What is clean eating?

So what exactly is “clean eating”?
Natural food
What is clean eating?
If you’re reading this, you obviously have some interest in eating as cleanly as possible, but you might still be wondering what the term means. Although there is no single official definition of what “clean eating” is or a “clean eating diet” entails, let’s go through some of the main aspects everybody seems to be agreeing upon.

The basics

Basically, it means eating food that is as close as possible to its natural, original state. Unprocessed wherever possible, raw even better. Well, ideally. In real life though, we’ll be aiming at the least amount of processes for the maximum amount of nutrients.

And by processes, we mean…

…anything done to your food from the moment it actually became food (or even while it was being grown). That can go from genetic modification, mechanical or chemical purifying and refining, to milling

Grains storage in silos
Storage counts as a process

and chopping and mixing, through adding other ingredients, transport, storage, packaging etc

So in essence, a clean eating diet will involve raw, organic foodstuff, and mainly produce, since everything else, grains, meat, dairy, oils etc. are submitted to some form of processing and will need packaging of sorts.
It’s nothing new, the term has been used for a few decades now, but the hype about “clean eating” has only really started recently. Because there is no official definition of it, it can be hard to define clearly. Some celebrities, nutritionists and other wellness specialists have defined it in their own ways recently, giving it this or that benefit. But based on the above basic definition, these are the XX main aspects of a clean diet:

Focus on whole foods

Focus on whole foods
A lot of fruits and vegs can be eaten in their natural state.

This is by far the main food group that can be harvested and eaten as is, in its natural state. So this should become your staple food source. To ensure that your fruits and veggies stay as close to their natural state as possible, think raw consumption, or after minimal cooking, like steaming.

Apart from grains, most other food groups can also be found and consumed after minimal processing. Just aim for plain, natural, whole or unrefined products.

Avoid processed food

Avoid processed food
Ask yourself: could I make this myself?

This is easier said than done. It’s actually almost impossible to achieve, short of growing and raising all your food organically and at home.

So aim for minimal processing: go for wholegrain or stone-milled rather than refined grains, plain whole milk dairy rather than the flavored fat-free variety, fresh meat, and fish rather than cold meat or fishcakes.
If you must buy processed food, aim for the ones that clearly have retained as much of their original state as possible: think seed crackers rather than biscuits as snacks, for example.
Or chopped tomatoes in a tin, rather than a tomato sauce with less than 10% tomatoes.

Stay away from additives

Stay away from additives
If it has colorings in it, it ain’t clean food…

You’ve heard it before, but if you can’t pronounce the name of an ingredient, it probably isn’t all that natural. You’ll most certainly have to rely on some processed products but stick with the ones with a short ingredients list, or at least one where you are familiar with all the ingredients names. Becoming label-savvy can be daunting at first, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be quick to spot the undesirables in a list.


Go for locally produced

Go for locally produced
Get to know your local foods and where to get them.

Food travel always involves storage, transport and some level of preservation during that time. Local food is more likely to be seasonal (no artificial ripening) and the time between harvest and shelves will be the shortest.

If you are lucky enough to be able to shop at a farmers market, use this as an opportunity to find out what’s in season, what keeps well, how the produce is grown etc.

Consider agricultural processes

Consider agricultural processes
The more clean produce we buy, the more clean produce will be produced…

The seed and variety selection (think GMOs), as well as the type of agriculture used to grow your food, will have an impact on how natural and nutrient-rich it is.

Organic is best, in terms of food quality and environmental impact (think less junk for the earth too). But as eating completely organic is unfeasible for most of us, focusing on the Dirty Dozen might be a good start.
Even reducing packaging is a good start (go for whole fruits and vegetables instead of the washed, chopped, stored in a bag filled up with gas variety…)
These next points are more like side-effects of feeding your body wholefoods: convenience products tend to go out of the window as they involve by essence some kind of process (so you don’t have to)Eating whole foods involves a bit more forward-thinking than a takeaway or a trip to the convenience food aisle of the supermarket. Most of your food will need to be prepped and cooked, if need be, at home. So being organized becomes essential. So you will end up gradually having to take on preparing and cooking your own food. Which is not as bad as it seems, especially if it means that it puts you in complete control of what goes in your body.


Plan your meals

Plan your meals
And the bonus: save money by not buying if not on the shopping list!

Think about a few easy recipes that you know how to cook from scratch and that don’t involve processed food, or very little of it. Make those your staple diet and add new recipes as you go along.

Write down all the ingredients you’ll need for them, so there’s nothing stopping you from making them. Try and plan to make a bit more than you need, so you can eat leftovers the next day, or freeze them for later. That’s your shopping list.

Know how to shop

Know how to shop
Don’t avoid the supermarket, just learn how to work it to your advantage.

This can be daunting, but if you follow a couple of no-nonsense rules, your shopping trips might not take you longer than usual, and you won’t have to spend hours sifting through endless ingredients lists.

First, think perimeter: this is where all the fresh produce and foodstuff is. Then, select your middle aisles carefully, ignoring anything that is highly processed (biscuits, convenience meals etc.). 
Aim for simple, basic ingredients to start with, preferably that you already know how to prepare. If you have the choice, go for the least processed option. Think brown rice instead of white, wholewheat pasta and bread, tinned chopped tomatoes instead of tomato sauce, etc.

Cook from scratch

Cook from scratch
One doesn’t have to be a chef to whip up a delicious home-made pizza…

I would suggest keeping a few shortcuts here and there, because most of us work, have a family to look after, and still want to have a life. So a few lesser-processed, nutrient-rich products that will make your life easier are fine. But the bulk of your nourishment will be home-cooked. It doesn’t mean you have to change what you eat completely, most comfort foods can happily be made at home, and are often more flavorsome.


And this is pretty much it!

 Forget all the hype about the clean eating “diet”. At the end of the day, this is about eating more healthy, wholesome and nutrient-rich food. It’s not a diet, and it’s not a trend. It’s more of a lifestyle, where one would just try to eat as naturally as possible, one day at a time.
Stick around for more tips on how to clean up your diet, step by step.
To go further:
Confused about whether to buy organic or not? Focus on the Dirty Dozen and relax with the Clean Fifteen.
OK, Clean Eating is not a diet, but can it still help me lose weight? Find out here.