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Blog: What does it mean to “eat clean”?

EatCleanWe hear the term “clean eating” everywhere these days, but what does it mean, exactly?

It’s one of those weight loss catch phrases that grabs us every few years and comes to define a whole dieting era. But what does it mean? Are its principles nutritionally sound, or is it just another gimmick? And if it’s sound, how do we implement it in our own kitchens?

My own introduction to the term came many years ago in the person of Tosca Reno, author, nutrition expert and bodybuilder. Ms. Reno wrote the “Eat Clean Diet” series of books, cookbooks and fitness guides. She’s now in her mid-50s, looking better than a person has a right to at almost any age. As a follower of her blog and social media accounts I can tell you, she certainly seems to walk the talk. I will say that her recipes are often complicated and require expensive and highly specialized ingredients. But she doesn’t apologize for that, and invites readers to explore health and nutrition on a level that most of us only dream about.

I boiled down the clean eating philosophy into a “top 10” list of sorts, which is a combination of some of Ms. Reno’s rules and my own daily practice:

  • Eat like our ancestors did. This rule isn’t necessarily an advisory to “eat like a caveman” (er, woman) so much as it is a call to give up processed food. The clean eating guidelines do not, unlike the popular Paleo diet, ban legumes or grain products. Instead, “Eat-Clean” means removing refined grains from our diets. Of course you’ve heard this before but as a refresher, refined grains have been stripped of their outer husk (it’s called the endosperm), which is where most of the grains’ nutrition and fiber are found. Removing it means that we get all the calories from our food but very little of its nutrition. It also means that eating it raises blood sugar, triggering insulin release. Relying on processed foods – especially grains – that have little or no fiber is very much like eating pure sugar, as far as our body’s insulin response goes. Over time this can lead to insulin resistance, a known risk factor for obesity and type 2 diabetes. When we stick to whole foods we avoid the chemicals, additives, and potentially damaging response inside our bodies that processed foods stimulate.
  • Eat more, not less. Eating fewer calories than our bodies burn is an unavoidable mathematical reality of weight loss, but simply eating smaller amounts of the same foods we’ve always eaten may not be the best solution, especially if eating “the same foods we’ve always eaten” means continuing to eat processed foods. In that case, weight loss will probably feel like an exercise in deprivation and raging hunger, which we all know from experience is a recipe for disaster. “Clean eating” foods are high in fiber and healthy fats, so they are more fundamentally satisfying than processed foods and they tend to keep us full longer.
  • Eat frequently throughout the day. Our standard practice is to eat three big meals per day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. But while most of us follow this principle, we often eat snacks in-between on top of that (because going 6 hours or more between meals leave us ravenously hungry – hello, 4pm!) and / or we skip meals if we’re trying to lose weight. Both of these practices negatively impact healthy living in two ways. First, skipping meals and going for long periods without eating slows down metabolism. Eating and exercising are two of the ways our bodies burn calories. (The other is just by involuntary activity like pumping blood and breathing). Not eating for long periods of time puts the body on notice that it needs to conserve energy in case of famine, which is generally not our problem in modern American life. We stoke the fire of metabolism by eating and exercising regularly. Secondly, our bodies’ response to eating three large meals per day leaves us with wild blood sugar spikes, meaning our energy level rides the roller coaster all day long. My own response to these fluctuations was to rely on caffeine and sugar to get me through the day. Just like you, I’m busy and I’ve gotta stay alert and productive all day long. But my hunger would spike and my energy would tank about four hours after eating, and studies bear out the fact that hunger and low blood sugar are a wicked-bad combination in terms of undermining “willpower” and making good food choices.
  • Eat breakfast. I won’t belabor this point because you’ve heard it a million times before, but eating breakfast gets your metabolism working to your advantage right from the start. My own philosophy along these lines is to do what I call “front-loading” calories for my day. Front-loading means that my calorie intake is highest at the beginning of the day – typically by noon I’ve had 60% or more of the calories that I’m going to eat for the day. Though this seems counterintuitive – and truthfully made this lifelong dieter a little panicky at first – the metabolic reality of it is that eating more calories earlier in the day staves off hunger later in the day. I know it seems kinda crazy, but I swear it works and multiple studies show it to be true. Just make sure that big breakfast includes high-quality, high-fiber complex carbohydrates (like steel cut oatmeal + raspberries, for example) and lean protein (two egg whites + one whole egg).
  • Shake off sugar. Hidden sugars in processed foods, sugary “treats” that have become daily stapes in our diets, and our evolutionary tendency to store excess calories – especially those consumed in the form of sugar – mean that our raging sweet tooth makes us fat. The best way I know of to shake off sugar is to read labels and know your sugars. There are dozens of ways that sugar is listed on food labels, so recognizing the names – and staying away from processed foods that contain sugar as a top five ingredient – is a good idea. Our taste buds have become accustomed to sweetened foods, so shaking them is probably one of the hardest things to do from a healthy living standpoint. As for me, other than purging caffeine, shaking off sugar has been the hardest clean eating rule to live by. Why? Because it’s so damn easy to relapse! Like most of you, especially women I think, I have a powerful sweet tooth. It’s my go-to emotional eating food too, whether I’m celebrating something good (like the holidays, or just my fave Junior Mints at the movies) or drowning my sorrows in Oreos and hot cocoa.
  • Emphasize healthy fats. I’m at the tail-end of the Baby Boomer generation that grew up eating yellow margarine out of a tub, but even those of you youngsters whose toast was slathered in butter know by now that not all fats are created equal. Trans fats – also called partially-hydrogenated fats – are created when food manufacturers turn liquid oils into solid fats in a process called hydrogenation. Hydrogenation increases shelf-life and the “flavor stability” of foods, making it a great deal for processed food manufacturers. Unfortunately, it’s a terrible deal for us because trans fats are proven to raise LDL (the bad kind of cholesterol), contributing to heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Simply stated, there is no safe amount of trans fat to eat. Saturated fat, found in high fat meats, whole-fat dairy, lard and palm oil, is not as bad as trans fat, but still raises LDL levels and should be minimized as much as possible. Clean eating alternatives to regular high fat meats are wild game and grass-fed, organic beef. More on healthy fats in rule #10.
  • Eat more greens. Carbs have a bad reputation, but fruits and vegetables are the kind of high-quality carbohydrates we can pretty much go crazy with. There are a few (the starchy veggies like potatoes, corn and peas, specifically) that we should eat sparingly, but we’ve pretty much got the green light on the rest of ‘em. I’m a big salad eater, especially in the summer when fresh-picked lettuces are so easy to come by, but eating more greens doesn’t have to mean we’re relegated to eating rabbit food! In the fall and winter I love to roast vegetables – really, nearly any veggies are great roasted. I’ll make a huge batch of roasted veggies for dinner and then add the leftovers to soup the next few days for lunch. The idea is to make vegetables (and some fruit) the starting point for meals rather than focusing on the animal protein. It’s what I call living a “veggie-centric” life.
  • Have clearly stated goals. In my mind, goals give healthy living purpose. I’ve learned – from years of doing it the wrong way – that trying to achieve something because you hate the status quo, in other words, out of desperation or fear, doesn’t work. I totally get that being overweight or obese can feel horrible. I understand the frustration and hopelessness that come with feeling that you can’t possibly make a dent in your problem without resorting to extreme diets and fads. We all think we’re too smart to fall for this crap, but somebody’s buying all of the stupid diet pills and nonsense supplements. Not only does this stuff not work, some of it can be dangerous. Instead, I’ve found that having specific, non-scale related goals, like training for a race or eating fewer than the recommended 38 grams of sugar each day, are a great way to keep me focused on positive changes.
  • Plan your way to success. I can’t speak for “Eat Clean” diet expert Tosca Reno, but as I was losing weight I learned the difference between willpower – what I’d always tried to rely on throughout the 20+ years I dieted – and discipline. Willpower is a crappy tool for weight loss because you’re expected to somehow pull your motivation (geez, I hate that word) from thin air. I don’t know about you, but this only works for me when I’m full. As soon as hunger pangs get the better of me I seem to forget all about my weight loss goals and I go into hunter/gatherer mode … that is, hunting for snacks and gathering them in my mouth. Not good! Discipline, on the other hand, is about having clearly stated goals (see #8) and putting them into action. For me, planning for success means that I spend Sundays shopping for and prepping healthy food, and planning out my workouts for the week. Consistently eating clean doesn’t happen by itself; I’ve got to have a plan to make it work.
  • Build a better plate. In 2011 the USDA came out with new dietary guidelines they call “Choose My Plate” that are a vast improvement on the food pyramid, which itself has been overhauled several times. “Choose My Plate” is a step in the right direction to improve the balance of each macro-nutrient (protein, fat and carbohydrate) that are on our dinner plates, but I think we can do even better. In our effort to increase vegetables and limit saturated and trans fats, the USDA reduced protein to a mere 5 ½ ounces per day. If your goal is to maintain lean muscle mass – which it is, whether you’re trying to lose weight or not – then you probably need more high-quality protein than that. On my clean eating plate, low-fat, high-quality protein is roughly 40% of my plate, complex carbohydrates (mainly in the form of dark, leafy greens and other nutrient-dense, non-starchy veggies, but also fruits like berries and citrus) are about 40% of my plate, and the last 20% is healthy fats. My own healthy fats of choice are olive oil, coconut oil and avocados. (And I’ll just fess up right now that I put avocado on everything from salad to brown rice – and have you tried it on top of whole grain toast with a sunny-side up egg? Dear lord, hold me back!) There’s a teeny bit of room on a clean eating plate for both dairy and sugar, but in very small amounts. If you’re anything like me you already know that dairy (especially cheese) and sugar are gateway foods that all too easily become a slippery slope to overindulging.

“Clean eating” is fast becoming a new healthy eating slogan that can really mean almost anything because it’s not defined or regulated in any way. Unfortunately that also means that anybody with an eye toward cashing in on the latest fad can throw those words around or attach them to their product in the hopes of hitching their wagon to clean eating’s success. Fortunately now you know the basics of the eat-clean lifestyle and can make your own decisions about how to incorporate it into your daily eating plan. I believe it’s a philosophy of eating whose time has come!

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