You've probably heard of clean eating before but may not be exactly sure what it entails or how to get started. Eating clean means keeping food simple. It means focusing on choosing nutrient-dense foods in their natural state (or as close to it as you can), rather than eating highly processed foods with added chemicals and preservatives. Follow these simple steps to get started on cleaning up your diet.
1. Become an Avid Label Reader
DO: Get in the habit of reading nutrition labels thoroughly. Even products generally perceived as healthy may contain unnecessary ingredients. "I know the idea of reading every single label might sound tedious, but it's so necessary," says chef Devin Alexander, author of The Biggest Loser Cookbook. "I've found an extremely common brand of tea that puts modified cornstarch in their tea bags, and I've found lime-and-salt microwave popcorn that's less healthy than what you'd get in the movie theater."
DON'T: Buy anything with a long list of ingredients you can't pronounce — the shorter the list of ingredients the better. "Try to derive most of your diet from foods that don't require labels," says Alexander.
2. Re-Evaluate Your “Process”
DO: Cut down on highly-processed foods. This is one of the first steps to eating clean. "It's important to reduce, not necessarily eliminate, your intake of processed foods that are loaded with chemicals, preservatives and dyes, as well as foods high in sugar and poor-quality oils," says Jared Koch, nutritional consultant and founder of Clean Plates.
DON'T: Discount all processed foods. For instance, some foods, like bagged spinach and pre-cut vegetables are minimally processed simply for convenience, and other foods are processed to enhance nutritional value, such as added-fiber breakfast cereal and milk that's fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Reading the nutrition label should provide a good overview of how heavily processed the product actually is.
3. Plant the Seed for Cleaner Eating
DO: Gravitate toward a plant-based diet. "This doesn't mean you need to be vegetarian or vegan, but it does mean you should eat lots of vegetables, along with fruit, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices, to ensure you are getting lots of nutrients," says nutritional consultant Jared Koch. For an easy guideline, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends filling at least half of your plate with fruits and vegetables at every meal.
DON'T: Forget to incorporate protein, especially if you're forgoing meat. Plant-based foods especially high in protein include chia seeds, hemp seeds, lentils and adzuki, cannellini and kidney beans.
Read more: 8 Unconventional Protein Sources
4. Go Whole Grain
DO: "Choose sprouted or whole grains over processed grains," says chef Devin Alexander. Harvard researchers actually recommend devoting a quarter of your plate at any meal to whole grains, thanks to studies that show reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer. Ways to up your whole-grain intake include eating quinoa, brown rice and whole-grain pilaf.
DON'T: Be fooled by confusing packaging. Buzzwords like "multigrain," "100-percent wheat" and "stone ground" don't necessarily denote whole-grain foods. Also, look for these five USDA guidelines: whole grain as the first ingredient, no added sugars in the first three ingredients, the word "whole" before any grain ingredient, a carbohydrate-to-fiber ratio of less than 10:1 and a stamp reading "whole grain."
Read more: 13 Powerful Grains and Seeds
5. Get to the Meat of the Matter
Though many envision a vegetarian diet in association with clean eating, meat can certainly be part of the equation if enjoyed responsibly. DO: "Choose higher-quality meats, ideally pasture-raised and grass-fed, or at the very least free of hormones and antibiotics," says nutritional consultant Jared Koch. Case in point: A 2010 study published in the Nutrition Journal found that grass-fed beef had less cholesterol-elevating saturated fatty acids and was higher in precursors for vitamin A, vitamin E and cancer-fighting antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed beef.
DON'T: Overdo it, and avoid highly-processed meats (think bacon, deli meat and sausage).
6. Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth the Natural Way
DO: If you're going to add sugar to your diet, do it by way of natural sugars like honey, molasses, agave nectar and maple syrup. Most people, however, are overdoing it when it comes to added sugars and could benefit from cutting it out altogether. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting added sugar to less than 10 percent of your total daily calories.
DON'T: Consume artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose or aspartame. A 2014 study published in the journal Nature found that consumption of zero-calorie artificial sweeteners could cause abnormal metabolism and a higher risk of diabetes.
Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Natural Sweeteners
7. Shop Smarter
DO: Maximize your fresh-food shopping efforts by checking dates before buying and reaching for the freshest fare at the grocery store. "So many people don't buy healthy food because they claim it goes bad more quickly," says chef Devin Alexander. "It does spoil more quickly than processed foods, but if you look at dates and buy the products all the way in the back of the refrigerator, your food will last much longer."
DON'T: Throw food away without knowing the difference between the "sell by" and "use by" labeling. A 2013 report from the National Resource Defense Council found that 91 percent of consumers mistakenly threw food away based on the "sell by" date, even though the food was still safe to eat.
Read more: 21 Foods to Always Buy Organic
8. Create a Balanced Plate
DO: Make sure to eat a mix of lean proteins, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates. Examples of complex carbohydrates include legumes, starchy vegetables and whole-grain cereals, while lean proteins include lean meats, egg whites, beans, legumes and poultry. To get your dose of healthy fats, choose nuts, avocados and olive oil.
DON'T: "When sitting down to dinner, don't eat bread and a starch and have a glass of wine and a dessert," says chef Devin Alexander. "One of these, rather than all four, along with plenty of lean protein and vegetables, would create a balanced meal."
Read more: 14 Foods to Help You Get Lean
9. Stay Hydrated
DO: Drink plenty of water throughout your daily routine. Experts recommend drinking six to eight 8-ounce glasses, or about two liters, every day. The amount you need varies from person to person, depending on activity level and climate. If you're not a big fan of H2O, you can up your intake of foods that are 85 to 95 percent water, such as celery, tomatoes, oranges and melons.
DON'T: Overdo it on alcohol. Some clean-eating aficionados cut all alcohol from their diets, while others swear by smart moderation. If you do choose to indulge, consider doing so only on special occasions or choosing a glass of healthful red wine.
10. Embrace Healthy Fats
DO: Keep in mind that not all fats are to be avoided. "Fats are much maligned, [but] they are essential for life," says Michael Fenster, M.D., cardiologist and author of Eating Well, Living Better. Healthy fats — like those from nuts, avocados and olive oil — help to keep us satisfied, stabilize our blood sugar levels and lower cholesterol levels.
DON'T: Mistake "low-fat" for healthy. A study published in November 2006 in the Journal of Marketing Research found that low-fat labels actually caused people to eat more because they decreased food-related guilt and adversely affected perceptions of the appropriate serving size.
Read more: 18 Fat-Rich Foods That Are Good for You
11. Don’t Stress Yourself Out
While common principles like those outlined here act as a guideline, clean eating can be highly individual — and it doesn't have to be stressful either. "Some people think that if you ever eat a speck of white sugar or a grain of wheat, you're not eating clean," says chef Devin Alexander.
"I personally think that clean eating is best attained by striving toward big ideals of eating lots of veggies, lean proteins and unprocessed foods — and then eating off-limit items on occasion when you're being mindful. It's all about progress over perfection," says Alexander.
- Devin Alexander; Chef, "The Biggest Loser"; Los Angeles
- Jared Koch; Nutritional Consultant and CEO and Founder of Clean Plates; New York
- Nutrition Journal: A Review of Fatty Acid Profiles and Antioxidant Content in Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Beef
- Forbes: How Much Sugar Are Americans Eating?
- American Cancer Society: Controlling Portion Sizes
- Nature: Artificial Sweeteners Induce Glucose Intolerance by Altering the Gut Microbiota
- Whole Foods Market: We’re Naturally Sweet, Thanks
- The Holy Kale: Plant-Based Protein Chart
- New Report: Food Expiration Date Confusion Causing up to 90% of Americans to Waste Food