Clean Eating: A Trendy Term for a Traditional Diet

Laura Mitchell's picture
By Laura Mitchell on June 17, 2016

Among the recent buzzwords related to food and diets is “clean eating.” It’s not about washing your produce—although that’s pretty important—but about avoiding processed foods and maintaining a diet rich in whole foods that you prepare at home.

What Is Clean Eating?
The term has no official definition but the general consensus is that the majority of the produce, meats and dairy you consume are fresh or frozen, and the grains in your diet are whole instead of refined.

Although canned vegetables have been processed, unsalted, unsweetened and unseasoned options are available when you need non-perishable items.

An example of clean eating is oatmeal. Rich in fiber, oats are commonly recommended for people who want to lower their cholesterol. The American Heart Association (AHA) makes a clear distinction, however, between processed, sweetened oatmeal products and oats that would be included in a “clean eating” diet.

“Choose steel-cut or old-fashioned oats more often,” says the AHA article Types of Whole Grains. These types of oats are affordable and plain with no sodium, sugar and preservatives compared to other flavored oatmeal products.The difference between steel-cut, old-fashioned and quick-cooking oats is in how they are cut and pressed, not in what has been removed from or added to them (refined). The smaller the particles, the faster they're absorbed. If someone is trying to maintain or lose weight, he/she would choose larger particles, which slow the digestion.

Nutrition Labels
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently revised its required food labels for processed foods. These changes are viewed an improvement amd also remind people that fruits and vegetables don't carry labels, which are considered as fresh foods. So, consuming them fits with the cleaning eating trend.

Do Try This at Home

Roanoke REALTOR® Valeria Alphin has been practicing clean eating for years. She started with low-fat, heart-healthy recipes, but soon realized that many foods marketed as low-fat are over-processed with added sugar and sodium, so she transitioned to whole, fresh vegetables and lean proteins. When she read a recent article about the clean eating trend, she realized she was already doing it.

“I always try to plan a colorful plate,” she said. “The more variety of color, the more vitamins, and it’s pleasing to the eye.”

A typical meal looks like the one in Alphin's picture below, and includes a lean protein, grilled or baked; at least two in-season vegetables, steamed, grilled or sautéed; and one starch or carbohydrate.

“When you’re using fresh food, it takes only minutes to prepare,” said Alphin. “Most meals are on the table in 30 minutes or less.”

Access to fresh foods is becoming easier as farmers’ markets continue to expand and CSAs (community-supported agriculture groups) grow to include meat and egg shares along with their fruits and vegetables. Chain grocery stores such as Kroger and Aldi, as well as independently owned Hispanic, Asian and Halal stores, carry a growing variety of conventional and organic produce and meats.

To find unprocessed foods in your grocery store, stick to the outer aisle. The produce bins, meat and dairy cases and other refrigerated sections are where you’ll find fresh, whole foods. Avoid the boxed, shelf-stable foods in the unrefrigerated center aisles; they contain preservatives, added salt and sugar and partially hydrogenated oils.

And if you have any question at all about whether your diet is “clean” or not, don’t compare it to the latest diet fad. Compare it to the Mediterranean diet or what we at Carilion Clinic Living call “the only diet you’ll ever need.”

This article was reviewed by Carilion Clinic's Registered Dietitians.