Chances are that you’ve probably heard of clean eating at least once or twice before. Maybe your brushed it off as some new fad or maybe it interested you. I mean, what is clean eating, anyway? And, if there’s “clean eating,” does that mean there’s “dirty eating?” Eww.

Clean eating has been something I’ve become very familiar with over the past year or so. While I was pretty much following many of the guidelines without even knowing it, I’ve embraced a clean eating lifestyle and have really enjoyed it.

Eating clean gives you control over food because you don’t get sucked into craving all the bad sugars, salts, and fats you don’t need. Instead, you choose what you put into your body and that gives you a sense of accomplishment, power, and health. Eating clean gets easier and easier once you understand the basic concepts, too.

What Is Clean Eating?

The major key to understand about eating clean for beginners is that it’s more of a lifestyle than a “diet.” By that, I mean eating clean isn’t a get skinny quick kinda thing. Instead, it’s a way to approach how you eat and what you put in your body. Clean eating involves choosing whole foods, avoiding processed foods, and creating a healthy, conscientious approach to what foods you eat. Making the choice to eat clean is to remove unnecessary fats, sugars, and carbs from your diet. It’s about making better, more nutritious choices for your body. It’s also about refusing to continue to put junk in your body. “Junk,” in this context, includes processed foods, artificial flavors and sugars, foods with lots of salt and high in saturated fat, refined foods, and other foods that don’t provide you with nutritional value.

This means embracing vegetables, whole foods, unrefined grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. The focus is on the quality of the food being consumed and the benefits these foods offer your overall health. The idea is to combine the clean eating lifestyle with an active life.

One meal at a time, you’ll find clean eating will make you a healthier, happier person. You’ll find that you crave “sweets” less and that foods high in saturated fat really aren’t that satisfying any more.

Keep in mind that there remains a decent amount of diversity among the “clean eating community” in relation to what clean eating actually entails. So, while there are people on all parts of the spectrum, I’m sharing my interpretation of clean eating, how I follow the clean eating guidelines, and what I feel are the most realistic, most beneficial and healthy aspects of the clean eating diet.

For me, the best thing about the clean eating approach to food is that it’s not a diet, not about calorie restricting, and not about depriving yourself of things you love. It’s about finding healthy ways to enjoy food and nutrition.

Eating Clean Guidelines

I wanted to share this post today to help explain how to eat clean for beginners who are interested in eating healthy and following the clean eating guidelines.

Eat whole foods

Whole foods are foods that haven’t been modified or tampered with in a lab or manufacturing plant. Since whole foods haven’t been processed or refined, no added sugars, preservatives, dyes, fats (including hydrogenated fats), or salt has been added to the product to add extra flavor or to enhance shelf life or appearance.

Whole foods include fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, unsalted nuts/seeds, whole grains, full-fat dairy products, and dried beans/legumes. In addition to escaping the added and unnecessary junk from being processed, the unrefined foods also carry more nutrients and fiber which is essential for your body to function. Make the food you’re eating do more for you.

Cook your own food

The easiest way to control what goes into your food is to be the one who is preparing your food. That way, you can control the salt, sugar, flavors, and fats that go in and you can work to keep those levels as low as possible. Ever wonder why restaurant food tastes so much better than home-cooked food? It’s because restaurants tend to add a boat load of salt and butter to everything they cook.

Eat well-balanced meals

Make sure the foods you are choosing contain the right amount of protein, carbs, and fats since all three are essential to body functioning anyways. For example, broccoli is a carb, but also provides a lot of fiber, antioxidants, and many other important nutrients so it’s a great choice when eating clean. To that end, the fats you are eating should come from unsaturated fats as much as possible, avoiding saturated fat and trans fat if at all possible. This is the case with every meal you have, whether it’s a snack or a dinner. You want to be mindful of the breakdown of what you’re eating so you know what you’re putting into your body.

Don’t drink your calories

While you’re making mindful decisions about what foods to eat, you also need to be mindful about how much water you’re drinking. Water will likely be the number one thing you’re drinking all day, every day. You’ll find the more you drink, the thirstier you are for more and more. Drinking water will not only keep you hydrated and allow your body to function well, it will also keep you from getting hungry. One of the worst things to put into your body is soda. Soda is full of high fructose corn syrup or other refined sugars and provides absolutely no health benefit to you. Fruit juices are also a poor choice when eating clean. While they contain more nutrients than soda, they carry far more calories and sugar and far less nutrients (like vitamins and fiber) than you would get just from eating a piece of fruit.

Read the nutrition labels

When eating clean for beginners, you need to get pretty familiar with nutrition labels because they will tell you everything you need to know about the foods you’re considering eating. Look for labels with relatively few ingredients and consider each ingredient in terms of, “Is this an ingredient I would cook with in my kitchen?” If not, pass. At hhs.gov they say to pay attention to and avoid foods with labels that include words like, “hydrolyzed,” or “modified,” as those indicate added processing and words that end in “-ose” because those indicate added sugars (think fructose). Look for labels with “whole grains” and “whole wheat” in the ingredients. If the food is high in calories, make sure the saturated fat and sugar levels are low and that the calories are coming from the fiber and lean proteins instead. Also, keep sodium levels as low as possible – your body only needs 250 mg each day to function but a typical American diet is way higher than that.

Eat 5-6 meals per day

Forget the concept of counting calories. That basic plan doesn’t take into account the value each calorie has. Instead, you want to make your calories count. Make mindful decisions for everything you choose to eat, like lean protein, complex carbs (as opposed to sugar) and fats, fresh fruits, and vegetables — six times a day in the right amounts. The typical clean diet usually includes three small main meals and two to three substantial snacks every day. Eating this way prevents you from over-eating, skipping meals, and feeling fatigued or jittery from unstable blood sugar levels. It also helps you lose weight.

Avoid processed foods

Processed foods are easy to identify since they often come in a box or jar. The problem with processed foods is that they are high in added sugars and salt, low in fiber and whole grains, and high in fat (including awful trans fats and saturated fats). Processed foods include snack foods (fruit snacks, chips), candy, cookies, frozen dinners, bottled salad dressing, breakfast cereal, canned soups, bacon, granola bars, instant ramen, and flavored nut. Instead of buying these items at the store for convenience, next time, try making them from scratch, using whole ingredients. Your body will thank you.

Limit added fat, salt, and sugars

Since clean eating has the intention of eating food in it’s most natural, whole state, it makes sense that you would want to avoid unnecessary additives, like fat, salt,and sugar, when choosing your food. Fresh fruit should be all the sugar you need once you are on a clean eating track. The more you follow the clean eating lifestyle, foods you once loved, like doughnuts, hamburgers, fries, and more will taste overly sweet or salty. This is because your body and tastebuds will be so used to the whole foods in your new lifestyle that these additives will taste needed and even overdone.

How To Get Started Eating Clean

To start, take small steps. Don’t go straight from drinking 5 sodas a day to only drinking water. That won’t work and you will fail. Your body needs more of a gradual transition. Replace one of those sodas with a glass of water to start. Then, tomorrow, replace two, and so on. If you drink a coffee every morning full of sweetened creamer and sugar, you will hate your coffee if you try drinking it black. Try reducing the amount of sugar, then the amount of creamer you use. You may find you don’t even want coffee in a week or two (which is what happened to me). Trust me – I’ve been there. This is a new lifestyle, not an overnight fad so treat it that way and ease into it until you fully can embrace everything and then it will feel normal to eat clean.

Every change you make towards eating clean is a positive change and, gradually, your body will get more and more used to the clean lifestyle. And your body will love it.

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