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An Introduction to Clean Eating—Is It For You?

By L.K. Regan

A new year means new trends, and this year's new food trend is clean eating. Clean eating doesn't just mean washing your lettuce before you make your salad. Rather, the idea is to eat maximally nutritious foods in their most natural, whole state. As more evidence comes out about the dangers of processed food, clean eating tries to side-step the problem by going natural. Is it for you? RealJock's favorite nutritionist, Manuel Villacorta of MV Nutrition, MS, RD, CSSD, one of the leading nutritionists in the San Francisco Bay Area, creator of the RealJock Healthy Weight-Loss Programs, and founder of the interactive weight-management web site Nutrition for You. Manuel lets us know what it would take to get clean.

The clean eating movement, Villacorta says, draws from increased concerns about the health effects of processed foods (what the heck makes Velveeta last so long, anyway?). But it isn't a diet. Clean eating is instead a lifestyle, the adherents of which are committed to pursuing healthful nutrition. In practice that means, Villacorta says, "You eat food that is as little processed as possible. So, foods that are in their whole form as much as possible, and also that are low in fat, salt and sugar." Increasingly, high-sugar and high-fat foods are believed to produce inflammation within the body—a state of systemic irritation that leads to chronic diseases. Clean eating is an anti-inflammatory diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, heart-healthy fats, lean meats, and plenty of fiber. To put it more succinctly, Villacorta says, "Ask yourself, 'What are the ingredients in an apple?'" Clean eating means a very short list of ingredients, and none of them is Red Dye #40.

In addition to the health benefits, clean eating can be good for both your wallet and the environment. "Processing in general is not good for the planet," Villacorta says. "Think about the packaging alone. If you cook your own meats and vegetables, you don't need to buy all of those boxed packages. Cooking for yourself really is for the good of the environment." Making the healthiest, least processed food choices is best accomplished by eating seasonal and locally grown foods as much as possible. And shopping at the farmer's market means you won't inadvertently make a giant carbon footprint by buying Argentine blueberries in February. If it's not at the farmer's market, it's not in season. Finally, since locally produced food is often less expensive, and since cooking at home means eating out less (more on that below), you are likely to save money while improving your well-being.

Going unprocessed can be great for your health, but it takes planning and careful shopping. And it really is a lifestyle change—you will need to be thoughtful about your food at all times. That puts a lot of restaurant food, even if it's not fast food, into the red zone. "When you're eating in a restaurant," Villacorta says, "you really don't know what they've put in the food. Often you won't be able to taste the addition of fat, in particular." Still, Villacorta is not anti-restaurant. "I love to go out to eat once or twice per week—but that's it," he says. "The rest of the time I shop at the farmer's market and cook at home." The problem with restaurants, he says, "is that many of us don't think twice about what we eat in restaurants, even if we are being very careful about our eating habits at home." And at home, cooking clean means not only buying fresh foods to cook (no getting lazy and hitting the frozen pizzas!), but, as Villacorta says, "no sneaking fat and salt into your home-cooked meals."

Here are a few tips for cleaning up your eating:

  1. Pitch it: Throw away any food item (as opposed to spice or condiment) in your cupboard that has been there longer than three months. Real food spoils faster than that (again, what is up with the yellow cheese that requires no refrigeration?).
  2. Seriously, pitch it: Definitely throw away anything you've had in fridge or cupboard for a year, for the same reasons only more so.
  3. Rule of four: Be wary of anything that has more than three or four ingredients that you didn't combine yourself. When you cook, you are effectively processing your food. Mixing, chopping, kneading, baking—these are all forms of processing. But, Villacorta says, "that kind of processing isn't the problem. It's the protein bars, for instance—those are altered proteins. Go for the real thing instead." Look at the ingredients list on everything you buy. More than four is too many.
  4. No white: When you do buy processed (cooked, packaged) food, eat the least refined version of it. For instance, Villacorta says, "It is just fine to have bread. But bread is a processed food, and you want to eat the least processed form of it. So, choose the breads with the grains in their most whole form." Try to avoid white—bread, rice, sugar. These are all the most refined forms of those staples.
  5. Act locally: Take the time to shop for local produce and to eat seasonally. This will help you to keep a healthy variety in your diet even as you maintain ecological balance.
  6. Be moderate: Remember, there's no need to be an extremist to make a difference in your life. You can eat out once or twice per week and still feel clean! But try to pick restaurants that are cooking fresh food from scratch, and try to order the most whole-grain/lean-meat/low-sugar options on the menu.
One last word: Villacorta reminds us, "This is really about a lifestyle change, not just a diet." Plan to make these into lifelong habits, and enjoy your food—it should taste fresh and delicious, in addition to being good for you.