Clean Eating is a Deceptively Simple Concept
Rather than revolving around the idea of ingesting more or less of specific things (for instance, fewer calories or more protein), the idea is more about being mindful of the food’s pathway between its origin and your plate. At its simplest, clean eating is about eating whole foods, or “real” foods — those that are un- or minimally processed, refined, and handled, making them as close to their natural form as possible. However, modern food production has become so sophisticated that simply eating whole foods can be a challenging proposition these days.
The Perks of Clean Eating
Thanks to extensive research that has linked eating whole foods with good health, “we do know that largely plant-based diets are healthy,” says Fanzo. Multiple studies have shown that diets heavy on fruits and vegetables can curb or prevent certain life-threatening conditions and diseases, such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Plus, there’s research linking diets high in fruits and veggies to healthy weight management and glowing skin and hair — as if you needed more motivation.
The Problem with Ultra-Processed Foods
As you can probably guess, the health problems associated with ultra-processed food are numerous. Foods with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been linked to cancer and infertility; highly processed foods are stripped of nutrients needed for overall health; and heavily modified food tends to have additives that overstimulate the production of dopamine, the “pleasure” neurotransmitter, perpetuating a negative cycle of constant junk food cravings.
However, there’s added reason for pause when reaching for the Pop-Tart.
In a 2011 article published in the Journal of the World Public Health Nutrition Association, Carlos Monteiro, professor at the Department of Nutrition of the School of Public Health at the University of Sao Paulo, argues that having ultra-processed foods touted in a way that makes it seem good for you — less sodium! no trans fats! vitamin-enriched! — actually causes more damage to our collective understanding of healthy eating than we may realize.
How to Shop Clean
Realistically, eating clean doesn’t mean you need to eat everything raw and straight from the ground. It means choosing minimally processed foods with few ingredients on the label, if it has a label at all.
“If you’re shopping around the perimeter of the grocery store, that’s always a good start,” says Lippert.
When perusing the main aisles for packaged foods, ask yourself: Where did this food or its ingredients come from? How much has it been processed or handled? The ingredient label should be short, and all ingredients should be recognizable. Scan for easy-to-avoid additives like artificial coloring and flavors.
How to Cook Clean
Cooking does alter your food, but it isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“While it’s true that some nutrients are lost during cooking, like vitamin C, other nutrients are increased when foods are cooked, like lycopene, so it’s best to eat a wide variety of foods, in both their raw and cooked forms,” says EA Stewart, RD, who blogs at The Spicy RD.
When cooking food, “the focus should be on maintaining the integrity of what you are consuming and avoiding high-fat cooking methods such as deep-frying or stewing in animal or vegetable fats,” says Miranda Hammer, a New York City registered dietitian and author of food blog The Crunchy Radish.
When cooking, opt for flash-cook methods such as stir-frying and ones without additives like steaming. For fruits and veggies, raw is best, but steaming is a close second in terms of preserving nutritional value and keeping the food’s natural integrity.