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.
According to Don Mankie, a registered dietitian and nutritionist with Carilion Clinic’s Dining and Nutrition Services, clean eating is simply a new term for something his team regularly recommends to patients.
“Fresh, frozen and canned,” he said. “I’ll tailor it to each patient, but that’s what we typically recommend.”
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. “They are affordable and the plain bulk versions have no sodium, sugar and preservatives compared to some flavored oatmeal products.”
Mankie agrees and also includes one-minute quick-cooking oats as a healthy option, especially for athletes or patients who have gastro-intestinal health concerns.
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 particle, the faster it’s absorbed,” said Mankie. “Someone who is trying to maintain or lose weight would choose larger particles, which slow digestion.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently revised its required food labels for processed foods. Mankie views the changes as an improvement, but reminds people that fruits and vegetables don’t carry labels.
“If you’re eating foods without labels, then you’re typically eating fresh foods,” he said. "And that fits in with the 'clean 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.”