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Tips on How to Eat Clean

min read

By Katherine George

Medically Reviewed by Julie Ching, MS, RDN, CDE

The clean eating trend is growing as people realize the benefits of changing not just their diet, but also their lifestyle. More people are beginning to limit the amount of processed foods they buy and start purchasing foods directly from the source. Clean eating not only changes the way you eat, but also how much you eat, and even when you eat. It encourages altering your diet so that you eat foods that are packed full of nutrients and good fats to improve overall health. This lifestyle has many health benefits, including reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, many types of cancers, and other medical problems.

Being aware of the journey your food takes to make it to your plate cuts out additives, filler, and other unnecessary products. Follow these 15 clean eating do’s and avoid these foods to reap the benefits of a trend that’s sure to stay.

No Processed Foods

It’s quite easy to learn about the clean eating lifestyle, but following it can be difficult and a major shock (a good one) to your body. One of the main foundations of clean eating is cutting out and avoiding processed foods. Doing so will prevent the consumption of unhealthy and sometimes very harmful additives. Processed foods are hard on your body and have been connected to serious health complications, including cardiovascular disease and obesity. They can contain so many bad ingredients that are difficult on your liver and for you to digest, and those harmful ingredients and additives are often then stored in the body.

Reading the ingredient list and nutritional information on the side of pre-made, packaged, and processed foods can be a real wake up call if you haven’t read it before. Processed foods can have an alarming amount of sodium, fat and sugar. To make it worse, the serving size is often only half or less of what you’d regularly eat. Next time you’re shopping, skip processed foods to eat clean and greatly improve your health.

Buy Local Foods

Possibly the most simple yet difficult aspect of clean eating is to purchase local foods. By buying local you cut out travel and possible packaging or processing. Unfortunately, even though buying local is healthier for you, the environment and helps support local businesses, sometimes it’s a bit more expensive than what you’ll find at grocery store chains. But it’s worth it and doesn’t cost that much more in general—even less if you shop at farmer’s markets with certain foods like fruits and vegetables often cheaper right from a local farm than a grocery store.

Not only is buying local most definitely a clean eating do, buying directly from the local source is what truly cuts out any travel (other than getting to the source) of food to your plate. This ensures you pick up your food before it travels to a packaging plant or to the store for packaging and finally, displayed for purchase. Although it’s good to buy produce that’s marked as from the state or province you live in, it’s unlikely that what you buy is from the city you live in. There’s still a lot of travel and packaging involved, so it’s best to buy directly from the source.

Eat Several Small Meals a Day

A clean eating staple when following this diet and lifestyle involves eating several small healthy meals a day, either 5 or 6, instead of 3 (or fewer, depending on your routine) big meals. Some benefits of eating this way include improving your metabolism through the extra work required to digest food more frequently and maintaining blood sugar levels. It can also prevent overeating because you won’t feel starving at your next meal, causing you to eat more than your body needs. It provides your body regular nourishment to keep you energized and satiated throughout the day.

Some people think that eating a small meal won’t satisfy them, but if you eat the right foods and give your body time to adjust to the new meal schedule, you should be fine. One key tip to clean eating that will help with feeling full and for longer is to include foods with fiber in your small meals. Eating fresh vegetables is a major part of clean eating and there are many veggies that contain a high amount of fiber, so you shouldn’t feel hungry.

Portion Control

In order to eat several small meals a day, the meals have to be portioned properly. We live in a world where everything is super-sized. American’s especially eat way more than what is necessary, especially when it comes to those cheap, processed foods. Fast food chains and restaurants will provide meals much larger than what is needed which encourages people to eat more than they should. While it’s true, everyone requires different amounts of food, depending on their age and lifestyle habits, but unless you’re training like an Olympian, you probably don’t need to be eating more than the average person. If you’re eating the right foods, you can still get the added protein you need, while loading up your body with vital nutrients that will help your overall health.

Like many other important do’s of clean eating, portion sizes aren’t anything new or considered a drastic change in the goal to be healthy. Weight Watchers and other programs have been successfully helping people shed fat by teaching people to use portion control. There’s the added environmental benefit of following appropriate portion sizes—you won’t likely have waste. Throwing out food because there was more than you needed is quite common, a eating smaller meals several times throughout the day is a win for your health, environment, and wallet.

Eat Fresh Veggies

Eat your vegetables. You probably heard this growing up and if you have kids, you’ve probably said it to them, too. There’s a reason vegetables are considered a key part of a healthy diet and it’s recommended you get several servings of them each day—they’re supremely healthy. Vegetables are packed full of nutrients and other sought-after properties that can greatly improve health, protect you from illness, and give your body what it needs to not only survive but thrive. The nutritional properties of vegetables range, but many are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, and folic acid, all of which contribute to good health.

There’s an impossibly long list of health benefits from eating fresh vegetables, from giving you energy, improving digestion, and protecting your skin and eyes to potentially reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and many types of cancer. Many vegetables are considered superfoods because of these amazing health benefits, so stock up and eat them regularly. Eating fresh vegetables is a definite do for clean eating and you’ll see and feel the benefits of these powerful foods.

Drink Water

Clean eating is about keeping your body clean in every aspect, allowing it to flourish and helping your body become as healthy and strong as possible. Water is vital for your body and impacts more of your health than you may know. It can flush out toxins and other harmful waste in the body, enhance and maintain healthy muscles, and decrease joint pain. Some teas and other fluids can be as effective in hydrating your body as water, so if drinking a lot of water is a big change to your diet you could supplement a few cups of herbal tea as your body and mind adjusts to the change.

Staying hydrated is also known to help control your appetite. Hunger is often mistaken for thirst, causing people to eat and overeat instead of the body what it really needs – water. Drink water throughout the day, at least the standard 8, 8-ounce servings, though your activity level and health impacts how much you should drink. By helping your body thrive from staying well-hydrated all the time you’ll be on your way to keep your body clean.

Eat Whole Grains

Whole grains are seriously good for you, yet processed foods containing grains don’t contain many of the nutrients that make whole grains healthy because certain components are removed. To eat clean in regards to grains, you need to make sure that whatever grain-based food you’re buying actually says the word ‘whole’ before the grain, like whole wheat flour. If you don’t look at the ingredient list and just assume that a product is whole grain, you’ll probably eat foods that just have wheat flour and you’ll be missing out on some of the good stuff.

There are many other whole grains and whole grain products that are finally fairly mainstream, such as quinoa, buckwheat, rye, and brown rice, increasing your options for including whole grains in your diet. These popular and healthy alternatives use whole grains for all kinds of baking and cooking. And to top it off, according to the Mayo Clinic whole grains are not only good for you, they’re an essential part of a healthy diet and have been linked to decreasing the risk of heart disease and other serious medical conditions.

Shop the Perimeter

If you consider how grocery stores are typically laid out, you’ll notice that all the packaged and processed foods are in the middle aisles, while the outside of the grocery store has things like meat, produce, dairy, and grains. Basically all the “unnecessary foods” that we don’t really need to be eating are in the center of the grocery store and the outer perimeter contains all the foods that we need to eat or should be eating. We understand that for many people it’s not realistic to suggest only eating from the outer aisles of the grocery store (however, it can totally be done), so we suggest just making a mindful effort to limit the amount of foods purchased from those inner aisles. While walking down these aisles with your grocery cart, ask yourself, are these foods necessary? Do they provide any value to my overall health? The point is to be more mindful about the food that you are purchasing and to eat less of that pre-packaged, processed food that contains little to no nutritional value.

It’s not a perfect answer to clean eating since produce, meats, and dairy found in grocery stores still go through a sometimes long process to get there, but it limits not only the more unhealthy food but the ones that go through a much longer journey to become what they are and arrive at the store. Committing to perimeter shopping will pay off, too—buying and eating the healthy foods will impact your diet and overall health. And of course, buy local products as often as possible.

Cook Clean and Eat Raw

Clean eating is not just about what we eat and how much we eat, it’s also about how we eat our food. We’re not talking the difference between a spoon and a fork, we’re talking how the food is prepared! That’s right, there is such a thing as cooking clean. Most people don’t realize this but even if you’re eating healthy foods like fruits and veggies, the way we prepare them can sometimes diminish their nutritional benefits or increase them in some cases. “While it’s true that some nutrients are lost during cooking, like vitamin C, other nutrients are increased when foods are cooked, like lycopene, so it’s best to eat a wide variety of foods, in both their raw and cooked forms,” says EA Stewart, RD, to Shape.

When it comes to fruits and vegetables, eating them raw is always the best option. But obviously that’s not ideal. When cooking vegetables, just be sure to avoid any high-fat methods that involve deep frying or stewing in fats. Opt for a flash-cook method like stir-frying or steaming. In addition to that, when possible, leave the skin on because it contains copious amounts of nutrients. So if it’s edible and you like it, leave it on. It also prevents you from wasting food. Frozen vegetables have come a long way in terms of preserving nutrients, but they don’t have a place in clean eating. Regardless of potential additives or fewer nutrients, there are way too many steps involved in processing and packaging frozen veggies, so buy fresh instead.

Farm-to-Table and Raw Restaurants

With people becoming increasingly conscious of where their food comes from, what’s in it, processing procedures, and the environmental impact of transporting and packaging food, it’s no surprise that restaurants who cater to the clean eating crowd are popping up more and more. The idea is that they buy directly from the source, cutting out all the middle-men and serving food that is straight from the farm to your table. These places support local producers and are essentially committed to clean eating by serving patrons meals that are natural and fresh, and consist of locally-purchased food.

There are also raw-food cafes that serve lighter meals and offer raw vegetables to patrons, since clean eating includes consuming a lot of fresh produce. Vegetables are probably the easiest and safest foods to eat raw, lending themselves perfectly to the clean eating crowd. If you’re really focused and committed to eating clean, you can make your kitchen follow the farm-to-table trend by growing your own vegetables and buying from your local butcher, or joining community/shared plots.

Read Labels

Nutritionists have been preaching this rule for a long time and for the most part, a lot of people try to follow it. So what are we looking for when we read the label. First of all, the point of this exercise is to just be more mindful about what we’re putting into our body. A lot of processed food has hidden sugar and sodium, even those that you wouldn’t expect! It’s our job to be mindful about what we’re eating. No one else is going to do it for us. Take a look at how much sodium and sugar is in a product. If it’s a lot, choose a healthier option. The nice thing about grocery stores is that there are plenty of options. For the most part there is almost always a healthier option available.

Another really simple rule to follow is to pick the label with the least amount of ingredients. The less ingredients it has on the label, the cleaner it is. You want to mostly eat foods that just have one ingredient like “broccoli, quinoa, chicken,” etc. Of course, this isn’t always possible, so the next best option is to choose those with very few. Another rule of thumb to follow is to avoid purchasing any food that has ingredients you can’t pronounce. If you can’t say one of the words on the ingredient list, chances are you probably shouldn’t be eating it.

Avoid Added Sugar

The American Heart Association recommends no more than 25-grams of sugar a day, but the average American consumes around 70-grams a day. Sugar is really hard to avoid. Even when we don’t mean to consume it, it’s often hidden in some of our favorite foods — that’s why they taste so good! Unfortunately, too much sugar can be bad for us as it leads to obesity and high blood pressure and can put us at risk for diabetes and heart disease, says Real Simple.

The only way to avoid sugar or at least limit sugar intake is to read labels and be more mindful about what we put in our mouth. Even foods that we think are healthy like yogurt, almond milk, or coconut milk can be super unhealthy because of their added sugar. Your best best is to purchase plain flavored foods when possible. Don’t rely on someone else to sweeten your food for you because it’ll likely end up being an unhealthy amount. Do your best to sweeten plain food on your own at home with raw honey, pure maple syrup, or even fresh fruit.

Eat Ethically Raised Meat

You might have noticed that a lot of people are choosing to either avoid eating meat all together or at least make smarter choices when it comes to what meat they purchase. Eating less meat and more plant-based protein is not only good for our health, but it’s also good for the climate. You might think that cars and pollution are the biggest cause behind climate change, but it’s actually agriculture. We can’t ask everyone to give up meat, nor is that necessarily the healthiest option, but we should all be making a more conscious effort to eat less meat and purchase ethically raised meat. It’s easy for us to turn a blind eye about where our meat comes from, like how the animal was treated, raised, but in a lot of cases we also don’t know how the meat is prepared. The reality is, a lot of the meat out there is pumped with antibiotics and hormones and the conditions these animals are raised in aren’t the best. In order to keep up with the supply a few corners need to be cut.

This doesn’t mean all meat is bad. There are healthy options out there. It’s just about taking the time to find them and in some cases, spending a little extra money for that clean eating peace of mind. Yes it’s often more expensive and not something we can all afford, but if we all make an effort to eat less meat then it could be more affordable. “Meat from grass-fed or pastured animals that are raised locally is generally the cleanest option,” says Ayla Withee, a registered dietitian based in Boston when talking to Shape. Not only is this meat more ethical, but many studies have found that grass-fed beef contains more healthy omega-3 fatty acids and micronutrients.

Cut Back on Alcohol

We’ve talked a lot about what we should and shouldn’t eat, but what about drinking? Alcohol is something that most of us like to indulge in once in a while. If you’re like me you might only indulge in it on the weekends while some people have a drink or two every day. The trick with alcohol is moderation. The rule of thumb is that women should only have 1 drink a day and men should only have 2, but realistically the best rule to follow is only two or three a week. This means binge drinking on the weekend is a definite no-no.

The reason for this is because obviously alcohol is damaging to our health, but it’s also full of empty calories which can lead to weight gain. It’s the same reason we don’t want to be eating highly processed foods.

Don’t Diet

If you’ve made it this far into the article then you’re probably already realized that clean eating isn’t a diet, it’s a lifestyle. Even though it might be considered ‘trendy’ at the moment, it’s not something that’s meant to be practiced for a short period of time. All of the tips on this list are healthy choices that should be made on a regular basis and will add up to a cleaner lifestyle. While it’s not meant to be used as a crash diet or way to lose weight quickly, it is 100-percent the best and only surefire effective diet for weight loss. Losing weight and eating healthy doesn’t have to be so complicated. If you’re someone who has trouble losing weight or finding a diet that works, it’s probably because you’re overthinking it. There is no magic pill, single food or exercise routine that will shed the pounds overnight. It all comes down to making healthier choices. The only real effective way to lose weight and feel better is to exercise on a regular basis and eat healthier.

Everyday Health talked to Candice Kumai, professionally-trained chef and author of Clean Green Eats who says there are not hard and fast rules for clean eating. “With clean eating, you finally set yourself free from rules, restrictions, diets, yo-yo weight loss, and confusion. Clean eating is clear, simple, and easy to follow. if you make the changes, you will feel and see the difference.”


Julie Ching is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator in Los Angeles. She decided to become a Dietitian after traveling through Europe, South America, and Asia and discovered a passion for food. She now works with people of all ages and varying disease states to improve their health. She is passionate about teaching people about nutrition so they can live their best life while still considering their cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.

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