Read more from our #WHOLEFOODS primer here.
What should I eat? It’s a simple question that yields surprisingly complex—and often conflicting—answers.
Both vegans and diehard paleo dieters, for instance, continue to wage their turf war, claiming their meals mimic those of our ancestors and are the way humans are “supposed” to eat. Every day, it seems, we hear about this or that new superfood, or new approach to nourishment, by yet another new wellness expert.
“Raw food is best! No, cooked food releases more nutrients!”
“Eat whole grains for fiber. No, don’t, you’ll get grain brain!”
It’s a wonder any thinking functioning health conscious human manages to sit down for a meal.
But eating doesn’t have to be that complicated. However you choose to fill your plate, there is one simple truth that all nutritionists and health experts will agree on, and that is: Eat Clean.
Clean eating isn’t a trend. It’s a simple concept based on choosing whole foods over processed foods, and observing how those foods make you feel and function so you can make the best choices for your body’s unique needs. “Clean food is minimally processed for maximum nutrition,” said Terry Walters, author of Clean Food, Clean Start and Eat Clean Live Well. “The processing of food can destroy essential vitamins and minerals.” When David Katz, MD, MPH, and Stephanie Meller of Yale University School of Public Health attempted to answer the question, “Can We Say What Diet Is Best for Health?” here’s how they replied: “a diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants.” Essentially a paraphrasing of The Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan’s famous quote: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
It’s simple. “There are foods we all need more of, no matter what else is on your plate,” said Walters: “Whole grains, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and fruit.”
Technically speaking, even food that has been cooked can be considered processed. But when foods are engineered for longer shelf lives, they often are loaded with artificial preservatives and flavors and lose nutritional value. Energy level, appetite, strength, endurance and mood all rely on getting enough essential nutrients, said Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD, coach and nutrition educator at Precision Nutrition. “When you’re lacking in key nutrients, your physiology doesn’t work properly. When your body doesn’t work as it should, you feel rotten.”
That’s why it’s important to eat nutrient-dense, unprocessed whole foods—to fuel your body with what it needs to “thrive,” said St. Pierre. When you nourish your body you feel vibrant and full of energy—and good, not just physically, but emotionally and mentally as well.
Here are a few clean-eating principles.
Consider How Food Makes You Feel
“By learning how to listen to our own bodies, we have better long-term success in healthy eating,” explained St. Pierre. What he’s saying: There is no one size fits all diet. In Clean Food, Walters recommends keeping a food journal that logs daily activities, food intake and time of day, as well as your emotional and physical feelings (i.e., tired, cranky, bloated, focused). “When we embrace a specific diet or label, we look to the diet to make choices for us and ignore our bodies’ unique needs and responses to our nutritional and lifestyle choices,” she said. So for instance, maybe you enthusiastically take up the paleo diet but find you’re dragging by the end of the day, with way less energy, when you eliminate legumes and grains from your diet (even if you’re not training for a marathon). Or perhaps citrus fruits and tomatoes, which are wholesome, healthy foods, stir up your acid reflux. Or a piece of antioxident rich dark chocolate sends you into a sugar crashing tailspin at the end of the day.
As patterns reveal themselves, you’ll recognize the foods that make you feel your best—and those that don’t. Even within clean eating parameters, this can vary from person to person, depending on our individual food sensitivities, body types and needs.
Not only that, nutritional requirements can vary by decade. Both men and women in their 30s, for instance, need to bump up their intake of magnesium, a mineral that helps regulate blood pressure and blood sugar. Two foods rich in magnesium are beans and grains, which would be “banned” if you adhered to a strict paleo diet.
“Real, whole and minimally processed foods are loaded with high-quality protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and antioxidants that provide your body with the raw materials needed to optimize your health, performance and body composition,” said St. Pierre. Whole foods include nutrient-dense fresh produce, lean proteins and whole grains. Lean proteins, which help build muscle and make you feel less hungry, include grass-fed beef, fish (also high in omega-3s), beans and tofu. Whole grains are high in fiber and include everything from oats and brown rice to amaranth and quinoa.
“Fill your refrigerator and pantry with clean food choices” and leave the sugary, salty, fatty snacks behind, Walters said. “Make the hard choices just once at the grocery store, and not every time you open your cupboard.”
Enjoy Your Meals
Equally as important as what you eat is enjoying your meals. Throughout history, food and its harvest was something to celebrate and bond over; the dinner table a place to share communal wisdom, and refuel our bodies in kinship with others.
If you’re mournfully munching on a bowl of greens every day to achieve a perfect nutrient balance, then you’re missing the point. No one wants to—or should—stick with a misery-inducing meal plan. Meals should be pleasurable. Eat what you like. There are so many delicious, and nutritious meals to make, but at the very least “make incremental and steady improvements to your intake, slowly replacing processed foods with less processed versions,” said St. Pierre. “Try something, assess its results, and then make small adjustments as you see fit.”
If you currently eat a lot of crap, Walters suggests that rather than going cold turkey, trying one new clean food per week. “Even if you only like half of the foods you try, at the end of the year you’ll have 26 new clean foods in your diet,” she points out.
Not to mention that these days tasty and healthful options are everywhere. Farm to table restaurants are thriving, and wellness-oriented websites feature hundreds of delicious, nutritious recipes to make at home. “Clean foods are made from the freshest seasonal ingredients combined in recipes that feature a rainbow of color, and a variety of tastes and textures so as to bring out the best qualities of each ingredient and yield dishes that are delicious and satisfying,” said Walters. She should know. Her recipes include dark chocolate and blood orange truffles, pesto pasta salad, Thai curry and roasted pumpkin fennel soup, as well as a lemony artichoke dip that, she said, is always a hit at parties.
Clean eating is about making the best choices for you to feel good overall—it’s not about feeing bad when you indulge in an ice-cream sundae, or devour a plate of wings at happy hour, or don’t eat clean 100 percent of the time. Remember, Walters said, eating clean will look different for everyone. For one person, it could mean eliminating processed foods altogether, while someone else might employ the “80/20” rule (that is, eating well 80 percent of the time and during the other 20 percent, anything goes).
“It’s not about deprivation, rigid guidelines or harmful self-judgment,” Walters said. “Eating clean is about filling your life with foods that heal and nourish for sustainable health, and doing the best you can—one healthy choice at a time.”