What Is The Real Definition of Clean Eating?

Say you're scrolling through your Instagram feed and you come across what seems like a million different dishes and a million different hashtags to go along with them: gluten free, Paleo, clean eating, etc. Learning the lingo of the foodie world can be overwhelming if you're new to the nutrition scene. Clean eating, a popular food lifestyle, is widely misunderstood, mainly because it's such a vague phrase. Let's clear the air once and for all and explore the true definition of clean eating.

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As ambiguous as the term is, "clean eating" is actually a fairly simple concept. Rather than revolving around the idea of eating more or less of specific things (like calories, carbs or protein), the idea is about being mindful of your food's pathway between its origin and your plate. Clean eating is about eating whole or "real" foods that are un- or minimally processed, refined and handled. People who practice clean eating try to consume food as close to its natural form as possible.

In order to fully understand clean eating, we have to understand its counterpart as well: processed food. Processed food can mean any of the following:

  • Food that has additions of any kind. Think salt, sugar, fat to add flavor, preservatives to keep it from spoiling, and even vitamins to enrich the food.
  • Food that has been changed from its natural form. Think removing bran or germ from whole grain to create refined bread, mashing apples into applesauce, and even stir-frying veggies!
  • Foods with components that were manufactured in a lab. Think ingredients that you can't pronounce or are unfamiliar with.

The fact that even adding heat to your veggies technically means they're "processed" does not mean you shouldn't eat them, however. The key to clean eating is to avoid ultra-processed foods like food-product-like or ready-to-heat varieties. In other words, you can still practice clean eating if you like cooked food. Great. Let's move on.

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Clean eating definitely has its benefits: You'll steer clear of GMOs, which are linked to cancer and infertility, as well as highly processed foods, that are stripped of their nutrition. Plus, plant-based diets have been proven healthy indeed, and can curb and even prevent life-threatening conditions and diseases like high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

If you're new to the whole clean eating phenomenon and want to get in on the fun, here are some tips and general guidelines to eating clean:

  • Eat five to six times a day. Three meals with two or three small snacks in between. Include a lean protein, plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, and a complex carbohydrate with each meal. This keeps your body energized and burning calories efficiently all day long.
  • Choose organic as much as you can. Sometimes buying organic can get pricey, so if your budget limits you, make meat, eggs, dairy and the Dirty Dozen your organic priorities.
  • Drink at least two liters of water a day.
  • Avoid long ingredient lists. If you can only find one or two ingredients on the nutrition label, you're doing it right. Avoid longer ingredient lists as much as you can.
  • Avoid processed and refined foods.
  • Keep your guard up. Knowing what to avoid is just as important as knowing what to eat. Steer clear of anything high in trans fats, anything fried or anything high in sugar. Avoid preservatives, color additives and toxic binders, stabilizers, emulsifiers and fat replacers. Check out this list of additives making your kids sick.
  • Eat healthy fats. Getting your essential fatty acids every day is, well, essential.
  • Shop with a conscience. Consume humanely raised local meats and ocean-friendly seafood.

If you practice clean eating, share your secrets to success with us in the comments below!