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Cleaning up your diet has never been more popular. Whether it’s in the gym, at the grocery store, or dining out, “eating clean” is the talk of trainers, nutritionists, chefs, friends, and family. But what does all this chatter really mean?
For most people, eating clean isn’t a diet you follow for a few weeks to drop a few pounds. It’s a lifestyle—one that involves choosing foods that are minimally processed and contain little or no artificial sweeteners, food coloring, or other additives. Think corn on the cob, not cornflakes; grass-fed beef burgers, not Big Macs. It’s how your great-grandparents might have eaten in the days before fast food, GMOs, and Red No. 2.
Advocates extol the numerous benefits of cleaning up your act, from increased energy to shinier hair. Some women say long-standing skin issues suddenly clear up and they sleep better, get sick less often, and feel more productive. And of course there’s the fat loss that comes from sweeping empty calories out of your diet. Research has also shown that this eating style can help with everything from improving blood sugar profiles to reducing cholesterol levels.
It’s not hard to eat clean—in fact, with so many people embracing this nutrition philosophy, there are more options than ever to put your diet on the right track. Get started by following these six simple rules. Then check out our two-week clean-eating menu guide (The 14-Day Eat Clean Plan) for some easy and tasty meal ideas to keep you satisfied all day long. You’ll never want to go back to your old way of eating.
Forget the old three squares and mindless snacking—in most clean diets you’ll eat five or six healthy, well-planned meals each day. This keeps your metabolism consistently fueled throughout the day by preventing your blood sugar from dipping, so you avoid that 3 p.m. energy lag, when you’re most likely to turn to caffeine and sugary snacks for a boost. With a clean-eating diet, each meal or snack contains a balance of quality protein, complex carbs, and healthy fat to keep you satisfied. A nutritious breakfast of an egg-white omelet and whole-grain toast might be followed with a late-morning snack of a Greek yogurt and some fruit and nuts.
Plan to drink a minimum of about 2 liters or eight 8-oz glasses of fluid each day. Water is key to helping your system function at its best, from glowing skin to healthy digestion. Think of it this way: You can survive for weeks without food but only a few days without water.
To help you get in all this liquid, aim to consume about one liter before lunch and another before dinner. Keep a water bottle at your desk, on your kitchen counter, or in your car. Try giving your water a little flavor by adding fresh lemon, cucumber, or orange slices. You’ll benefit in so many ways from drinking water throughout the day.
It’s easy to talk about eating clean with a full fridge, but if you’re away from home and starving, there’s nothing simpler than hitting the vending machine or grabbing something at the convenience store. Plan out what you are going to eat at every meal, and prep your foods ahead of time. Pick a day of the week when you have time to prepare most, if not all, of your meals for the upcoming week. Cook your proteins, steam your vegetables, make a large salad without dressing, etc. Each night, pack your meals for the next day. If you work or spend time outside the home, stow your food in an insulated bag with an ice pack so you can eat healthy any time.
Most clean foods are in their natural state, with few or no additives. When at the store, make a habit of reading ingredient labels. Beware of diet bombs like high-fructose corn syrup, which can show up in unexpected places like crackers, cereals, and yogurt. While trans fats are gradually being phased out of the food supply, ingredients that list hydrogenated oils can still contain these unhealthy fats. Also on the no-go list: artificial sweeteners, colors, dyes, and other additives. If you can’t pronounce it, there’s a good chance it’s something you should avoid. Although research is divided about the benefits and risks of foods made with genetically modified organisms, which have been altered in a laboratory to be given added nutritional value or made resistant to insects or weeds, most clean diets avoid using GMO ingredients.
Although some clean-eating advocates insist on buying primarily organic fare, that’s not in everyone’s budget. But when possible, reach for organic versions of fruits and vegetables like apples, berries, bell peppers, spinach, tomatoes, and cucumbers, which otherwise typically have the highest levels of pesticides. Free-range chicken and eggs and organic milk are also worth extra cash, since they don’t contain added hormones or antibiotics.
Just because you’ve decided to make a change in your eating habits doesn’t mean your friends and family will follow suit. So don’t turn into that person who makes everyone else feel bad when you’re going out to eat. Almost every dining establishment will have healthy options, and if not you can ask for some simple changes to keep you on track.
Choose salads topped with grilled chicken or lean protein. Ask for dressings or sauces on the side, and use your fork to dip into the dressing before you take a bite so you still get the flavor without the calories and fat. Or choose a lean protein, grilled, with steamed vegetables and a complex carbohydrate like sweet or regular baked potato, brown rice, quinoa, or whole-grain pasta.
One of the benefits of eating clean on a regular basis is being able to indulge in a food that’s not so “clean” once in a while. If the vast majority of your diet adheres to the rules above, give yourself permission to have your favorite cheat meal without guilt. In all likelihood, you’ll feel satisfied but ready to return to your clean-eating regimen.
They may sound perfect for your eating plan, but these healthy-sounding options are really junk food in disguise.
Some of the smoothies that you’ll find in the refrigerated aisle or at fast-food restaurants may say they’re “all natural” and contain real fruit, but they’re often loaded with extra sugar (some with more than 100g of the sweet stuff!).
Make your own smoothie with fresh fruit, plain fat-free yogurt or a vanilla protein powder, and ice.
They seem like a healthy way to start your day, but bars are often created with processed ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin (a filler), sugar, partially hydrogenated oils, and more.
Look for bars where whey protein, nuts, seeds, and oats are the primary ingredients.
Packed with sugar, artificial colors, dyes, and other additives, these so-called performance drinks may be marketed to help you power through your workouts but can ultimately hamper your results.
Add branched-chain amino acid powder to water—it’ll help aid recovery after a workout and stave off hunger in between meals.
Often laden with sugar (up to 24g in a 6-oz serving) and processed ingredients, it’s not quite the health-food fare it seems to be.
Choose fat-free plain yogurt and add your own fresh fruit to sweeten it while providing added nutrients.
Yes, they’re zero-calorie, but according to several studies, the artificial ingredients can compromise your diet efforts by actually leading you to overeat.
Drink water (plain or carbonated) with slices of fresh fruit for natural flavor.