Okay, let's air the room out a bit first. No, a diet can’t really be “dirty” unless you’re eating dirt, but there are simple changes you can make to your diet to improve the nutrient composition of the meals you’re eating to support your overall health.
The term clean eating has gained a lot of traction over the past few years, but what does it actually mean?
Eating clean basically refers to all the components we generally think of when it comes to a healthy diet.
You may feel like you’re doing a pretty good job at eating healthy, but you’re not quite getting the results you want. These results could be weight loss, more energy, improved performance, etc.
Next, you start looking at changes your can make to your diet and cue the Clean Eating trend.
What is clean eating?
Clean eating can loosely be defined as a textbook healthy diet. This may look different to everyone depending on your eating style, culture, food access, if you eat animal products, etc.
Regardless of your dietary preferences, a “clean diet” will include primarily whole foods with limited heavily processed or fried foods.
This also usually means that most of the meals you consume will be meals at home and fewer meals out or takeout.
Six Simple Steps To Clean Up Your Diet
1. Reduce the amount of added sugar you consume
Added sugar lives everywhere…well, almost. Sugar isn’t the enemy, and it’s not something we want to demonize.
However, many processed foods contain added sugar unnecessarily. This goes far beyond soda and candy.
Yogurt is the perfect example. A very nourishing food on its own, it’s balanced with fat, protein, and carbohydrates and contains beneficial nutrients like calcium, zinc, vitamin A and probiotics. It contains a natural sugar called lactose but also often contains large amounts of added sugar.
Instead, we like to go for a higher protein option like greek yogurt or skyr and stick to no added sugar or less than 6 g/serving. You can always add fruit to satisfy your sweet tooth if that's what you’re looking for.
Pasta sauce is another common culprit. If you grab a random marinara sauce off the shelf, you’ll find ranges from 3-9g of added sugar. Here’s an example of somewhere where sugar doesn’t need to be, and the brands with no added sugar taste just as good.
Make it a point to start checking your ingredient label for added sugars and, if possible, choose foods with less (or none!).
2. Limit your fried foods
Fried foods taste good—it’s as simple as that. Unfortunately, fried food isn't the best for your health to be eating all of the time.
Usually, we consume fried foods when we’re out and about, so a good rule of thumb is if it’s not your birthday or favorite restaurant you only go to yearly, opt for grilled or baked most of the time or get it for the whole table to share.
If that “crunch” factor is something you crave, try out cooking with an air fryer. This method of cooking has become more popular over the last several years and helps you get that crisp outer layer on your food without being deep fried in oil.
3. Focus on ingredients and not calories
Trying to do it all at once or being restrictive can set you up for failure.
While being mindful and having an understanding of calories can be helpful if you're trying to lose weight, focusing on choosing quality ingredients first puts the priority where it should be—the nutrients.
When making a meal, choose mostly whole foods with high-quality ingredients.
When choosing processed foods, read the label—and not just the nutrient claims or nutrition fact panel—read through all of the ingredients. If there is an extensively long list with things you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce, there's likely a better option out there.
4. Try to eat the rainbow.
If you don’t already know the colors of the rainbow, they are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple.
Each color category offers unique nutrients, so the idea is if we eat the rainbow, we’ll get a good variety of vitamins and minerals.
You don’t need to keep track of the colors you eat (although you totally can), but this method is more aimed at inspiring and motivating you to eat more variety, particularly in the fruits and vegetables you are eating.
Often, the simple act of actively adding in healthy foods will naturally help reduce the amount of less nutritious foods in your diet.
5. Eat when you’re hungry
This may not seem like a way to eat clean, but it will help you to do just that.
The common eating guidelines like the old “don’t eat after 7” or “do your morning workouts fasted” aren’t inherently wrong, but they teach you to ignore your natural hunger cues, which is not good.
Not trusting your body and trying to abide by some arbitrary guidelines and restrictive behavior often results in overeating or binging later.
Staying on top of your hunger cues and listening to your body will help you eat foods in the right amount and be able to make healthier choices without feeling ravenous and reaching for the highest calorie or most “crave” worthy food once you’re past the point of reasonable hunger.
6. Continue to eat foods you enjoy
“Eating clean” doesn’t mean you have to eat chicken, broccoli, and rice for every meal.
You can continue to eat foods you love with the added consideration of using quality ingredients and including the components of a balanced meal.
If you love pasta, think of ways to create a healthy balanced meal and include pasta with it. Like this salmon piccata recipe that includes healthy fats, vegetables, and plenty of protein!
Clean eating can get lost in the diet mix, but the objective is to prioritize foods that help your health and reduce foods that don’t.
It’s fair to acknowledge that it’s not feasible to eat clean 100% of the time. The 80/20 diet approach addresses this very thing, aiming to eat “clean” 80% of the time, and the other 20% enjoy those less nutritious foods.