The way I interpret “clean eating”—and I think most nutrition experts would agree—is predominantly choosing whole, real foods or close to how they are found in nature, as well as foods that are less or minimally processed. 

Here are some tips to clean eating:

Stay close to nature.

Focus on balanced nutrition that includes an abundance of plant proteins, whole grains with fiber, vegetables, fruit, and healthy fats including nuts, seeds, olive oil, fatty fish, and avocados. Make a conscious effort to avoid highly processed foods that have unhealthy fats, salt, and sugar, not to mention ingredients too hard to pronounce. In general, the shorter the ingredient list, the better. For many, eating clean also means eating organic and non-GMO. The Environmental Working Group provides great guides on to identify what foods would be best to buy organic in an effort to keep your pesticide intake low. Here is a list of the Dirty Dozen.

Buy local

Eating local promotes consuming foods that required less travel and are in season. Support local farmers and even explore your nearby farmer’s markets. You may even want to consider growing your own garden. The satisfaction of growing your own food and knowing that it is clean is a great feeling.

What to avoid

Clean eating may include the avoidance of chemical preservatives and additives that in general terms include artificial sweeteners, artificial flavors, food dyes, and partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats). See Centers For Science in the Public Interest for more information. Trans fats, salt, and sugar can cause more harm than all other additives combined, so be choosy about your packaged foods choices.

Processed foods are OK

Although you want to be mindful and avoid a mile-long ingredient list on a package, keep in mind that ingredient quality is important too. There are plenty of packaged food items out there that are minimally processed and can be incorporated into a healthy diet.

The convenience of minimally processed foods opens up an opportunity for us to get in good nutrition even in our busy lives. For instance, frozen fruits and vegetables make getting your daily needs a breeze. Keeping low sodium beans and lentils on hand helps you get in a good protein source without a lot of prep time needed. Processing in many instances allows us to have a food supply that is plentiful, safe, convenient, affordable, and nutritious. Processed foods that are fortified with vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients can help people meet the recommended daily amounts for those nutrients they normally would not. Whole grain breads for instance can help you meet your daily requirement for whole grains and fiber.

Processed foods like candy, snack chips, fried foods, fruit drinks, soft drinks, and desserts are offering more calories, salt, and fat than nutrition. Limit these types of highly processed foods by using good judgment and reading labels and ingredients to watch out for hidden sugar, sodium, and fat.  

Cook at home more

Yes, I said it. Contrary to how people are living these days with most foods and snacks being consumed on the go, cooking at home helps you control what’s in your food. We can definitely eat healthier when eating out by making good food choices, but you have to admit, eating at home makes it a little easier to eat clean because you know what is actually in your food—unless of course you are in the back keeping the chef company when dining at your favorite restaurant. Cooking at home doesn’t have to be intimidating and you don’t have to be a gourmet cook to prepare something healthy and tasty at home. It can be simple as a veggie and avocado sandwich on whole grain bread. There are also great resources out there, including apps, cookbooks, and websites, to get you started to becoming kitchen savvy.

Get most of your nutrition from whole and minimally processed foods that make it convenient to eat foods closest to their natural state with as few added ingredients as possible.

Avoid deprivation

I encourage you to stay away from ultra-rigid unattainable regimens in an effort to “eat clean.” I think this can result not only deprivation, but also fuel negative self feelings by putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to follow a self-imposed strict definition of eating clean. Sometimes in an effort to eat clean, people eliminate specific foods or entire foods groups from their diet. For instance, gluten, dairy, and soy are eliminated. Avoiding these is not necessarily a healthier route. The intention of clean eating is not to limit your choices, but instead open you up to all the wonderful foods nature has to offer, especially with fruits and vegetables.

I am all for eating clean if it means spending building a healthy relationship with food, taking time to cook at home, knowing where your food comes from, and eating real food in its closest natural form, and lastly enjoying and savoring your food.

For more information go to my Breadsense archives and find posts on: organic foods, processed foods, and GMOs.

Lela Iliopoulos is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator and an expert in nutrition therapy, health promotion, and education. She is passionate about impacting nutritional health through the practical application of science-based information.