What Is Clean Eating?

Adapted from Clean Eating. Simplified. by Rachel Gainer and Shannon Sargent

Clean eating isn’t as complicated as it sounds. It’s simple: eat real food. Real food (or whole foods) comes from nature: plant and animal products with just one natural ingredient. Nothing added, nothing taken away. This one rule can guide your family to better health.

The guidelines below dive a little deeper to help you make informed choices. Just remember, it’s not always black and white. Sometimes you need to make exceptions that work for your family, and you’ll definitely want to make room for mindful indulgences. After all, your goals are long-term health and sustainability, not perfection.

Start with simple, natural foods. The best foods are created in nature, not a processing plant. Stock your fridge and pantry with fresh, seasonal veggies and fruits; whole grains; legumes; nuts and seeds; healthy fats; and quality meats and animal products (eggs, dairy, raw honey, etc.). Foods with just one or two ingredients should form the foundation of your diet.

Eat veggies and other plants. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds provide essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and healthy fats. Eat a rainbow of veggies and fruits to enjoy benefits from a wide range of micronutrients.

Buy quality protein from a reliable source. The body uses amino acids—the building blocks of protein—to repair damaged cells, build and maintain muscles, regulate hormones, and much more. When it comes to animal products, you are what the animal eats, so choose wisely. We encourage you to shop with a conscience and consume humanely raised, local meats, if possible.

Choose organic when possible. If your budget limits you, make meat, eggs, and dairy your organic priorities. When it comes to produce, follow the “Dirty Dozen, Clean Fifteen” guidelines. Remember, if you can’t buy organic, conventional whole foods are still a better choice than processed foods. (We eat a combination of both.)

Choose healthier fats. Eating fat doesn’t make you fat. But eating the right types of fat in moderation can support heart and brain health. Choose foods higher in monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats (specifically, omega-3 fatty acids). Good sources include avocados, olive oil, nuts, and fish. Limit saturated fats, and choose organic sources (e.g., wild or grass-fed animal products over grain-fed). Avoid foods that contain trans fats, often listed on labels as “hydrogenated” oils.

Use natural sugars sparingly. When a recipe needs a spot of sweetness, choose a pure, natural sweetener that comes from Mother Nature: raw local honey, 100% pure maple syrup, coconut sugar, or fruit (dates, figs, bananas, etc.). Limit serving size to 1–2 tablespoons of natural sugar per day (excluding whole fruits).

Skip added sugars and sweeteners. Humans are biologically predisposed to like sweet foods. In nature, sweetness is a sign of peak ripeness, optimal nutrition, and quick, accessible energy. Processed foods are artificially sweetened to hyper-stimulate our taste buds and manipulate our desires. Many of these foods are energy dense (lots of calories) but nutrient poor. Sugar is also used in low-fat foods to improve flavor.

Avoid refined grains. This includes things like white flour, pasta, bread, premade cake mixes, and other baked goods. Refining grains removes most of the fiber and nutrition but leaves the energy (calories). Refined carbohydrates are metabolized quickly, producing a spike in blood sugar and a burst of energy, often followed by a drop in blood sugar and an energy slump. Refined grains are not as satiating, making them easy to overeat.

If you can’t say it, don’t eat it. Food manufacturers use a variety of “edible” chemical additives to make processed foods look better, taste better, and last longer on shelves. As a general rule, avoid foods that include unfamiliar, unpronounceable ingredients.

Limit processed, packaged foods. Supermarkets are full of convenience foods. Unfortunately, most contain added sugar, refined grains, trans fats, and chemical additives. However, consumer demand has inspired a few companies to produce cleaner versions. These timesaving foods may have a place in your family’s diet. But choose carefully, sticking to products with a short list of familiar, natural ingredients.

Drink water. Proper hydration improves nutrient distribution, metabolism, endocrine gland function (hormones), and much more. It also decreases water retention. We recommend drinking at least half your body weight in ounces each day. Avoid soda and sports drinks that contain sugar, artificial sweeteners, or other additives. Instead, infuse water with natural flavors by adding sliced fruit and spices (mint, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, etc.).

Learn more about clean eating and how to get started in Clean Eating. Simplified.an eBook I co-authored with Shannon Sargent of cleaneatsandtreats.com.