"Clean eating" is a phrase thrown around a lot in the health-and-wellness scene. I use it all the time. I like it because there's no formal definition, and it's not a one-size-fits-all plan. Let's face it: There isn't one perfect plan that will work for everyone, physiologically or behaviorally. Our bodies work differently from one another. Some physiologically need more fat, some need more carbs, and all need different mixes of vitamins and minerals.
Behaviorally, there isn't one plan that fits everyone's lifestyle, either. Some of us cook daily, while some of us can't make toast. For some, food is often out of their control, and they rely on hotels, airports and restaurants, while others raise, grow and cook their own food. We also have different motivations. Some have had a health scare or are feeling low-energy and sluggish, and are curious about whether food could make them feel better; some are concerned about the environment and ecology, and the impact of how foods are grown and sold; some have yet other concerns.
These distinctions are important, because your version of clean will depend on your values and goals. Forcing yourself or someone else into an eating plan is rarely a foundation for success. Instead, understanding why you are doing what you are doing will help you make choices you can stick with and make you feel better about how you eat.
When I think of eating clean, what comes to mind is knowing exactly what I'm putting into my body and making mindful decisions that are in line with my values. You have seen people who ask several questions before ordering at a restaurant or making a choice at a grocery store. While it can be entertaining (or frustrating) to watch, being curious about what's in your food is fair game and, I would argue, important. We live in a world where we must ask questions because we can't guarantee that we're eating whole foods. I don't necessarily need to meet the farmer growing my spuds, but when I eat mashed potatoes, I want to be sure they are, well, actual potatoes. I don't think that's too much to ask.
- What is in your food?
The best first step toward clean eating is knowing what's on your plate. Everything on it! We are trained to look at calories and grams on food labels, but I encourage you to look at ingredients first. Do you understand what is in the food you are about to eat? Are you okay with eating those ingredients? Not all food products are the same. Take a moment and compare products based on ingredients, rather than solely calories, to decide whether they're what you want.
- How does it make you feel?
What foods make you feel good? What foods or ingredients don't feel good? Take each bite into consideration. If you get a headache, gastrointestinal distress, inflammation, pain, or sluggishness after eating, then think about what you ate that may have played a role.
- Is organic important?
The organic movement is growing fast. For ecological, health or political reasons, many feel strongly that they don't want to eat food that has pesticides and genetically modified organisms, and they go out of their way to avoid these foods and buy organic only. It's a big lifestyle choice, and you should feel confident in your decision. Take some time to research pesticides and GMOs if that's something that is important to your values.
- Is local important?
Recently, eating "local" has taken on its own tribe of followers. Local does not necessarily mean organic, and there is no set definition of a permitted distance for someone to call something local. The concept means supporting your local community of farmers, food makers and businesses. Some believe food tastes better and is more nutritious when it's grown locally and bought fresh. Some see environmental implications in buying food that doesn't have to travel around the world to the market. Some just like supporting their community and bringing dollars back to their region. Eat in a way that motivates you.
- What is realistic?
If you travel regularly for work, committing to a clean eating plan that involves eliminating a lot of foods and having control of ingredients is not likely to set you up for success. A first step could be asking more questions and taking action when convenient. Ask questions before ordering at a restaurant, choose hotels and restaurants that will have more options for you, and bring snacks for travel days. If you don't know how to cook, learn some basic recipes with staple foods, and slowly incorporate more cooking into your life so it never feels overwhelming.
If you're convinced that eating more organic and local food will cost more, you'll be happy to learn that may not be true! If you're concerned about pesticides and GMOs, but going all-organic is not an option, consider focusing on the "dirty dozen" for specific things to buy organic. Consider one recipe a week where you buy bulk organic ingredients and batch-cook to save time and money. Grain salad, chicken soup, lentil soup, beef stew and roasted vegetables are great examples of easy batch-cook recipes. If you can buy large portions and cook for the week, buying organic isn't as expensive or difficult as you may assume. Do what feels right for you.
Steps toward clean eating:
- Take time to look at the ingredients of all packaged foods, and look at your plate and note what you're about to eat.
- If you can, find out where your food comes from, how it was raised or grown, and how far it traveled to make it to your plate.
- Determine key ingredients that you are motivated to avoid. What foods don't feel good to you? Are you avoiding them?
- Decide what is truly realistic for you. Be honest with yourself about your lifestyle, and decide what is reasonable.
If you decide to start eating cleaner, remember that there is no one perfect way to do this. What is one action that you personally can start with? Taking that one step toward eating better is the best strategy for long-term success.
- - -
Berman is a registered dietitian, a personal trainer and owner of Jae Berman Nutrition.
More stories by Jae Berman