Clean eating is a term that’s been used a lot in recent years. While this is one diet trend that has caught on quickly and widely, many people may still not know what it is exactly, or how to start cleaning up their diet.
What it is, simply, is eating more of the healthiest options in each food group and less of the unhealthy ones. More specifically, it means choosing whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats, and cutting down on processed foods such as refined grains, preservatives, and unhealthy fats .
A lot of clean-eating diet plans tend to eliminate food groups such as dairy, carbs and more. But that can backfire badly — not only do they take away the enjoyment of eating, they can also deprive your body of essential nutrients.
It helps to find a clean-eating plan that works for you, even if it includes having a “cheat meal” from time to time. Your body will thank you for making the effort to cut back on processed foods and replacing them with healthier options. Here are some ways to get started.
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Most of us aren’t hitting our recommended five-a-day, even though eating more fruit and vegetables can significantly reduce our risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and cancer. The fibre found in whole produce also keeps the good bacteria in our gut thriving, reducing our risk of autoimmune diseases by fighting off infections.
In particular, dark, leafy greens such as kale, spinach and broccoli are rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that keep our bodies in prime condition. And they can be easily incorporated into any meal. Have a side of mixed green salad, add some sautéed spinach into your omelette, or throw some kale into your breakfast smoothie.
When it comes to any diet, like moderation, variety is key. Eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and spices ensures that you attain the array of benefits from your diet. And the easiest way to make sure you’re getting all those essential nutrients is by eating a naturally colourful range of food. Go for bell peppers, sweet potatoes, berries, greens, and turmeric — all of these contain plant compounds and nutrients that keep cells healthy and in good functioning order.
An easy way to add brightly coloured produce to your diet is by having a salad of mixed fruits and vegetables per day, and dress it with olive oil, apple cider and turmeric for extra nutrition.
It’s old news that a high intake of refined carbs is associated with higher risk of diabetes and obesity. A much cleaner alternative is whole grains that are rich in fibre and nutrients.
Swap those cakes, pastries, white rice, white bread and pasta for brown rice, wholemeal bread, oats, and quinoa.
The cleanest whole grains are the least processed ones. They retain most of their antioxidants, fibrous germ and bran, heart-healthy folate and inflammation-fighting phytonutrients. Eating whole grains also keep you full longer as they maintain stable blood sugar levels, so you’ll be less tempted to snack between meals.
Look out for labels that make whole grain claims. They should always have whole grains as the first ingredient and contain minimal added sugar.
Research has shown that cutting down meat consumption not only saves your health, but also the planet. You don’t have to cut out meat entirely though. Simply reducing your meat intake can lower your blood pressure, and reduce risk of heart disease, as well as keep your weight in check.
Don’t worry that you won’t get enough protein if you cut down on meat. Most of us consume more than the recommended 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight anyway, and you can easily get protein from eggs, dairy, tofu, nuts and beans.
When eating meat, ditch the processed ones such as cold cuts, sausages and bacon, and opt for grass-fed beef and wild salmon.
This diet is easily confused with vegan or vegetarian diets, but they are not entirely the same. While vegan and vegetarian diets eliminate animal meat and products completely, the plant-based diet consists of mostly plants, but animal products aren’t off limits.
The plant-based diet limits animal products, comprising mostly plants such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seeds, nuts and legumes. It excludes refined foods such as white flour, added sugars, and processed oils, and focuses on food quality.
The plant-based diet can offer a host of health benefits, including reducing the risk of heart disease and certain cancers, preventing cognitive decline and diabetes.
Aside from adding a large salad to any meal, you can also make starchy grains your staple, snack on nuts and seeds, and drink unsweetened plant-based nut milks.
Start by having at least one plant-based meal a day, and soon it will be part of your lifestyle.
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Processed foods are generally low in nutrients and high in fat, sugar and calorie content. For instance, white bread, unlike wholewheat bread, has had its bran and germ stripped away.
Given that our bodies digest unprocessed and processed foods differently, these foods can have vastly different effects on us. Refined carbs and sugar can cause drastic fluctuations in our blood sugar levels, destabilising our body’s insulin production and putting us at risk of type 2 diabetes.
However, clean processed foods do exist. Cheese, plain yogurt and whole-wheat pasta are some examples.
Look out for anything loaded with lots of sugar, refined grains and partially hydrogenated oils, and come with a long ingredient lists with chemicals and foods you don’t recognise. Try out guilt-free alternatives of popular comfort foods traditionally laden with sugar and artificial ingredients.
And while you can find clean versions of salad dressings, sauces, dips and soup broths at the supermarket, you can also make them at home. Hummus, pasta sauce, and olive oil aren’t very complicated.
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Most of us consume more sugar than we realise, easily exceeding our daily recommended amount of six teaspoons per day for women and nine for men.
Cleaning up your diet means cutting down on these added sugars found in sweets such as candy, baked goods and soda.
However, on top of obvious sugar traps like those mentioned, added sugar can exist in foods that appear to be healthy. Flavoured yogurt, cereals and energy bars can contain loads of sugar. Look for foods preferably without sugar listed as an ingredient, or listed way towards the bottom (it means less of it is used).
Fruits and dairy may contain sugar too, but they also offer a huge amount of nutrients, antioxidants and fibre, which can help to ameliorate the effects of sugar on insulin levels, so it’s not just empty calories.
Just as with sugar, a lot of us are consuming more sodium than we need. The daily recommended limit is 2,300 milligrams, which is about one teaspoon of salt. The limit should be lower — about 1,500 milligrams a day — if you are over 50 or have diabetes, kidney disease or high blood pressure. A large part of the sodium in our diet comes from processed foods because most of these foods contain far more sodium than those you can make at home.
Instead of using salt to flavour your food, use herbs and spices, or vinegar instead. If you have to add some salt, use it sparingly, and choose sea salt because it contains less sodium than table salt.
Clean eating is all about understanding your food, its origins, and its preparation methods. Organic, locally-sourced foods contain more nutritional value (less additives and preservatives added), contain less herbicides and pesticides, and are generally much fresher than those in chain supermarkets.
Plus, by purchasing food directly from local farms, you can learn about the methods they use to raise livestock and grow produce. Buying organic food means you get to reduce your carbon footprint as well, because organic food reduces the amount of environmental contaminants.
Many people go for “diet foods” such diet soda, low-fat salad dressings, weight-loss drinks and energy bars, thinking they’re the healthier choice. The truth is, these foods are usually loaded with added sugar or artificial sweeteners, colouring and preservatives.
For instance, some low-fat yoghurt can contain up to 22 grams (approximately six teaspoons) of sugar in just half a cup. That already hits your daily recommended limit of sugar.
To eat clean, choose whole foods such as unsweetened yogurt and natural peanut butter that contains no added sugar.