The Beginner’s Guide to Clean Eating
Read Time: 6 minutes 30 seconds
Clean eating is popular and trending, and it could have staying power. Health experts and nutritionists approve of the basic tenets of clean eating: eat less processed, refined foods and more whole foods.
It’s a simple concept that can get surprisingly complicated. The ISSA doesn’t necessarily recommend a particular diet, but instead aims to make sure you’re up to date on fitness and nutrition trends to stay relevant with clients. If you have clients asking about diets and clean eating, here’s what you need to know.
What Is Clean Eating?
Some people would call this a diet, but for true followers, clean eating is more accurately a lifestyle. In its most basic form, clean eating is a diet, a way of eating that includes consuming mostly whole, unprocessed foods.
As a lifestyle, it encompasses food choices as well as an emphasis on wellness, physical and mental health, and being active. Rather than making it a restrictive way to eat for weight loss, proponents of clean eating see it as a lifestyle full of healthy choices.
These are the fundamentals of the clean eating foods, philosophy, and lifestyle:
- Eat “real” foods. This means avoiding refined, processed food and sticking with whole foods, like produce, whole grain options, beans, nuts, seeds, and meat and fish. Whole foods do not have added sugar, salt, preservatives, or flavorings.
- Eat more plant-based foods. Clean eating doesn’t require that you cut out meat, but it recognizes that eating less meat can be beneficial for health.
- Food is for nourishment. Meals and snacks should be thoughtful, planned, and not rushed.
- Make lifestyle choices for all-around well-being: exercise regularly, get enough sleep, take care of physical health, and manage stress and mental health.
Sugar is one of the worst and most pervasive additives in food. Help your clients learn more about how and why to cut down on added sugar.
Beginner Tips for Clean Eating
For a beginner to clean eating, some of the so-called rules can seem overwhelming. The above fundamentals are a great place to start. Avoid putting pressure on yourself to eat perfectly clean. A healthy lifestyle is all about balance. You will be in great shape if you practice clean eating most of the time.
Focus on What You Can Eat.
Too many people face diets and even healthy eating plans as restrictive. Yes, a clean eating guide will have you avoiding certain foods, but focusing on that sacrifice can cause you to backslide on healthy eating. Instead, focus on how much you can eat. There is a whole world of whole foods out there, waiting for you to try. Find and share new recipes to get excited about all the opportunities.
Eat Whole Fruits and Vegetables.
One easy but important change you can make right away is to replace some of your snacks, processed foods, and starchy, fatty side dishes with fruits and vegetables. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only one in ten American adults eat enough fruits and vegetables (1). Aim for whole produce, frozen or fresh.
1. Choose Unprocessed, Lean Protein and Healthy Fat.
The majority of your proteins should be lean, like chicken breast, fish, and lean beef. Include plant-based protein, like combinations of whole grains with beans and legumes for a complete protein profile. Fats are allowed in clean eating, but focus on high-quality, healthy fats like olive oil and avocados. Organic food like dairy and eggs are also acceptable.
2. Include Whole Grains, Nuts, Seeds, and Beans.
This category rounds out the foods that are acceptable for clean eating. If you’re new to this it can seem restrictive but be adventurous and choose new foods you haven’t tried. Grains go well beyond rice, for instance. Try farro, polenta, or barley.
3. Drink Water.
Drinks are among the worst offenders in the American diet when it comes to added sugar and empty calories. Even 100 percent juice drinks do not offer much nutrition. A simple rule is to mostly drink water and to avoid all drinks with added sugar.
4. Learn to Cook.
Clean eating doesn’t have to be complicated. The simple rule of eliminating processed, refined foods and replacing them with whole foods is a simple concept. By going out to eat, though, the situation gets complicated, murky, and difficult. Make most of your meals at home to simplify the process and save money.
Sometimes you have no choice but to eat out, even if you would rather cook at home. Here’s a simple guide to making better choices at restaurants.
5. Create Weekly Meal Plans.
A major roadblock people encounter when faced with nothing but produce and other whole foods in their kitchens is what to do with them. Research clean food recipes and plan your meals and snacks for a week in advance. This will make grocery shopping easier. It will also make mealtimes faster and more efficient because you won’t have to think about what to make.
6. Choose Packaged Food Wisely.
Eating only whole, unpackaged foods can be difficult. An easier way to approach clean eating is not to go all-or-nothing, but to make healthier choices. When looking at processed or packaged foods, read the labels and choose the cleanest option. For example:
- Canned fruit in juice or water is better than canned fruit in syrup.
- Organic, uncured deli meats are better than cured meats loaded with preservatives.
- Plain, unflavored beans beat baked beans.
- Plain yogurt beats sweetened yogurts.
Learn to read labels and pick packaged foods that have fewer ingredients. Peanut butter, for example, is processed, but it’s still nutritious. Just pick the one with two ingredients: peanuts and vegetable oil. Avoid those with added sugar, salt, artificial sweeteners, and preservatives.
The Budget Guide to Clean Eating
Price can be a real barrier to clean eating. Go into any high-end, health food store, and you’ll find everything you could ever dream of, and spend nearly twice what you would in a typical grocery store.
Clean eating doesn’t have to cost a lot, though. Avoid fancy, packaged “clean foods” and focus on whole foods.
- Buy frozen produce. Wasting fresh produce is easy to do, and it’s a big expense. Stock up on frozen fruits and vegetables. Just avoid any with added sauces or seasonings.
- Buy fresh produce in season. You’ll know when something is out of season. It will be more expensive, and the quality may be lower. Buy produce when it’s in season for the best deal.
- Choose low-cost proteins. High-quality meat can get pricey. Bulk up on dried or canned beans, frozen edamame, and some nuts and seeds for your protein. Rinse canned beans to remove any additives.
- Shop with a plan. Not only does a meal plan simplify mealtime, but it also helps you budget and avoid overspending at the grocery store.
- Travel with snacks. We all make bad choices when hungry. Always throw a healthy, low-cost snack in your bag or car when going out of the house. A small bag of almonds or an apple will save you money compared to a store-bought snack.
Pitfalls of the Clean Eating Lifestyle
Clean eating can be a healthy change for many people, bringing benefits like weight loss or maintenance, overall better health, and athletic improvements. However, be cautious when teaching clients about this diet. There are some potential downsides.
A Guide to Clean Eating Presents Some Barriers
Not everyone has the luxury of being able to afford or even find a so-called perfectly “clean” diet. People living in food deserts, often urban areas, may not even have a local grocery store with fresh, healthy food. Access to high-quality, unprocessed, clean foods is not the same for everyone. There are barriers to following a clean eating plan, unfortunately, and it can be exclusionary.
Not All Processed Foods Are Bad
Processed foods can be just as nutritious and healthful as whole foods, depending on what you choose. For instance, a frozen vegetable is just as good for you as the same fresh vegetable. It may be easier to find; you can get it out of season and cheaper; and it will last longer in your kitchen.
Eating Clean Sets Unreasonable Expectations
You are what you eat, as they say. So, does that mean if you don’t eat all clean foods, that you’re dirty or bad? This is an unfair comparison, but when people around you are eating clean all the time and you can’t, it may lead to bad feelings.
Another expectation is weight loss. It is certainly possible to lose weight on a clean eating diet, but that is not the primary goal. To lose weight requires making careful considerations about what, and also how much, you eat.
Clean Eating Can Harm Your Mental Health
A balanced, healthy approach to eliminating more processed foods and including more whole foods is a great idea for overall health. However, an obsession with eating clean foods only can lead to an eating disorder.
Known as orthorexia, this condition is described as an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. Symptoms include compulsive label checking, excessive worry about ingredients, an extremely limited diet, and spending a lot of time thinking about eating and food (2). Among other signs, these can cause distress, physical health problems, anxiety, and other issues.
There are a lot of good reasons to choose a clean eating diet, but balance is important. Help your clients understand what this food trend is, how to make better food choices, and how to maintain that healthy balance.
Clean eating can be a healthy way to eat. Help your clients make better decisions about food. Check out the ISSA’s Nutritionist program to learn everything you need to know to coach clients on food, diet, and health.
ISSA's Nutritionist course is the most comprehensive approach to unlocking the secrets behind why clients eat the way they do, and the systematic approach to drive lifestyle change. You can be the ultimate authority others turn to as the one-stop-shop for fitness and nutrition needs.