Even if you’re brand new to fitness and working out, you’ve probably seen or heard someone talking about eating clean, and secretly (or not so secretly) wondered what the heck they were talking about. Clean eating? Isn’t that just when you wash your fruit and veggies really well before you use them? That’s pretty clean.
Matters aren’t helped when you see those motivational posts: eat clean, train mean, get lean; abs are made in the kitchen; you can’t out-exercise a bad diet… Everybody’s telling you to eat clean, but what exactly do they mean? We’re going to break down the fundamentals of clean eating, so that you can start putting the clean eating principles into play, and if you stick with it, seeing the incredible difference eating clean can make to your body composition.
What is Clean Eating?
Part of the problem with getting to the bottom of what clean eating is, is that everyone seems to have a different definition of what actually constitutes ‘clean’. You’ve got your bodybuilder definition, your paleo definition, your vegan definition, your celebrity doctor definition and on and on and on. Not only that, but those definitions can vary wildly from individual to individual.
What follows is our definition of clean eating, we don’t claim that it’s the ‘right’ definition; these are simply the personal guidelines we use to stay lean, strong and healthy. As always, clear it with your doctor before you make any changes to your diet.
So, with that in mind, let’s go over some things clean eating isn’t: it’s not a diet, it’s not calorie-restriction, it’s not about meal frequency, it’s not about depriving yourself of things you love and it isn’t about perfection.
Not a diet.
It really isn’t. A diet is something you do for a month or two so that you can lose a few pounds and then return to your normal eating habits (and gain all the weight back, hence the term: ‘yo-yo dieting’). That’s short-term thinking, and clean eating isn’t a short-term fix – it’s more of a lifestyle change. If you want to be successful with eating clean, you’ve got to view it as redefining the relationship you have to food, and rather than trying to change everything all at once, taking it slower, and focusing on continuing to improve your eating habits over time.
Eating clean doesn’t mean not eating. You eat as much food as you need (i.e fulfill your metabolic requirements) to be healthy and have the energy to fuel your workouts and any other activities.
Not about meal frequency.
Meal frequency and clean eating are two separate things. In fact, how often you eat is probably being given way more significance than it deserves. We’ve already pointed to studies which show that meal frequency has little effect on fat loss [1, 2], and little effect on insulin levels  (although it does affect glucose levels). To cut a long story short: it’s ultimately down to personal preference – some people want to eat 5 – 6 smaller meals a day, while others prefer the standard 3 meals, but there’s absolutely no requirement for a specific meal frequency. Heck, if you wanted to have just 1 big meal a day, that’d probably work too!
People often equate clean eating with sacrifice, but it’s actually about finding healthy alternatives to unhealthy food. So if you love cupcakes, you don’t need to give ‘em up, the challenge is to find a healthier cupcake (or healthy alternative). Sure it takes more work, but the results are certainly worth it. Also remember that as you clean up your eating habits, your tastes change and you get to the point where you actually crave healthy food. Sounds crazy, but it’s true.
Clean eating is about eating healthy most of the time. It isn’t about 100% strict adherence to mythical clean eating ideals – if you really want the double chocolate fudge cupcake, then go for it – it doesn’t mean you’ve fallen off the ‘clean-eating wagon’. There’s this strange phenomenon, especially in the bodybuilding world, where people get obsessed with eating clean (orthorexia nervosa), which isn’t exactly a healthy way to live life, nor is it necessary. The key to clean eating is aiming to eat healthy most of the time, and still being flexible about it.
Clean Eating Guidelines
So, if all that isn’t clean eating… what exactly is? Glad you asked. To show you what clean eating means to us, it’s actually easier to start with the things you need to avoid or cut down on.
Avoid these most of the time…
Like we said earlier, clean eating isn’t about perfection – any way of eating which requires perfection is going to be hard to sustain in the long run; eating is also a social affair, so it’s nice to be able to join in with friends and family. That said, to eat clean, you want to avoid the following most (e.g. 80% – 90%) of the time:
Avoid processed food.
Convenient, but you pay for that convenience because processed foods are usually high in chemical additives, trans fats, salts and refined sugars.
Avoid most refined foods.
This means refined flour, sugars (high-fructose, white, brown, and the rest), trans-fats etc. If you’re interested in cutting down body fat, of special importance is to cut out refined sugars, which due to their affect on insulin levels and hormone sensitive lipase, aids in fat loss.
Avoid artificial ingredients and preservatives.
As the saying goes: if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it. If it’s made in a lab, don’t eat it. This includes artificial sweeteners!
Avoid soda and fruit juice.
Don’t drink your calories: soda is loaded with sugar, diet soda is loaded with artificial sweeteners and fruit juice is also often loaded with refined sugar and of course, natural sugars.
If you just stick to the above guidelines most of the time, you’ll be well on your way to a clean eating lifestyle. As said before, it’s not about perfection, but the more you can cut out the above factors, the healthier you’ll be.
The problem you encounter with clean eating is when you try to create a one-size-fits-all definition. The truth of it is that everyone has a different gentic makeup and nutritional science is ongoing with new discoveries being made all the time. Is it any wonder why almost no one, including most of the experts, can agree as to what constitutes the ideal diet?
That said, these are the clean eating do’s we stick to:
Do this most of the time…
Account for individuality.
First and foremost, whatever eating habits you choose to make, you need to make it about you. In other words, you need to tailor your diet to: 1) your own food sensitivities and intolerances (if any) and 2) your personal preferences.
For example: if you are gluten and lactose intolerant, then clean eating, for you would mean, that you would have to avoid wheat and dairy products. However, someone else may be sensitive to nightshades, so their version of clean eating would mean they need to avoid tomatoes, eggplants (but could eat all the cheese they wanted).
Eat according to your goals.
Eating to lose weight, maintain your weight, or gain weight (in the form of lean muscle, hopefully!) have different calorie requirements. Even though, for example, weight loss probably isn’t as simple as the often used calories consumed/calories burnt model(e.g. some researchers point to other factors such as the significant effect of hormones on fat loss), your caloric intake it can still be a useful guideline to follow.
Eat plenty vegetables.
Veggies, veggies, veggies! Get as many veggies as you can: cruciferous, dark leafy greens, even potatoes. The idea is to make sure you have a variety of veggies on your plate (as many colors of the rainbow as you can get) and to vary the veggies you eat as often as possible.
Eat fruits in moderation.
Fruits are a sweet treat and a nutritious alternative to candies and other refined sugars, but it is possible to eat too many. Part of the issue with eating too much fruit is that it can lead to problems with the hormones which regular blood sugar (and we’ve already talked about how some research is pointing to how hormones contribute to fat loss, or lack thereof). Also, modern day fruits are generally much larger and higher in sugar than they would have been naturally (hybridization).
Eat high-quality meats.
(Optional) If you’re a vegetarian or vegan you have plant-based alternatives. For the meat eaters, aim to get your meat from grass-fed animals if possible, it is more expensive, but it’s also healthier – failing that, try to get organic or free-range. One budget-friendly option is to have fewer, but higher quality meat-eating days. For lower quality meats, you probably want to get leaner cuts, as chemicals can accumulate in the fatty tissues.
Eat healthy fats.
Healthy fats don’t make you fat, they’re good for you! Yes, even some healthy (i.e. from a high-quality source) saturated fats. You can get healthy fats from, for example, fish (e.g. anchovies and sardines), nuts and seeds (e.g. walnuts, almonds, chia seeds), avocados, eggs, oils (olive oil, coconut oil), dairy products and grass-fed beef.
Use high-quality supplement(s).
(Optional) In an ideal world you would get all your nutrients from the food you eat; however, this isn’t an ideal world and there are some good reasons to add supplements to your diet. Plus, you can’t beat supplements for convenience – just remember that they’re only there to supplement your diet, not make the bulk of it.
Drink mostly water and enough of it.
Pure, unadulterated water is the best way to stay hydrated, chuck the soda, chuck the fruit juice and stick to water most of the time, herbal teas and moderate use of coffee (remembering that caffeine has a 6 hour half-life in the body, so it’s best to drink it earlier in the morning). How much water should you drink? It differs depending on a number of factors, but rule of thumb: at least eight 8-ounce glasses a day. You may also want to invest in a water filtration unit if you’re drinking tap water.
Hey, what about carbs?! What about macronutrient ratios?!
Just when we thought we’re going to get away with it… Well, you can get plenty of fibrous carbs from your veggies (and you can eat a lot of these), but what about your refined and complex carbs? First, as mentioned earlier you want to moderate the amount of refined carbs you eat, and as far as your complex carbs, that’s largely personal preference, but avoiding refined carbs is probably a good place to start.
What about macronutrient ratios? These will probably vary according to your genetic makeup, your body type, your activities etc. etc. The bottom line, as far as we are aware, is that there is no magical macronutrient ratio for fat loss or gaining muscle. You want to make sure you’re including all your macronutrients in your diet – just some food for thought: there are populations which survive (and thrive) with a zero-to-low carb intake (e.g. the Inuit, Maasai, Rendille, Tokelau).
Essentially what this means is that you need to find out what works for you personally, and as always check with your doctor before you make any diet changes.
Do you eat clean? What does clean eating mean to you?