintain a healthy blood lipid profile and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.  Trans fats from highly processed crackers, cookies and snack foods are not allowed on the clean eating plan, thus also improving your heart health.

On the other hand, using heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats is a positive move.  Polyunsaturated fats are rich in certain essential fatty acids (eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), shown to have a positive impact on a variety of disease states.  Little is said on clean eating websites and blogs about the processing involved in these oils, however.  Remember that all fats and oils are very high in calories, and excess amounts are not desirable.

  • Monounsaturated Fats – olive oil, canola oil, avocado
  • Polyunsaturated Fats – nuts, seeds, salmon

Avoid Calorie Dense Foods

hamburger-1414423_1280You know, those fun treats that have little or no nutritional value… The ones you use to reward or comfort yourself.  We are talking about alcohol, potato chips, pizza, deep fried foods, cookies, ice cream, soda pop…. On the clean eating plan, these are not allowed at all.  Not even those “cheat days” that many other programs incorporate.  Some experts say that the complete elimination of your favorite treats or cravings will sabotage you in the end.  They claim that abstinence will cause you to overeat these high-calorie foods eventually.  Maybe a little is okay, after all?  Think about it, all of these foods are packaged and include additives, sugars, and fats that are not appropriate for a clean eating plan.

Drink Clean 

Water, unsweetened tea or coffee, low fat or fat-free milk, and 100% fruit juices are allowed beverages for clean eaters.  Soda pop, fruit punches or fruit drinks, sweet tea, coffee drinks, sports drinks and alcohol all contain herbal-tea-1410565_1280unneeded calories.  It is very easy to drink 500 calories without chewing a thing!  The clean eating approach to beverages will save you many calories.

  • Drink up
    • Unsweetened black, green or white tea
    • Black coffee
    • Skim or 1% milk
    • 100% fruit juices
    • Water

Other Positive Principles of the Clean Eating Plan

  1. Overall balanced diet including all food groupscycling-655565_1280
  2. Eat 5-6 small meals each day
  3. Eat every 2-3 hours
  4. Always eat something within 30 minutes of waking
  5. Exercise is encouraged
  6. Limit portion sizes
  7. Drink at least 2 liters of water daily
  8. Increased energy
  9. Healthier hair, skin and nails

Questionable Principles of the Clean Eating Plan

  1. Calories do not matterpills-640025_1280
  2. Chew food well to avoid putting stress on your gastrointestinal tract
  3. Avoid using aluminum, plastic or Teflon cookware
  4. Organic food is always cleaner
  5. Certain vegetables have mood or psychological connections
  6. “Detoxing” affects and improves the pH of the body
  7. Multiple micronutrients, herbal or dietary supplements are recommended

Bottom Line

Many of the principles of clean eating will improve the overall picture of your dietary health.  As with most things, it can be difficult to achieve at the 100% compliance level.  A healthy, well-balanced diet that embraces all food groups is the ideal to include all important macronutrients and micronutrients.  The clean eating approach can be made in a healthful way!

Dr. Jennifer Bowers is a Registered Dietitian with 25 years of experience in clinical nutrition.  Dr. Bowers earned her PhD in Nutritional Sciences from the University of Arizona and owns a private practice in Tucson.

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