10 Easy Clean Eating Tips for a Healthier Lifestyle

You’ve probably heard the term “clean eating” before, but do you know what it really means? Admittedly, it’s kind of a trick question, because there’s not one hard-and-fast definition. But in general, eating clean is about feeding your body more whole foods while cutting back on processed and fast foods.

Clean eating isn’t a restrictive diet that you commit to for a set number of days—it’s a lifestyle habit. And it’s not really about losing or gaining weight—it’s just about eating healthier.

Clean eating is eating whole foods closest to their most natural form, free of additives, preservatives, anything artificial, and minimally processed if processed at all.

A diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables has been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and some cancers. Eating a variety of whole grains and legumes has been linked to lower risk of diabetes. And for anyone managing a chronic condition, eating well can improve symptoms and help prevent health complications. 

Ready to reap all the health benefits of a cleaner diet? Follow these basic rules to keep it simple, stress-free, and surprisingly affordable.

1. Go heavy on fruits and vegetables. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 89% of Americans don’t get enough fruit each day, and 90% aren’t eating enough vegetables. Putting more plants on your plate lowers your risk for chronic diseases like high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, obesity, cancer and heart disease, while adding fiber to keep you feeling fuller longer.

2. Choose whole grain over “enriched” or refined carbs. When it comes to grains, look for the words “whole grain” on the label, and check the ingredient list for the heartier varieties like sprouted grains and steel-cut oats. The more refined the grain, the less fiber and nutrition. Avoid “enriched” anything, which means the grain has been so refined that its natural nutrients have been completely stripped away, and must be “enriched” with additives.

3. Eat less meat and choose ethically-raised animal protein when you do. Research continues to indicate that cutting back on meat is better for you and better for the planet. This doesn’t mean becoming vegan or even a full vegetarian. Eating a predominantly plant-based diet has been shown to reduce blood pressure, risk of heart disease and obesity.

Eggs and dairy are good sources of alternative protein (just look for dairy products with no added sugar and a short ingredient list that you can pronounce). Nuts, seeds and beans are other great sources of protein. When you do eat meat, choose grass-fed and finished beef (meaning the cow was entirely pasture raised); free-range chicken fed a hormone-free, non-antibiotic diet; and wild-caught salmon. In other words, meat that is as close to the wild as possible.

4. Choose organic and non-GMO whenever possible. Look for “certified organic,” “Non-GMO” and Clean Label Project seals on product labels and produce. Not only do you want to eat whole foods with minimal processing, you also want to make sure those foods are free of unwanted contaminants like pesticides and industrial toxins. As a rough guide, if you eat the skin, make sure it’s organic. Otherwise, be sure to thoroughly wash conventional fruits and vegetables before slicing or eating.

5. Read ALL the labels.Read ALL the labels. You can make your own salad dressings and sauces, but you can also buy them and still eat “clean.” You just have to read the nutrition labels to verify you know what’s in each product. Look for products with simple, food-based ingredients that you can identify. Avoid added sugars and excess sodium, and watch for preservatives or additives that only exist to extend shelf-life.

6. Avoid excess sugar at all costs. This piggybacks off of label reading, but bears more discussion. Added sugar is extremely common in processed foods, and in places you might not expect. Examine a few jars of spaghetti sauce or salad dressing and you’ll find added sugar in a variety of forms both natural and artificial.

Look for terms like high-fructose corn syrup, fructose and sucralose, among others. Once you eliminate excess sugar from your daily diet, you’ll start to appreciate the natural taste of whole, natural foods more. And when you do need to sweeten something up, opt for small amounts of natural sugar like honey, maple syrup, agave or coconut sugar.

7. Buy local and in season. Buying local produce puts you closer to the source of your food and makes it easier for you to find out first-hand about the growing conditions. How close is the farm to an industrial plant? Do they practice solid organic farming or animal welfare? As a side benefit, it helps the environment and local economy as well. Paying attention to what’s in season ensures that you get fresh produce at peak times, and helps you vary your diet.

8. Cook your own food. This is the ONLY way to know exactly what you’re eating and where it came from. If you have a busy schedule, consider meal prepping. Sunday is a great day to meal plan, shop and prepare food for the week. Chopping and roasting veggies, cooking up batches of rice and slow-cooking meats can all be done in advance. You can even portion out lunches and dinners for your busiest days, so that you can grab, go and know that you have a healthy alternative to fast food.

9. Drink more water. Make water your go-to beverage and plan to drink more than you think you need. As a general rule, by the time you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. The standard recommendation is eight 8-ounce glasses per day, though some health advocates suggest more. Drinking more water helps your body flush out toxins, and, when reliably sourced, is the cleanest beverage you can drink. Unsweetened tea and coffee are good occasional alternatives, as long as caffeine sensitivity isn’t an issue. Fruit juices and sodas are full of sugars and artificial sweeteners, and be wary of flavored waters with “natural flavors” that go unidentified on the ingredients list.

10. Limit alcohol consumption. There have been multitudes of studies on how alcohol affects overall health, from proponents of the benefits of antioxidants in red wine to cautioners about the negative effects on the heart and liver. But the bottom line is that too much alcohol results in inflammation in the body and contributes to a number of health issues, particularly liver disease, digestive disorders and excess belly fat. Occasional alcohol isn’t going to completely derail clean eating efforts, but you’ll look and feel better by limiting or avoiding it altogether.