One of the most popular questions we receive here at Methodology is, “What does it mean to eat clean?”
It’s a phrase that’s used a lot in wellness circles as the ultimate way to eat for your health. The idea is to eat whole, unprocessed foods as often as possible to maximize nutrients and foods that make you healthier and minimize foods that either don’t do anything for your health or can damage your body over time.
But how does that look when you’re trying to build a meal for yourself or your family?
There are many answers to this, but between all the methods to eat clean there are some commonalities. Here are some basic guidelines for you to follow to help you get the most out of your food.
1 - Focus on vegetables: aim for at least 2.5 cups a day
Vegetables are full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and are shown to reduce the risk of cancer, stroke, heart disease, and more when eaten in in greater quantities. What other food group can claim that?
If that weren’t enough, vegetables also help you get full faster (thanks to all the vitamins, minerals, and fiber), which makes it a powerful portion size regulator without having to worry about measuring everything out or counting calories.
Unfortunately it’s also the food group that tends to get neglected the most (because of taste, preparation time, and inconvenience to name a few barriers), which is why getting more vegetables on your plate is the biggest focus of the clean eating movement.
A serving of vegetables is half a cup, and you’re recommended to get at least five servings a day (but can definitely do more if you’d like). Try getting one to two servings per meal and have some vegetables ready to eat in your refrigerator for snacks in the middle of the day.
And remember, while it’s great to get everything organic, if cost is a factor for you then it’s not absolutely necessary for better health. It’s most important to buy produce organic if it’s listed on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list, which contains the produce most heavily affected by pesticides. After that, do the best you can. Multiple studies have shown that even if your vegetables are conventional, more of them is still better than none at all.
2 - Add in some fruit
While vegetables are absolutely required in a clean diet, fruit isn’t. But it certainly doesn’t hurt.
Fruit gives you a sweet satisfaction you don’t get from vegetables, plus it's high in vitamins and minerals as well. The fiber in fruit helps keep your blood sugar from spiking when you eat it, making it a great option for dessert. Our favorite fruits are those highest in fiber and lowest in sugar: raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and avocado.
You can add fruit to salads, use some to sweeten smoothies naturally, or eat a few pieces after meals when you need a little something extra.
3 - Stay satisfied with sustainable, clean protein at every meal
Protein makes you full faster and keeps you full longer so you’re not constantly snacking throughout the day. It’s used by your body to build muscle and other body tissue, and the essential amino acids found in protein sources are crucial for building up muscle in your body.
No matter what kind of protein you eat, the two key factors to consider here are variety and the source of your protein.
Just like with vegetables, eating a wide variety of proteins ensures you’re getting a wide variety of nutrients in your diet. Variety is especially important for those who don’t eat animal sources of protein. No single plant source contains all the essential amino acids needed to stay healthy, so eating a variety of plant sources (legumes, pea protein, soy, nuts, etc) throughout the day helps ensure you’re consuming all the essential amino acids you need.
Source is important as well, and especially critical for animal protein. Animals raised in environments where they’re eating the foods they would naturally eat in the wild and not receiving growth hormones, antibiotics, and other toxic substances will have a low occurrence of toxins in their fat and will have more nutrients in their meat. This is typically labelled “pasture-raised” for red meat and poultry and “wild” for seafood.
It’s recommended to get around 8 grams of protein per 20 pounds you weigh per day. For animal products, this also equates to 3-6 oz of meat per meal (about a palm full).
4 - Don't be afraid of healthy fats
Monounsaturated fats (like olive oil and avocado oil) have always been pretty universally accepted as healthy.
But saturated and animal fats have been given a bad rap ever since 1960’s research started pointing to fat as the cause of the rising rates in heart disease. The government used these studies to declare a war on fat in 1977 in the McGovern Report, which spurred a low-fat craze in the United States.
Only recently did we learn that one of those early studies was funded by the sugar industry, and many anti-fat studies since then have been funded by various industries, including the cereal, grain, and soda industries.
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revisited 21 dietary studies in 2010 to see if saturated fat could be associated with a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, or cardiovascular disease. They looked at 347,747 people and found no evidence of a correlation between saturated fat and a higher risk of these health concerns.
Being afraid to eat fat does nothing for our health. In fact, cutting fat from our diets hurts us in significant ways. Besides the fact that low-fat processed foods tend to be high in sugar, fat is essential for the brain and body to function well. 60% of your brain is fat, and your brain uses fat for important functions such as communication between cells. Fat is also necessary for the absorption of certain vitamins and the creation and balance of sex hormones. Also, don’t forget that fat is a great source of energy and way to stay satiated, especially when you’re eating clean.
Of course, there are some fats you'll still want to stay away from. Hydrogenated fats (including trans fats) have been pumped full of hydrogen to be more shelf stable than their original polyunsaturated forms, but these fats have been proven to raise cholesterol and your risk of heart disease. Vegetable oils have also been known to cause inflammation in the body which also puts you at greater risk for heart disease.
Remember, too, that if you’re going to eat animal fat you want it to come from a pasture-raised animal. Since the fat is where toxins are stored, eating pastured fat is critical to keep toxin consumption low.
5 - Stay away from refined and processed foods when possible
When eating clean, you’re discouraged from eating processed or refined foods. Unfortunately these are the foods that are most readily available in our grocery stores today, but they’re also the foods that are going to do the least for your health.
Processed foods tend to contain a lot of ingredients, including many you probably can’t pronounce. These might be preservatives, food coloring, artificial flavoring, or even supplemental nutrition to make the food you’re eating “better for you”. But many of these additives have been found to be harmful over time, or the long term impact is just unknown. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t eat any processed foods. But when looking to use them in your cooking, try to use foods that have been minimally processed and contain ingredients you recognize and are comfortable using.
Refined foods are a different story. These often come in the form of flours, sugar, and oils and have been stripped of any nutritional value they once contained for shelf stability and appearance. Besides the chemicals used in the refining process, what’s left over in the ingredients is inflammatory to the body. In flours and oils especially, lots of omega-6 is left and have been the primary reason Americans tend to have way too much omega-6 in their diet.
The final straw on these foods is that they tend to contain relatively few nutrients and do little to benefit your health, especially compared to the other foods listed above. Since that’s the point of clean eating, you’re encouraged to skip the processed and refined foods and go for whole foods instead.
6 - Focus on maximizing nutrients rather than on minimizing calories
Besides nourishing your body so that you operate at your peak ability, one of the best parts of clean eating is being able to focus on enjoying the delicious food in front of you without worrying about calories. By relaxing and not worrying about portion sizes and calories while you’re eating, you enjoy the food you eat more and digest it better so that you’re utilizing all those nutrients more effectively. And since you’re not consuming a lot of empty calories, your body gets everything it needs with less food and will signal you sooner to stop eating when you’ve had enough.
If you'd like to commit to eating clean but would like some help with the cooking, we're here to help. All of our meals follow clean eating guidelines and use high-quality ingredients that are locally sourced whenever possible to give you the most nutritious, delicious meals we can offer.
On top of that, we make food that tastes like comfort food so you can start to love clean eating and get ideas about ways you can incorporate it into your other meals.