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Eating Clean: What Does It Mean?

It’s good for you, and the environment, but how do you do it?

Photo by Susan McQuillan
Source: Photo by Susan McQuillan

If you search the term “clean eating,” or “eating clean,” you could spend days wading through hundreds of online pages of definitions, examples, photos, recipes, tips, and book titles to help you follow this latest diet trend. But for the most part, “clean eating” is simply a new way to say “healthy eating,” because, really, is anyone eating dirty food?

“Eating clean” not only sounds good, however, it is a good plan for healthy eating—as long as your diet still includes all the nutrients you need to stay healthy and the right number of calories to keep you in a healthy weight range, and as long as you don’t go overboard on the “clean” theme; most of us can’t eat a super-healthy diet one-hundred percent of the time.

Clean eating means supporting the health of the environment and your community as you are supporting your own health and that of your family. It incorporates much of the same time-tested and common-sense advice that nutrition experts and healthy eating advocates have been spouting for many years. While plant foods are emphasized in a clean diet, there are no strict rules about eating one type of food or avoiding another beyond choosing the healthiest foods available to you whenever you can. Clean eating goes hand-in-hand with clean living, or enhancing your healthier lifestyle with a “greener” lifestyle that helps protect the environment. As much and as often as you can:

  • Eat whole foods. That means: Avoid processed foods and refined foods as much as you can, which in turn means buying very few foods that come in boxes, cans or other types of packaging.
  • Avoid agricultural chemicals. That means buying organic when you can and buying foods like whole fruits, vegetables and grains, that can be washed before you prepare them.
  • Choose foods that are nutrient-dense. That means foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, fiber, protein and healthy fats. That means all the usual suspects: more whole fruits and veggies, whole grain and high-fiber dishes, legumes, and the healthful fats found in nuts, avocados and seafood.
  • Eat more plant protein and less meat. Get more protein from beans, lentils, split peas, nuts, and high-protein grains like quinoa, spelt, and oats. A diet that is high in plant protein and low in animal protein is more environmentally sustainable; it's better for you and better for the planet.
  • Buy local foods. Food that travels from nearby farms, bakers and other small providers to your local market usually have a much shorter trip from farm to table, so they may be fresher, retain more nutrients, and taste better than food and food products from bigger commercial farms and factories. The environment also benefits from reduced transportation and fuel use. When you buy local, you also support your own community.
  • Avoid excessive packaging, particularly plastic containers, food storage bags, and plastic shopping bags. Bring your own reusable shopping bags to your food market and choose products that are minimally packaged.

The main goal of a clean diet is a happier, healthier community and planet, and a happier, healthier, more mindful you. For some people, however, clean eating becomes an obsession and when that’s the case, it’s no longer happy and healthy. When a passion for “clean” eating is taking over your life, making it more and more difficult for you to eat a variety of foods, causes anxiety if you deviate from strict diet rules, and possibly even disrupting your relationships with family and friends, your healthy lifestyle may have crossed the line to become an unhealthy obsession.

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