April 08, 2024

What Clean Eating Really Means, Plus 5 Tips to Do It Right

photo of Allie Baker

Written By

Allie Baker

photo of Vinita Tandon, MD

Medically Reviewed By

Vinita Tandon, MD

Lifeforce Medical Director

photo of Vanessa Clark, PA-C, RDN

Medically Reviewed By

Vanessa Clark, PA-C, RDN

Lifeforce Physician Assistant

What Clean Eating Really Means, Plus 5 Tips to Do It Right

Is eating clean the key to a clean bill of health? A lot of people seem to think so. In recent years, the concept of ‘clean eating’ has become an increasingly popular wellness trend. 

In a 2021 survey by the International Food Information Council, 64% of respondents said they try to choose foods made with clean ingredients. In 2022, a Food and Health survey revealed that clean eating was the most popular diet or eating pattern. 

But here’s the big question: What does eating clean actually mean? The term is unregulated and definitions can vary, so we asked our experts to weigh in. They break down what clean eating is, if it lives up to the hype, plus five tips to spring clean your diet safely and sustainably. 

What Does It Mean to Eat Clean?

While there is no official definition of clean eating, our experts agree that, on the whole, it’s about whole foods. 

“I would broadly define clean eating as a dietary pattern that more often proactively chooses foods in their whole, unprocessed forms and limits or avoids foods that are processed, but particularly ultra-processed,” says Lifeforce Clinician Vanessa Clark, PA-C, RDN. “Rather than a dietary pattern centered around certain amounts of macronutrients (for example, percentage of carbs, fats, or protein), clean eating puts the focus on the forms and types of foods that we choose to go into our bodies.”

What cleaning eat is not is a trendy diet or quick fix. “I'm not a fan of fad diets, and I like that clean eating is a more holistic approach to the way we view food in relation to ourselves, our bodies, and our health, rather than just a quick way to lose weight or feel better,” says Clark. 

While we’re defining terms, Clark also emphasizes the difference between processed and ultra-processed foods. “A processed food is any food that is changed from its original form,” she explains. “For example, hummus is a processed food since chickpeas are mixed with other ingredients and blended. Tofu is a processed food because edamame beans are changed from their original form. Processed foods can be full of nutrition and provide a lot of benefits.” 

On the other hand, ultra-processed foods can be ultra harmful. “They often have ingredients and additives that research shows would best be limited in the scope of our overall dietary pattern,” Clark warns. For example, studies show that ultra-processed foods can lead to significantly higher rates of cardiovascular disease. A higher consumption of ultra-processed foods (more than four servings per day) was associated with a 62% increased risk of all cause mortality compared with lower consumption (less than two servings per day). For each additional daily serving of ultra-processed food, mortality risk relatively increased by 18%.

An easy way to tell if something is ultra-processed: It will generally come in plastic packaging and have at least one ingredient you wouldn’t find in a standard home kitchen.  

Simply put, Clark says, “If your great grandparent would not have recognized the food you’re about to eat — think Twinkies, Oreos, sodas, Doritos, gummy candy, a frozen dinner — then it’s probably not something we should be eating on a regular basis.”

The Bright Side of Clean Eating

The Bright Side of Clean Eating

The perks of clean eating predate even our great grandparents. “Clean eating takes us back to the basics. It prioritizes foods in a whole or less processed form, which is biologically and evolutionarily closer to how we are meant to consume foods and nutrients,” Clark says. “Clean eating reduces many of the high sugar, high fat items from our eating pattern and removes many of the additives used to make foods shelf stable or highly palatable. This increases the nutrient density of our diet and makes it more likely for someone to get all the vitamins, minerals, and fiber necessary for optimal performance, longevity, and healthspan.”

Lifeforce Health Coach Jillian Thomas, who holds a degree in Nutrition and Food Science, seconds these advantages. “In my opinion, clean eating has many benefits,” she says. “Some of these include eating nutrient-dense foods that provide your body with what it needs to function optimally, weight management, improved digestion, better energy levels, and reduced risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.”

Whole foods are also filled with fiber, which is important because only 5% of the population gets adequate fiber intake. “Clean eating can help ensure that a person is getting enough fiber in their diet, which helps to regulate blood sugar, improve cholesterol levels, increase satiety, and support our gut microbiome,” Clark says. 

Besides benefiting your body, there’s also a bonus for your bottom line. “Clean eating can help you save money on groceries since processing often increases cost,” says Clark.

The Dirt on Clean Eating

The Dirt on Clean Eating 

While it’s generally considered very safe, there can be a darker side to clean eating. In a survey of college students, a small percentage reported experiencing negative emotions if they were not able to follow the plan and found that it caused them to have a rigid eating schedule that interfered with their schoolwork. 

“There can be some drawbacks to clean eating, as some individuals may take it to extremes that can lead to disordered eating or becoming overly obsessed with the type of food they are consuming,” Thomas warns. “It may lead to unnecessary labeling of foods as either ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ which can lead to restrictive eating.”

Clark notes that anyone who has a medical condition or a history of an eating disorder should always consult their medical provider prior to making a significant dietary change. 

It’s also important to take clean eating cues from qualified experts. A 2018 study in the journal Nutrients found that up to 60% of participants got health information from social media posts or blogs promoting clean eating. The study warns that many “experts” or “wellness gurus” on these platforms offer advice without qualifications.  

With your Lifeforce Membership, you’ll be getting science-backed nutrition and lifestyle guidance from board certified clinicians and experienced health coaches. 

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A Fresh Take on Clean Eating

To avoid the pitfalls of clean eating, it’s helpful to view it as guidelines, rather than hard and fast rules. “Clean eating does not have to be a strict all or nothing dietary template, rather it can be individualized to a person's goals,” Clark says. “All lifestyle changes that are really meaningful often take time to enact, so people can be at various points on the ‘clean eating’ spectrum. Some people may start by just eliminating a few highly processed foods from the pantry, and others may choose to avoid all pre-packaged/processed foods, though this is very difficult to do in our current food environment. It is very hard to remove all ultra-processed foods, but I certainly think there are some easier ways to start this journey.” 

No matter where you fall on the spectrum, we’re here to support you with doable hacks you can stick to this spring and beyond.

5 Tips to Spring Clean Your Diet

5 Tips to Spring Clean Your Diet 

1. Focus on adding first.

“Sometimes it’s easiest to think of clean eating in terms of items that should be included rather than excluded,” Clark advises. “A clean eating pattern should have plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, legumes, and heart healthy fats as the foundation. Occasional animal protein or seafood can also be a component for some people who choose to consume meat, though not everyone on a clean eating pattern needs to eat animal protein. For most people, a Mediterranean style eating pattern built on a clean eating foundation will have the most health benefits in terms of cardiometabolic health, but also in terms of longevity.”

Not sure if something fits the bill? Think about Clark’s great grandparent guideline, and make sure to pay attention to food labels when grocery shopping. “Choose options that have shorter ingredient lists and ingredients you recognize,” Thomas suggests. “This will allow you to reduce the amount of highly processed foods you’re consuming.” 

2. Stock up on staples.

It’s the perfect time to spring clean your kitchen. “A good first step is to purge your pantry of processed, sugary snacks,” Thomas says. Then comes the fun part. “Go shopping and stock up on staples for a clean diet like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins (chicken, fish, lean red meats that are grass-fed), whole grains (quinoa, oats, brown rice), and healthy fats (olive oil, avocado).”

Think about relatively simple swaps you can make. “For example, you may choose to change canned soup for beans, lentils, celery, carrot, onion, and vegetable broth. Rather than buy the soup premade, it can be made at home with a few ingredients,” Clark recommends. “You could choose to trade a snack of boxed crackers and cheese for whole grain pita and a hummus dip. Sugar-sweetened cereal can be substituted for oatmeal with flax seeds, chia seeds, nut butter, and berries for a super-charged breakfast with long-lasting energy and lots of nutrients.”

Prep Healthy Snacks

3. Prep healthy snacks. 

“It can really help to meal plan in advance,” Thomas says. “This can help prevent impulsive food choices and make it easier to stick with clean eating goals.” 

Clark suggests starting with snacks. “Plan ahead for snacks so that you have a whole foods approach to snacking rather than needing to grab something pre-packaged,” she says. “One example is keeping vegetables cut and ready in the fridge. You can pair these with a hummus or bean dip. Similarly, keep an array of fresh fruits on hand so you can easily grab them.” 

Some examples of clean eating approved snacks include an apple with nut butter (or sunflower butter if you have a nut allergy), a handful of grapes to pair with some nuts, or berries on top of a chia pudding that you’ve prepared ahead of time and is waiting in the refrigerator. 

4. Nix sugary drinks. 

Eliminate or reduce beverages without benefits, including sugary sodas and juices. “It’s always better to eat your fruit rather than drink it,” Clark says. “Beverages of choice should really be water, tea, and up to a moderate amount of coffee. There are very few people who need to regularly consume a sugar sweetened beverage as part of their diet, and they offer relatively no nutritional benefit beyond a quick source of calories and energy, so these are always an easy one to recommend reducing or preferably eliminating from the diet.”

5. Aim for progress, not perfection. 

Remember that clean eating is going to look different for everyone and that’s OK. “People with a lot of time to dedicate to this may be able to purchase, prepare, and cook foods in their whole form from scratch frequently, and that’s fantastic,” Clark says. “Busy parents or people pressed for time may have to rely on pre-cut vegetables from the supermarket and pre-made sauces to go with a pasta or stir-fry, and this is also great, particularly if that replaces a fast food, takeout, or pre-prepared frozen dinner. It’s about making changes where possible so that you find a balance that works for you and your family.”

Thomas seconds this balanced, slow and steady approach. “It is important to focus on progress, not perfection,” she says. “Making changes to your diet and lifestyle can be challenging, and setbacks are normal. Aim for consistency and gradual improvement over time. Celebrate successes, no matter how small, and be kind to yourself during the process.”

“Don’t get overwhelmed, just start somewhere,” says Clark. “And reach out for guidance from a qualified professional when needed. Food can, and should, be enjoyable while also promoting optimal health for you and your family, so happy eating!”

Looking for more guidance on your clean eating journey? Our Lifeforce clinicians and certified health coaches are here to help with individualized support, advice, and accountability. Learn more in the Lifeforce Membership

This article was medically reviewed by: 

  • Vinita Tandon, MD, ABIM Board Certified in Endocrinology and Metabolism

  • Vanessa Clark, PA-C, RDN

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