All Your Clean Eating Questions, Answered

If you're one of those people that wants to start eating healthier but isn't quite sure where to start, keep reading! To help make improved nutrition more accessible to everyone, the LIVESTRONG.COM team joined forces with registered dietician extraordinaire, Cynthia Sass, to bring you The Clean Eating Challenge.

Once you master the basic DOs and DON'Ts of clean eating, healthier meals become a snap. (Image: vaaseenaa/iStock/GettyImages)

As part of the challenge, we invited all our Facebook Challenge Group members to ask Sasss any and all questions they had about clean eating. And chances are, their questions are your questions, too. So if you don't know where to start with clean eating, start here!

NOTE: Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.

Q: What Is Clean Eating?

A: I actually wrote about this for the intro of the clean eating challenge! Here's what I answered: "It’s about eating foods as close to their natural state as possible and paying close attention to how food is made. It involves focusing on food quality and the way your diet impacts your overall health, as well as the health of the planet. Clean eating isn’t a fad, or trend — it’s a movement, and an important one."

In addition to my nutrition degrees, I have a master's in public health. I think it's so important for consumers to be more aware of how foods are produced and how that production impacts both human health, environmental health and long-term food sustainability.

Q: Is Coffee Allowed? If So, Do I Have to Drink It Black?

A: Yes, coffee and tea are allowed! If you sweeten your coffee try a drizzle of pure maple syrup and a pinch of cinnamon in it! Organic grass fed whole milk is OK for this challenge, as well as almond and oat milk.

Q: Can You Drink Alcohol While Eating Clean?

A: If you can, I think it's best to try 30 days without alcohol. If you can't, I'd go with organic red wine or something like organic tequila mixed with fresh squeezed lime and blood orange juice.

Q: What Are Some Easy Clean Vegetarian/Vegan Protein Sources?

A: How about mashed chickpeas (BPA-free, canned, drained and well-rinsed is fine) sauteed in EVOO with some veggies and herbs? If you really can't live without the convenience of the ready-to-eat fake meats, I'd look for ones with the most "real food" ingredients. Try Dr. Praeger's Purely Sensible Foods Veggie Sausages.

Q: What Can I Do About My Sweet Tooth?

A: How do you feel about 70-percent dark chocolate? It's lower in sugar than other treats and provides antioxidants and minerals such as magnesium. Some research has shown (and I see with my clients) that incorporating an ounce or so a day helps to decrease cravings for other sweet and salty foods.

It has also been shown to help up the good HDL cholesterol, lower bad LDL, support brain health and elevate mood. Some of my clients enjoy one square (as "you time," undistracted by other things) after each meal and it helps them easily skirt other treats that may be around the office or what your significant other or kids are eating.

If you love dairy, just make sure it's organic and grass-fed. (Image: bit245/iStock/GettyImages)

Q: Is Dairy Allowed While Eating Clean?

A: Conventional dairy is not part of the challenge. But if you can find organic and grass-fed dairy (Greek yogurt, cheese, milk, etc.) that would be fine. Maple Hill and Stonyfield both have grass-fed, organic yogurts.

Q: Is Soy Milk Allowed?

A: If you use it, I would recommend organic.

Q: Is Microwaveable Brown Rice or Quinoa OK?

A: I think it's actually better to look for frozen grains without additives. You can thaw and warm them or heat from frozen. Check the freezer section of your market. Many now carry frozen bags of quinoa and brown or wild rice. Frozen peas is another good starch option.

Q: Are Frozen Vegetables Considered Clean Eating?

A: Yes, frozen vegetables with zero added ingredients are definitely OK. You can steam them and toss with a little jarred, dairy-free pesto or olive tapenade, or you can sautee them in extra virgin olive oil with a little garlic and dried Italian herb seasoning.

Q: Is It Better to Eat Smaller Portions More Often?

A: I think it's important to not let more than five hours go by without eating. That may mean three slightly larger meals (say 9 am, 1 pm and 6 pm) or four to five smaller meals. For some of my clients, eating more frequently leads to overeating, so I think the key is finding what works for you.

In my opinion, if eating three well-timed meals allows you to feel full, but not overly full or stuffed, and energized afterwards and between meals, there's no need to have a fourth or fifth meal. That said, some of my clients prefer to graze and like being able to eat more often.

Q: What Are Some Good Clean Eating Snacks?

A: With any food, snack or otherwise, just look at the ingredient list. If you can easily recognize every ingredient and think you could have made it yourself, it's probably a great choice! In addition to fresh fruit with nuts or nut butter there are some clean ingredient bars made with only dates and/or other fruit and nuts.

Q: Is Dried Fruit OK?

A: I think that's fine if they are preservative-free and organic and contain no sulfites or added sugar. Generally, a portion of dried fruit should be 1/4 cup — about the size of a golf ball. If you want more info, check out the above post from my Instagram.

Q: What About Potatoes, Quinoa, Rice, Barley and Millet?

A: Yes on potatoes, quinoa, whole grain rice (brown, black, wild) and millet.

Q: What About Bulgur?

A: The challenge includes gluten-free whole grains only. Bulgur is not gluten-free. Gluten-free whole grains include:

  • Amaranth
  • 100-percent buckwheat (despite the name, buckwheat is not a type of wheat)
  • Corn
  • Millet
  • Oats
  • Quinoa
  • Whole grain rice (brown, red, black, wild)
  • Sorghum
  • Teff

Other non-grain starches included are:

  • Starchy vegetables (potatoes, sweet potato, squash, root vegetables)
  • Pulses (beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas)

Q: Is Cereal Allowed?

A: I am hoping with this challenge to make the food as unprocessed as possible. If you find a very clean ingredient cereal with no preservatives made with gluten-free whole grains, I think that's fine

My preference would be cooked oats with a little pure maple syrup and cinnamon and/or ginger with fresh fruit and nuts/nut butter or pumpkin seeds. Also, I highly recommend adding shredded zucchini or finely chopped kale to oats to fit in some veggies at breakfast and fill up the bowl if you're using a smaller portion of oats. It tastes great!

Q: Is Red Meat Part of The Clean Eating Challenge?

A: No red meat.

Q: What Are the Best Sources of Clean Carbs?

A: Try some clean, whole-food carbs, like sweet potato, fingerling potato, oats, brown and wild rice, quinoa, fresh fruit, lentils and black beans. In my experience, a diet too low in carbs (or too low in calories) can zap energy, disrupt digestive health, rob your body of key nutrients and even cause the loss of lean muscle, which can make weight loss more difficult. The key is finding the right portions for your body's needs.

For example, after your workout, how about a healthy stir fry made with a few cups of veggies, a lean protein of your choice, a quarter cup of nuts for healthy fat and about a half cup of either brown or wild rice or black eyed peas for nutrient-rich carbs (I like to make my clean stir fry sauce with brown rice vinegar, fresh squeezed tangerine juice, fresh grated ginger root, minced garlic, a little raw organic honey, and crushed red pepper)?

Q: I'm a Vegetarian and Eat Gluten- and Lactose-Free. Any Good Resources?

A: I post a plant based recipe each Friday on my Instagram, like this black bean avocado dip If you scroll through, you'll find recipes posted for soups, salads, stir frys, vegan quiche and some clean sweet treats — and all my recipes are gluten-free. VegNews also has lots of vegan recipes.

Q: Are We Only Allowed Two Snacks a Day?

A: No, that was just a sample menu. This challenge really just involves the foods you eat, but not the number of meal per day or anything like that. However, sugar-free pudding and conventional dairy do not fit the challenge. Mango and almonds sounds great, though! You can also try fresh fruit/nut combos, or fresh fruit with all natural nut butter for dipping.

Q: What Are Some Natural, Plant-Based Sources of Calcium?

A: Here are some plant-based calcium sources:

  • Collard greens (1 cup cooked): 357 mg — 36% of the daily target
  • White beans (1 cup cooked): 191 mg — 19%
  • Black eyed peas (1 cup cooked): 183 mg — 18%
  • Chia seeds (1 ounce raw): 179 mg — 18%
  • Sesame seeds (2 Tbsp): 176 mg — 17%
  • Bok choy (1 cup cooked): 158 mg — 16%
  • Seaweed (1 cup): 126 mg — 13%
  • Kale (1 cup raw): 101 mg — 10%

Q: And What About Plant-Based Iron Sources?

A: Here are some of my favorite iron-rich food duos (paired with foods high in vitamin C). You can read more from this post on my Instagram.

  • Broccoli (iron) + tomatoes (vitamin C)
  • Black beans (iron) + red bell pepper (vitamin C)
  • Kale (iron) + oranges (vitamin C)
  • Lentils (iron) + Brussels sprouts (vitamin C)
  • Dark chocolate (iron) + strawberries (vitamin C)

Q: Is Microwaving Part of Clean Eating?

A: That's a really good question! I try to avoid it as much as possible.

Can't quit pasta? Try Ancient Grains. (Image: Anna_Shepulova/iStock/GettyImages)

Q: What Are Some Good Gluten-Free Pre-Packaged Foods?

A: Check your market for frozen whole grains, like quinoa, brown and wild rice. Frozen peas and corn are also good options. I like that these products are convenient but you can look for packages with no additives, so the only ingredient is frozen peas or frozen cooked quinoa, etc. BPA-free canned beans and chickpeas are also good options. And you might find steamed, ready-to-eat lentils in the produce section in vacuum sealed packaging.

That said, if you really want your gluten-free pasta, there are brands with very simple ingredients, such as Ancient Grains, which would be fine. As for a gluten-free frozen turkey pattie, I'm not sure what your usual brand is, but clean eating is very much about ingredients and how the food is produced. Something like the ones from Applegate would be a much better option than a product with ingredients you can't pronounce.

Do you ever do old fashioned rolled oats in the morning instead of the gluten-free waffle (obviously with a brand that is labeled gluten-free so you know it hasn't been cross contaminated by rye or barley processed at the same facility)?

Q: Does It Matter When I Consume My Daily Calories?

A: For most people, I recommend spreading the calories out evenly or eating more calories before more active hours and less prior to less active hours.

Q: Should I Eat Back the Calories I Burn When I Exercise?

I think that depends on factors like:

  1. Your goal: Are you trying to maintain your weight, gain muscle or lose weight?
  2. The length and intensity of your workout: You may not need much more to get through a light yoga class, but may need to fuel up before a more intense cardio workout.
  3. How you feel: How is your strength and endurance during the workout? Do you feel more sore than you think you should afterwards or for the next day or two?

Q: Is Nuttelex Buttery Spread With Coconut Oil OK?

A: I would recommend pure extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) or pure avocado oil, organic virgin coconut oil or spreads like mashed avocado, EVOO-based olive tapenade or nut butter.

Q: What Can I Substitute for Bottled Sweet Chili Sauce?

A: Are there ingredients in the sauce like high fructose corn syrup or artificial additives? If so, you may be able to find one made with simple, all-natural ingredients. You could also use a minced whole chili pepper or crushed red pepper flakes with a little brown rice vinegar and garlic.

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