Notice how in recent years there’s been a growing trend toward eating more “whole foods,” while avoiding things that commonly cause allergies, sensitives, cravings for more or weight gain? Even many big-name supermarket chains are making a serious effort to clean up store shelves and remove suspicious ingredients from products — such as trans fats. This movement has been nicknamed “clean eating,” which basically means eating foods as close to their natural state as possible as part of a clean eating meal plan. (1)
The past decade, we have seen a real shift in people demanding better-quality foods. For example, health food stores and health-oriented markets, such as Whole Foods, have experienced “major and remarkable growth,” some reporting growth more than 500 percent in recent years.
Why? Because many people really are more health-conscious these days, practicing clean and mindful eating as an alternative to the unhealthy, detrimental diets many have grown accustomed to in the Western world. Let’s find out what clean eating is and how you can implement a clean eating meal plan all your own.
What Is Clean Eating Exactly?
Eating clean is a lot like the healing diet that I’ve been prescribing for years, since it eliminates (or at least greatly reduces) a lot of the most common food irritants, allergies and sensitivities, while supplying all sorts of different nutrient-dense foods. Most clean eating programs, along with my healing diet, have these main goals in mind: (2)
- Decrease inflammation — Inflammation has been linked to nearly every chronic disease there is, since it damages healthy cells, arterial walls, joints, brain tissue and the digestive tract. By reducing inflammation, your body is better able to heal from any disease and prevent future diseases for forming. This is exactly why anti-inflammatory foods (vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, ancient grains, healthy fats and clean protein) are emphasized in any clean eating meal plan.
- Help lower acidity and alkalize the body — Your body has an optimal pH range that it fights hard to maintain, but acidic foods (like soda, processed meats and refined grain products) make your body less alkaline than it likes to be. All diseases thrive in an acidic environment, which is why alkalizing foods are ideal for protecting your body from the effects of aging and a poor lifestyle.
- Better control blood sugar (glucose) levels — The level of sugar in your blood is tied to may other hormonal functions in the body, including how you store body fat and the level of stress hormones you produce. You can help manage your weight with clean eating by avoiding refined carbohydrates and sugary foods. That’s because clean eating balances blood glucose levels, allowing insulin receptors to work correctly and producing enough satiety hormones (like leptin) to maintain a healthy body weight. (3)
- Remove toxins and artificial ingredients — Toxicity in our environment has been linked to obesity, hormonal imbalances and autoimmune diseases. We acquire toxins from low-quality animal products, produce sprayed with pesticide chemicals and all sorts of refined foods high in artificial ingredients. (4)
- Provide optimum nutrients — Nutritional deficiencies are common today since a large percentage of the food supply is processed and stripped of natural vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and enzymes. Including more fresh, real foods in your diet helps fight oxidative stress, slow the aging process, improve mental capacity and increase energy levels.
How to Eat Clean: Your Clean Eating Meal Plan
Clean eating means different things for different people, but some basic principles apply to just about everyone. A clean eating meal plan consists of eating mostly plant-based fresh foods (especially vegetables and some fruit) along with adequate amounts of quality protein and healthy fats. Some people might associate clean eating with being “plant-based” or even vegetarian/vegan, but this isn’t necessarily true. It’s not about eliminating animal foods and only eating plant foods; it’s about creating balance and choosing the best quality you can.
I personally recommend about equal amounts (30 percent each or so) of clean protein sources, healthy fats and low-glycemic carbohydrates in the forms of fruits and vegetables. If this type of clean eating meal plan sounds far removed from how you currently eat, here are three steps you can take to dramatically help improve your nutrient intake and lower your toxin exposure:
1. Switch Up Your Fats
Work on removing the inflammatory “bad fats” and replacing them with nourishing “good fats.” This means eliminating hydrogenated (trans fats) and partially hydrogenated oils as much as possible, which is pretty easy to do if you cook with real fats at home and avoid packaged products or fried foods most of the time.
In addition to nixing trans fats, switch from refined vegetable oils (including soybean oil, canola oil, safflower and sunflower oil), which are linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, etc., and instead use fats like coconut oil, real olive oil or grass-fed butter when cooking. We need plenty of good fats for proper nutrient absorption, hormone production, cancer prevention, brain development, weight loss and more, but many of the cheap vegetable oils we consume more and more of only create more chronic inflammation.
2. Focus on High-Quality Animal Products
If you eat a lot of animal proteins (meat, poultry, eggs, fish, diary), you want to make sure you focus on purchasing quality products, since hundreds of studies have link factory farmed meats and commercial dairy with inflammation, cancer and heart disease. What makes “clean” animal foods — which have been grass-fed or pasture-raised and are cage-free and wild-caught — different from commercial versions?
The grain fed to animals, which naturally require eating grass or other foods, changes fatty acid ratios (too much omega-6, not enough omega-3 fatty acids), which increases inflammatory responses when we eat them. There’s also concern over accumulation of pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and hormones in meats and other animal foods. At the same time, we take in less anti-inflammatory omega-3s and other healthy fatty acids from quality animal products than we did in previous generations.
Pasteurization of dairy products also poses risks, since this changes the chemical structure of dairy and makes it difficult to digest. If you can find it, try raw dairy products, such as yogurt or kefir, which are probiotic foods and immune system boosters.
3. Remove Added Sugar and Make Your Grains Whole
Refined sugars and refined grain products make up a growing percentage of most people’s calories today. That’s a big problem, considering high-glycemic or refined sugars cause elevated glucose levels and can contribute to insulin resistance, leading to weight gain, premature aging and degenerative diseases. On top of that, refined sugary foods are usually “empty calories,” providing little nutrition, and many even contain antinutrients that hinder your ability to absorb nutrients like vitamins and minerals.
Check ingredient labels carefully for added sugar (which can be listed under dozens of different names), and make your grains “ancient” and 100 percent whole. Limit foods that spike blood sugar most, which includes most cereals, sweetened drinks, packaged snacks, white rice, white pasta and white bread. We also get a lot of added sugar from sneaky sources like condiments, canned soups or sauces, lunch meats, pizza, “natural” fruit drinks, etc.
Wondering what to eat instead? Low-glycemic carbohydrates in the forms of fruits and vegetables plus 100 percent (ideally sprouted) grains, which have high amounts of fiber, enzymes, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Fiber in whole grains and plant foods helps slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, keeps you fuller, improves energy levels, and supports gut and heart health.
Who Can Benefit from Clean Eating?
We all deserve to eat a diet that keeps us healthy, happy and pain-free. If you’ve suffered from digestive issues or an autoimmune disorder in the past, such as leaky gut syndrome, you’re especially likely to benefit from switching to more of a clean eating meal plan. Why?
Processed foods tend to be irritating and hard to digest, since they can damage the delicate lining of your digestive tract that usually acts like a net to keep food particles from leaking out into your bloodstream. The gut has extremely small holes in it that only allow specific substances to pass through its barrier, but with leaky gut syndrome certain foods can cause these openings to expand, allowing bigger particles to travel where they shouldn’t, which triggers body-wide inflammation.
Any people dealing with food allergies, heart disease or cardiovascular issues, arthritis, digestive dysfunction, insomnia, depression, or anxiety — basically all forms of chronic disease — owe it to themselves to eat cleanly. Not only does eating clean help reverse symptoms of most lifestyle or inflammation-related diseases, but it can also be empowering, making you feel more energetic, self-confident, upbeat and calm.
One of the major upsides of eating clean is that inflammatory processed foods are greatly reduced, while all sorts of real, and mostly raw, foods are encouraged. Unfortunately in America today, around 80 percent of the foods we eat are highly processed or genetically modified foods, so any diet that recommends you eat more natural real foods in is a major step in the right direction. (5, 6)
Can Clean Eating Go Too Far?
In recent years, there’s been a growing concern over people who strictly eat clean to the point that it becomes obsessive and unhealthy. This has been termed “orthorexia,” a condition in which a clean eater takes things too far and starts experiencing high amounts of stress and preoccupation over his or her diet. (7)
As the National Eating Disorder Foundation puts it, orthorexia is a fixation on righteous eating that “starts out as an innocent attempt to eat more healthfully, but causes othorexics to become fixated on food quality and purity. They become consumed with what and how much to eat, and how to deal with slip-ups … Self-esteem becomes wrapped up in the purity of orthorexics’ diet and they sometimes feel superior to others, especially in regard to food intake.” (8)
There’s no doubt that a healthy diet is important for your health, but the amount of anxiety some people experience over making the perfect food choice all the time can really backfire. If you notice yourself spending more and more time researching or picking out foods at the grocery store, becoming anxious when eating out at restaurants with friends, or struggling to find foods that fit your growing criteria of what’s considered “healthy,” you might be developing orthorexia.
At this point, orthorexia isn’t a classified eating disorder (since it isn’t included in the DSM-5, a system psychologists use to diagnose mental disorders), but that doesn’t mean it can’t be serious. (9) If you think you might be taking clean eating to a point where it’s becoming unhealthy, consider taking a step back and talking with someone about your feelings.
Clean Eating Meal Plan Takeaways
- Clean eating basically means eating foods as close to their natural state as possible as part of a clean eating meal plan.
- Most clean eating programs have these main goals in mind: decrease inflammation, help lower acidity and alkalize the body, better control blood sugar levels, remove toxins and artificial ingredients, and provide optimum nutrients.
- A clean eating meal plan consists of eating mostly plant-based fresh foods along with adequate amounts of quality protein and healthy fats.
- Here are three steps you can take to dramatically help improve your nutrient intake and lower your toxin exposure: switch up your fats to get more good fats and less bad fats, focus on high-quality animal products, and remove added sugar and make your grains whole.
- Any people dealing with food allergies, heart disease or cardiovascular issues, arthritis, digestive dysfunction, insomnia, depression, or anxiety — basically all forms of chronic disease — owe it to themselves to eat cleanly.
- Orthorexia is a condition in which a clean eater takes things too far and starts experiencing high amounts of stress and preoccupation over their diet.
- If you notice yourself spending more and more time researching or picking out foods at the grocery store, becoming anxious when eating out at restaurants with friends, or struggling to find foods that fit your growing criteria of what’s considered “healthy,” you might be developing orthorexia.