Your best friend is a fan and your mother-in-law can't stop raving about it, but what does it actually mean to "eat clean”? Does it have to require embracing all things green and swearing off all those beloved foods that fall in the “dirty” category?
Liza Baker with Simply: Health Coaching says “clean” is a relative term that means different things to different people. “To me, it means cooking whole, close-to-the-source ingredients for starters, [while] weaning [myself] off fast food, casual dining foods, convenience foods [and] processed foods such as packaged, canned and bottled foods,” she says.
The good news: Clean eating doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition, nor does it have to mean kale at every meal. According to Baker, the key is to start where you are and take the tiniest step toward smarter food choices. Then, make one more small change, then another, layering these changes as you go.
By making these small mindset and meal shifts while still allowing yourself the occasional indulgence, you'll find yourself slowly building sustainable habits that will help you to lose weight and live well. After all, no one can live on kale and kale alone!
- Ditch the diet foods. Low-fat foods are often heavy on added sugars, and low-calorie, sugar-free foods are typically loaded with artificial sweeteners. Plus, most diet foods are packed with preservatives. It’s better to eat a half-portion of a full-fat, full-sugar version of the dessert you crave instead of the full portion of the fat-free, sugar-free version that you won’t really enjoy anyway, suggests Ken Immer, founder of Culinary Health Solutions.
- Do a coffee check. Coffee is a staple of many of our daily lives, but when it’s loaded with sugar, cream or artificial sweeteners, it becomes a less-than-healthy beverage. Cut back on the “junk java” and replace at least some of your cuppas with herbal tea or naturally sweetened water.
- Get a clean eating buddy. A lifestyle change is always easier (and more fun) with a partner in health. Find a friend, family member or co-worker who is similarly motivated to get clean and find strength in numbers. The two of you can share clean recipes, stay accountable with daily check-ins and maybe even have joint meal-prep sessions.
- Spice it up. As you cut back on added sugars, infuse natural flavor into your foods by sprinkling in some of your favorite spices. Sage, cinnamon, turmeric, garlic, ginger and other spices aren’t just a treat for the taste buds--they also deliver some powerful health benefits.
- Swap refined grains for either whole grains or vegetables. Many people are exceeding the recommended limits for refined grain intake, but not meeting the recommendations for whole grains or vegetables, points out registered dietitian Summer Yule, M.S. She recommends swapping out white bread, noodles and rice for their whole-grain counterparts. You might also consider switching to veggie substitutes for refined grains. Spiralized zucchini and spaghetti squash could be used to replace noodles, and white rice can be swapped for riced cauliflower, Yule suggests.
- Switch to foods with fewer ingredients. For example, Baker suggests switching from bread that has 20-plus+ ingredients to one that has just four: flour, water, yeast and salt. And instead of conventional peanut butter, switch to a brand that has just two ingredients: peanuts and salt. “See if you can make a game of it each time you go shopping,” she recommends. “What will you swap out this week?”
- Use a can of beans each week. In addition to serving as a rich source of protein, they also provide fiber, iron and other essential vitamins. Add them to chili, soups, salads and smoothies, or make a bean dip, registered dietitian Judy Barbe with LiveBest recommends.
- Stock up on canned and frozen vegetables. Most Americans don't meet the recommended amount of vegetables, notes Toby Amidor, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., an award-winning nutrition expert and Wall Street Journal best-selling author of "The Best Rotisserie Chicken Cookbook". For many, having to purchase fresh produce throughout the week or dealing with spoiled foods is enough of a deterrent to keep them from even trying to get their greens. “Look for canned vegetables with no added salt, and look for frozen vegetables that only contain vegetables and no added sauces,” she suggests.
- Switch from sweetened to unsweetened dairy products and plant-based milk alternatives. “Many people are surprised at how low the recommended limit is for intake of added sugars [(six teaspoons for women and nine teaspoons for men)],” Yule says. Store-bought fruit yogurts almost always contain added sugar, so try purchasing plain yogurt and adding your own fresh or frozen fruit. You can also add your own flavoring to almond and cashew milk by using protein powders.
- Remove pastries and donuts from the breakfast rotation, and replace them with more filling options containing protein, fiber and antioxidants, suggests registered dietitian Heidi Moretti, M.S.
- Pass on the sweet drinks and teach your body to crave water instead. Ease the transition by sweetening it naturally by adding fresh fruit to your water bottle. Homemade tea, sparkling water, smoothies made with low-fat milk and blended fruit, or naturally sweetened herbal tea are also healthy options.
- Schedule “Meatless Mondays.” You don’t have to go fully vegetarian or vegan to enjoy some of the many health benefits. Commit to eliminating meat just one day per week to focus on consuming more plant-based foods.
- Make roasted veggies a staple. Barbe suggests roasting them in a hot (425°F) oven or grill. Toss lightly with oil, salt and lemon juice before cooking, and, boom--you've got a delicious side dish or salad topper!
- Take a macro “roll call.” You don’t have to count macros, but make sure each time you eat, all three (proteins, fats and carbohydrates) are represented as a substantial part of the total, says Immer. “Throw fiber in for a bonus. If all four are present [on your plate], you’re sure to have a much more nutritious meal,” he explains.