But there is one thing most experts can agree upon: Eating clean means focusing on minimally processed, whole foods that deliver maximal nutritional benefits. The goal is to optimize your health by optimizing your diet. If that sounds like something you'd like to do, but you aren’t sure where to begin, we’ve got you covered.
Here are seven ways to start eating clean today:
Load up on fruits & veggies
Produce is jam-packed with vitamins, minerals and fiber. Plus, it contains few calories and little to no fat. That’s why nutrition experts recommend making fruits and vegetables a primary focus of your diet.
But how much should you be eating? According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, two and a half cups of vegetables and two cups of fruit per day (based on a 2,000-calorie diet).
Recent research out of Harvard, however, suggests that more might be better: The analysis, which was published online in 2021 found that compared with people who said they ate just two servings of fruits or vegetables daily, people who ate five servings per day had a lower risk of death from heart disease or stroke, cancer, respiratory disease. The researchers also found that those consuming this much produce had a 13 percent lower risk of death from any cause.
Limit processed foods
Clean eating means focusing on foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. Processed foods, which are made by adding ingredients like salt and sugar, are pretty much the polar opposite of that.
Processed and premade, packaged foods tend to be high in sodium, calories and fat. Plus, many of the beneficial nutrients are compromised or lost during processing. Not only that, highly processed foods are linked to inflammation and an increased risk of heart disease.
While an occasional heat-and-eat meal is fine (moderation is the spice of life!), comparing nutrition labels to help guide your choice is a good move. Look for options with the least amount of sodium and sugar, that minimize saturated fats, and that don’t go overboard on the calories. Be particularly wary of sauces, dressings and condiments, which are often unexpectedly high in sugar, sodium and calories.
And keep in mind that not all processed foods are created equal. Since they don’t grow in nature, Zing plant-based protein bars are technically processed. But they are jam-packed with nutrition (a nutritionist developed them, after all!), and include real, whole food ingredients like nuts, making them a great addition to any clean diet. That’s why reading ingredient lists and nutrition labels is the best guide for determining which processed foods to avoid.
Stick with whole grains
Opting for whole grain breads, pastas and cereals means you’re reaping the benefits of three major parts of the grain kernel: The bran, the germ and the endosperm. Refined grains, which are generally found in white bread and white pasta, are stripped of the bran and the germ. This is less than ideal since the bran is rich in fiber and contains B vitamins, iron, copper, zinc, magnesium, antioxidants and important phytochemical; and the germ is full of healthy fats, vitamin E, B vitamins, phytochemical and antioxidants.
Research suggests that the fiber and nutrient content of whole grains may help reduce inflammation in the body and promote gut health. On the flip side, opting for too many refined carbohydrates can put you at risk for inflammation, insulin resistance, fatty liver and obesity .
When choosing your grains, opt for whole, unprocessed options like steel-cut oats and sprouted grain breads, and stay away from white pastas and breads.
Skip the added sugar
The term “added sugar” refers to sugar that is added to packaged foods during processing to enhance their flavor. Added sugars do not provide any nutrients, and depending on the amount, can dramatically increase the caloric content of the food. Eating too much added sugar can put you at risk for several health problems, including poor nutrition, weight gain, increased triglycerides and tooth decay.
If you’re craving something sweet, opt for nutrient-dense fresh or unsweetened dry fruit. Yes, fruit contains sugar. But fruit is chock full of nutrients like fiber, potassium, vitamin C, folate and antioxidants.
Frozen grapes, blueberries and cherries are sweet and delicious, but also low in calories (a cup of blueberries clocks in at just 80 calories) and jam-packed with nutrients and antioxidants.
Opt for organic
Eating clean isn’t just about what’s on your plate, it’s also about how it got there, where it came from, and what’s in it.
Staying informed about where and how brands source their ingredients, and reading nutrition labels and ingredients lists is the best way to get a full view of what you’re putting in your body. But if you don’t have the time or energy for all of that, choosing organic foods when possible is a simple step in the clean eating direction.
Organic foods are void of pesticides and potentially harmful chemicals. And a small but growing body of evidence suggests it may be more nutritious, too.
If you can’t spring for all organic all the time, don’t stress: The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has created a “Dirty Dozen” list, which helps shoppers identify the foods that are typically the most contaminated by pesticides. Included on the list:
- Kale, collards and mustard greens
- Bell and hot peppers
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas (frozen)
- Honeydew melon
While moderate intake of red wine and a few other types of antioxidant-rich alcoholic beverages may have some benefits for heart health, clean eating purists generally advise avoiding alcohol altogether since it’s high in calories and delivers little to no nutrition.
Frequent alcohol consumption is also linked to inflammation, and may contribute to fatty liver disease, digestive disorders and excess belly fat. Plus, with alcohol clouding your judgment, it becomes a little too easy to overeat or overindulge.
If you’re going to enjoy an alcoholic beverage, opt for a light beer or dry wine, and don’t overdo it. Try drinking a glass of water between each glass of wine, or switch to seltzer after one or two beers.
Water, water, water
Water is integral to many functions in your body, and helps flush out toxins. Plus, drinking enough water can help keep you feeling full and satisfied, preventing overeating.
How much water you should drink depends upon many factors, including your weight and activity level. But the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine determined that an adequate daily fluid intake is about 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) of fluids a day for men, and about 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) of fluids a day for women.
To make sure you get your fill of fluids each day, here are some hacks to keep hydration top of mind:
- Set an alarm on your phone to go off every hour to remind you to drink up.
- Drink one glass before and one glass after every meal and snack.
- Place several rubber bands on your wrist and every time you drink a glass of water, remove one. Aspire to end your day with no rubber bands left on your wrist.
- Add fresh fruit, mint or cucumbers to your water to add a little flavor. Or, sip on seltzers or unsweetened tea instead.