Fitness Magazine defines “clean eating” as “eating whole foods, ‘real’ foods – those that are un- or minimally processed, refined and handled, making them as close to their natural form as possible.”
Clean eaters advocate a diet filled with “real” foods, things that grow in the ground as opposed to things manufactured in a plant. They avoid foods with added salts, sugars, fats, and preservatives.
Technically, almost all food is “processed” in some way. Even simple things like mashing apples into sauce or steaming broccoli are forms of processing. “Pasteurized milk, kale smoothies, and instant oatmeal are all processed,” says Fitness Magazine, but “that doesn’t make them on par with doughnuts and Diet Coke.”
The key to clean eating is choosing foods that are either unprocessed or “minimally” processed. Unprocessed foods include fresh fruits and vegetables, dried beans, nuts and farm-fresh eggs. Minimally processed foods include things like unrefined grains (100% whole wheat breads and pastas, steel cut oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice), frozen fruits and vegetables, unprocessed meat, hormone-free dairy, and oils.
Consuming large amounts of highly processed foods can lead to many health problems. Highly processed foods are often deficient in nutrients but abundant in additives that can actually increase hunger and cravings, which leads to weight gain. Foods made with GMOs (genetically modified organisms) have been linked to cancer and infertility.
Moreover, ultra-processed foods are often marketed in a confusing way that makes them seem good for you, promising things like “less sodium,” “no trans fats” or “enriched with vitamins.” The American Heart Association urges people to be cautious of these “health claims” and “nutrient content claims,” which can often be misleading.
The health benefits of a clean diet, by contrast, are numerous and well-documented. According to Livestrong.com, clean eating can lead to weight loss and increased energy, help regulate blood sugar, lower risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and cancer, and support mental health. The American Heart Association calls a healthy diet and lifestyle “your best weapons in the fight against heart disease.”
Local mom Emily D’Elia experienced weight loss, increased energy, better sleep and mental clarity when she switched to clean eating. “I really felt like my body wants to eat that way all the time and that I had found the solution for a lot of my problems with low energy,” says D’Elia. “The energy and mental clarity were like night and day for me.”
Mint Hill Mom Lindsay Birmingham experienced immediate health benefits when she tried the popular clean eating plan Whole 30. “I felt great, had more energy and lost ten pounds in that one month,” says Birmingham.
Like any diet or lifestyle change, a switch to clean eating is not without challenges. One of main challenges in switching from a diet filled with highly processed foods to a whole foods approach is what Charlotte resident Regan White calls “the hard shift to divorcing from a sugar addiction.” Mint Hill Librarian Melanie Lewis, who is in the middle of Whole 30, says meal planning is “relatively easy and tasty” but admits, “I just really, really, really want a cookie at the end of every day!”
Clean eating also involves more planning and preparation than eating processed foods. “The things I wanted were more expensive, like brown rice pasta, for example, or all organic fruits,” says D’Elia. “I know long-term, it is more cost effective to eat that way, but when making decisions in the moment at the grocery store, it was hard to keep that focus.”
Eating out can also be difficult when attempting to follow a clean eating plan. “The real issue was going out to eat,” says local mom Lindsay Birmingham, who completed the Whole 30 plan. “Just imagine the looks you get if you tell a waitress you can’t eat food cooked in any oil, butter or wine! And if they do comply, it is completely bland and gross because the cook usually doesn’t add anything else to help [the flavor] that you are allowed to eat.”
In addition to eating “real food,” clean eating encourages a different attitude toward food and our environment. Most people who practice clean eating eat frequent, smaller meals, practice mindful eating, and prioritize enjoying meals with family. Moreover, they try to reduce their carbon footprint by buying local and seasonal produce and consuming humanely raised local meats and ocean friendly seafood.
Given all the information out there, clean eating can seem like a rather complicated concept. However, everyone can make simple changes like eating more fruits and veggies, shopping around the perimeter of the store and scanning labels for easy-to-avoid additives like artificial colors and flavors.
If you’re thinking of switching to clean eating, two great local resources are the Matthews Community Farmer’s Market and The Produce Box. The Matthews Farmer’s Market is the largest producers-only market in the greater Charlotte area, which means all foods and other products sold at the market with the exception of fish are grown or raised within 50 miles of the market. The Winter Market is open Saturdays from 8:00-10:00 am. If you can’t make it to The Farmer’s Market, The Produce Box delivers fresh and local boxes of produce directly to your door for as low as $24.00 a week. Learn more at www.theproducebox.com.