The Dirt on Eating ‘Clean’

Find out how to make "eating clean" work for you.

Find out how to make eating “clean” work for you.

“Clean eating” has become a household term — and no, it has nothing to do with the 5-second rule.

According to registered dietitian Tanya Zuckerbrot, it’s the practice of eating whole, natural foods such as fruits, vegetables, non-fat dairy, lean proteins, and complex carbohydrates.

This means ditching any pre-packaged, processed or fast food. She says eating clean is also a commitment to swapping foods high in saturated fat such as beef, with protein that is low in saturated fat like skinless white chicken or turkey meat, and opting for healthy fats such as olive oil and avocado.

What’s the difference between eating clean and eating organic?
While it’s easy to confuse this diet with eating organic, Zuckerbrot says, “It’s just another way of expressing that the food we should be eating is free from pesticides, artificial ingredients, preservatives, ‘chemically charged’ foods, sugars, saturated fat, and trans-fat.” However, both ways of eating have less detrimental effects on the environment.

To further differentiate, Suzy Weems, a professor of nutrition sciences, explains that eating organic focuses on the process and conditions used to grow the food, whereas in clean eating, no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides are used in production and processing.

What are the benefits of eating “clean”?
So how can we benefit from eating clean? Zuckerbrot says the idea is to incorporate foods that are beneficial to your health, and eliminating foods that compromise it. “This diet introduces a variety of vitamin and mineral-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables and lean proteins, while staving off diseases driven by an ‘unclean’ diet, like type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.” Weems states that consuming non-nutrient dense foods are known to add calories and contribute to excessive weight gain, feelings of tiredness and other clinical signs of nutrient deficiencies.

Are all processed foods bad for you?
Clean-eating sure gives processed foods a bad name, but as Weems points out, not all processed foods are bad for you. “Most foods are processed to some degree. The initial process of a tomato is picking, washing, and slicing it.” However, Zuckerbrot states that overly processed foods (such as pickled and canned foods) are stripped of their key nutritional components. “It’s not that processed foods are bad, but that many of us eat too much in our diet. By eating food in its whole and natural form, we get the most nutritional and fiber content, which is important for preventing disease and for maintaining overall health.”

While that all makes total sense, it’s a fact that fresh, organic or local produce isn’t always budget-friendly. (They don’t call Whole Foods “Whole Paycheck” for nothing!) But when it comes to a clean diet, Zuckerbrot says it’s possible to eat healthy, clean food that’s closest to its natural form without spending a lot. “Frozen vegetables are a case in point: economical, tasty, and just as nutrient-dense and clean as fresh produce. Canned vegetables can be rinsed of any added preservatives, and the same is true for canned fruit.”

“A healthy diet is generally within reach for just abut everyone — that is, if they’re willing to learn the process for shopping, cooking and serving foods,” explains Weems.

Considering “cleaning-up” your diet?
Zuckerbrot recommends transitioning to a clean-eating diet slowly, as fast and sweeping changes to your diet can leave you feeling overwhelmed and deprived, and this can wear down your resolve to improve your diet. “Adding one serving of fruit, such as a small orange, and eliminating one serving of full-fat cheese would be a great way to start. Making one or a few changes over the course of weeks and several months will get you there.”

Who wants to eat dirty?
On a side note, not everyone is thrilled with the term “clean eating,” including Weems. “This does not seem to be the best ‘name’ for an eating plan or diet, because in reality, who would want or choose to eat ‘dirty’?” she states. While Zuckerbrot supports calling it “clean eating” she wonders if a better term might be “preservative-free eating.”

Do you follow, or are you considering following a clean-eating diet? Let us know your thoughts.

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