How clean are you eating?

April 25, 2022 | by Toni Havala, MS, RD, LDN
Categories: Healthy Driven Life

When you need a snack, do you reach for the box of crackers or the carrot sticks? Do you buy a lot of food that you see advertised on television? How often does your main course come from a can, bag or box?

Processed food is easy to prepare, enticingly convenient — and so unhealthy.

If you’re in a rut of processed menus, shifting toward a clean diet of minimally-processed food would bring a big change in the way you look and feel. Making that change would require some dedication to a new way of eating.

But the term "clean eating" isn’t self-explanatory. How do you know whether you’re truly eating a clean diet?

What is clean eating?

  • Choosing foods that have been minimally processed
  • Eating a variety of foods
  • Eating a balance of food groups including proteins, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and dairy or dairy alternatives
  • When possible eating local, seasonal foods
  • Choosing foods that are good for your body and the planet

Eating clean is a lifestyle shift, not a temporary, fad diet. It largely follows one simple rule: if it came from a plant, eat it. If it’s made in a plant, don’t.

Why should you eat clean?

People that eat a Western diet consisting of processed foods and meats with lots of added fat, sugar and refined grains suffer from increased rates of diabetes, cancer, heart disease and obesity.

Populations eating a wide range of traditional diets don’t suffer from high rates of these diseases. Diets can range from high fat (Inuits in Greenland who eat seal blubber) to high carbohydrate (South Americans who eat corn, beans and rice).

How do people feel when they eat clean?

  • Energized! People who eat healthfully have an even energy level throughout the day.  Food is fuel!
  • Positive. Studies have shown that eating less processed foods reduces depression.
  • Calm. Eating a healthy diet reduces irritability and anxiety.
  • Full. Eating less sugar and more fiber helps keep you from getting “hangry.”
  • Healthy. Clean eating reduces inflammation which improves your health in every aspect.

If you need further nudging, consider this list of ingredients that are often added to processed foods:

  • Partially hydrogenated fat (trans fat)
  • Nitrites in cured meats 
  • Artificial food coloring (Blue 2, Green 3, Red 3, Yellow 5 and 6)
  • Artificial sweeteners (acesulfame potassium, saccharin/Sweet N Low®, aspartame/Nutrasweet® and Equal®, sucralose/Splenda®
  • Large amounts of refined sugars and salt

The only acceptable amount of trans fat you should allow in your food is ZERO.

Fruit and veggies: the core of a healthy diet

Truly, the healthiest diet is heavy in fruit and vegetables. Consider these recommendations:

Fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants — vitamins, minerals and other compounds in foods that may help protect against chronic disease.

Antioxidants work by protecting cells from damage from oxygen. In this way, antioxidants have anti-inflammatory properties.

Things to consider when purchasing organic or conventionally grown produce:

  • Cost. Organic fruits and vegetables are typically more expensive. This is the only negative side to buying organic produce.
  • Pesticides. Organic produce has fewer pesticide residues.  Both organic and non-organic don’t exceed government safety limits.
  • Origin. Look at the package or sticker to find out where the food was grown. U.S. pesticide laws are some of the strictest in the world. Try to buy U.S. produce if it is available.
  • Peel. If the peel is thick (banana or melon) the edible portion has less pesticides than thin skinned produce (berries or peppers).
  • Growth. If the produce grows below the ground (ex: carrots, potatoes, parsnips) it will have less pesticide exposure.

Are you ready for a healthy change? How to get started eating clean

Meal planning is the key to avoiding the last-minute fast-food or processed dinner run. Schedule a time to plan out your meals for the week and make a grocery list. Shop and prep as much ahead of time as you can. This will also save time when it comes to whipping up a weeknight dinner or a quick, healthy breakfast.

Some other points to consider when you’re making your shopping list:

  • Produce loses some of its nutritional value after it’s picked. It’s best to buy freshly harvested, local produce in the spring, fall and summer. This is also better for the environment.
  • Consider joining a Community Supported Agriculture co-op.
  • Frozen produce is flash frozen and retains most of its nutritional value.
  • Hydroponic indoor gardening is becoming popular and is a great choice when buying produce in the winter.

When buying meat, poultry or dairy:

  • Choose organic if it is available and your budget allows.
  • Choose antibiotic and growth hormone free if organic proteins are not in the budget or unavailable. The USDA requires documentation that these standards are adhered to.
  • Choose 100 percent grass fed meats. Grass fed meat is healthier than meat from animals fed grain and raised in a confined space.  Meat from grass fed animals has less saturated fat and more omega 3 fats. Only 100 percent grass fed meats are verified by the USDA.
  • Watch out for "natural." This term refers to what was not added to meats.  It usually refers to processed meats. It means the food is free of artificial flavors, sweeteners, and preservatives.  It does not refer to how the meat was raised.
  • The terms "free range" or "cage free" eggs are not regulated.

If you have any questions about how to eat healthier, consult with your doctor or a dietitian to recommend an eating plan that works best for you.

Check out some Healthy Driven recipes.

For more healthy meal tips, visit Healthy Driven Chicago.

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