What Is 'Clean Eating'?

Outdoor family meal

Elzbieta Sekowska / Shutterstock

It may sound trendy and elitist, but clean eating is something we can all embrace.

Even though I have been "clean eating" since I was a kid, and even co-authored a book about it a decade ago, the term still gives me flashes of righteous Instagrammers and wealthy celebrities who flaunt the zen of their sanctimonious diets.

Good, wholesome, healthy eating has been co-opted by gauzy filters and personal chefs, and that's a shame. It needs rebranding; it needs to shake its elitist vibe and become the common goal. It's time to take back "clean eating" and make it for the people! With that in mind, here is what it is, and what it is not.

What is clean eating?

At its most basic, clean eating is about consuming wholesome foods – foods that are as close to their natural state as possible; foods that are minimally processed and do not include additives and synthetic chemicals.

Quite honestly, it's nothing new. It used to be called "health food," or "whole foods," or, before our diets ran disastrously off the rails, just plain old "eating." But ever since our food system was hijacked by chemical companies and the makers of ultra-processed foods, it's actually become important to differentiate.

Mounting scientific evidence keeps proving the obvious: Junk foods is terrible for our health. The most recent research comes be way of two European studies concluding that diets high in ultra-processed foods put people at a significantly higher risk of disease and death.

Clean eating isn't a set diet, per se, it's more of an eating style like the Mediterranean Diet. And in fact, I can not think of much of a difference, in terms of food, between the two.

The clean eating basics

Eat whole foods

By definition, "whole foods have no added sugar, salt, fat, synthetic preservatives or chemicals," writes dietician and public health doctor, Wendy Bazilian, in The Guardian. Rather than what they are not, I like to think about whole foods in terms of what they are: Foods that are basically in their natural state. A fresh blueberry is a whole food, a dried blueberry that has added sugar and preservatives is not.

In the same vein, eat healthy fats – nuts, avocados, olive oil, et cetera; avoid unhealthy fats like saturated fat and trans fats.

Eat minimally processed foods

Since few of us are going to live on fresh fruit and vegetables alone, clean eating also includes minimally processed foods

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a great definition of processed foods (that I can no longer find the link to, they change things around there a lot). It describes processed food as "any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging, or other procedures that alter the food from its natural state. This may include the addition of other ingredients to the food, such as preservatives, flavors, nutrients and other food additives or substances approved for use in food products, such as salt, sugars and fats."

Minimally processed foods are the foods that have the least amount of the above done to them. Brown rice, great! Brown rice chips that look like they are wholesome but contain 12 ingredients you can not pronounce, probably not so great.

An easy way to think of it is that minimally processed foods have most of their inherent properties in tact.

Avoid ultra-processed foods

Aim to avoid foods that have gone through a lot of processing and are loaded with synthetic chemicals, like colors, flavors, preservatives, et cetera. These foods are also generally high in sodium, added sugar, and unhealthy fats.

You can still eat carbohydrates, but aim for complex ones (whole grains, sweet potatoes) over refined ones (white bread, doughnuts, alas).

In the famous words of food writer Michael Pollan, "Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food."

Consider organic

If you are eating cleanly, you don't want to be ingesting pesticides. You can follow a guide like Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen – these are the fruits and vegetables that have the most and least pesticide residues; these lists are a great tool for knowing where to prioritize when shopping for produce.

Cook at home

Bazilian notes that the practice also promotes cooking at home, "developing a culture of food that leads to meals that taste better and are better for you." Cooking at home is perhaps the most important way to take control over what you are eating. It creates a more intimate relationship with what you are eating, is less wasteful, and has economic and environmental benefits.

Be considerate

Not to get all woo-woo when talking diet, but this is TreeHugger, and so we can't not mention eating kindly and with a reduced carbon footprint in mind: Locally sourced and seasonal; more plants than meat; if eating animals, look for humanely raised meats and sustainable seafood; fair trade; rainforest friendly; and minimal plastic packaging, for starters.

Do not be exclusive and judgmental

I hate that healthy, sustainable eating has come to be considered an elitist pastime. Recently I overheard a mother sitting next to me in the subway tell her young daughter that she didn't have to eat salad, which she referred to disparagingly as "foo-foo" food. How did lettuce become upper crust? That many a pious celebrity makes a great show of their clean eating could have something to do with it. And that's just a shame.

Granted, the term "clean eating" implies that those who do not eat in this way are "dirty eating," but that's not the case at all. As Bazillian points out, clean eating should not be exclusive and judgmental, noting that, "Clean eating can be made to sound elitist – but it shouldn’t be. It’s a roadmap to guide choices, not a tool by which to measure someone’s value. It’s about assessing your food options and identifying good, better, best – not bad, worse and worst."

And on that note, I'm going to go eat some fresh fruit ... and not boast about it on Instagram.

View Article Sources
  1. Fuhrman, Joel. “The Hidden Dangers of Fast and Processed Food.” American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, vol. 12, no. 5, Oct. 2018, pp. 375–81., doi:10.1177/1559827618766483

  2. Schnabel, Laure, et al. “Association Between Ultraprocessed Food Consumption and Risk of Mortality Among Middle-Aged Adults in France.” JAMA Internal Medicine, vol. 179, no. 4, Apr. 2019, p. 490., doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2018.7289

  3. Fiolet, Thibault, et al. “Consumption of Ultra-Processed Foods and Cancer Risk: Results from NutriNet-Santé Prospective Cohort.” BMJ, Feb. 2018, p. k322., doi:10.1136/bmj.k322

  4. "2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition." U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture.