Clean eating is guaranteed to be a buzzword that you hear a little too often at the start of a new year. What is it, and why is everyone doing it?
The New York Times first broke with the term “clean food” back in 1996, but in today’s social media-driven world, clean eating has quickly become a pop diet with a trending hashtag to prove it. Just click on #cleaneating on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, and you’ll see this much is true. You’ll also see that interpretations of the term vary widely — meaning, clean eating can mean almost anything you want it to mean, as long as you’re making a little effort to clean up your diet.
I can only tell you what clean eating means to me, since there is no universal definition for the diet trend. For me, working as an editor in the natural health industry, clean eating is a lifestyle — and not just a monthlong diet that works as a “reset” cleanse. (See Whole 30 for more on that.) My version of clean eating has become progressively more stringent as I eat fewer processed foods and observe how my body reacts to other food groups. Don’t get me wrong — I try to keep the whole thing quiet because I understand what it looks like: In the public eye, clean eating is about as down-to-earth as Gwyneth Paltrow. I also try to keep a little balance in my life by eating whatever I want on outings and special occasions, though I normally eat vegetables, grains, healthy fats and very little meat when I’m at home.
But that’s just me.
There are baseline rules for clean eating, as detailed by Clean Eating magazine, but the general gist is this: Don’t eat processed foods. Try to eat organic. Drink lots of water. Rinse and repeat. Again, clean eating can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be, but we have a few experts on hand to break it down for you even further. Here are some of the most common mistakes that could sabotage your cleanest of eating plans.
The definition of insanity may be doing the same thing and expecting different results, but the definition of clean eating is doing the same thing and waiting for it to pay off. That is to say, to see any results from cleaning up your diet, you have to stay consistent for the most part. Dr. Scott Schreiber, a chiropractic physician who is double board-certified in rehabilitation and clinical nutrition, says, “The most common mistake regarding clean eating is consistency. You cannot get any benefits by eating a clean breakfast and then go out for an ‘unclean’ lunch with your co-workers. Restaurant food is loaded with chemicals and products to increase the taste and preserve the food.”
Clean eating consistency is one thing, and clean eating obsession is quite another. Leah Lizarondo, food writer and nutrition counselor, says that being a diet fundamentalist can be kind of like being a religious fundamentalist. It’s possible to go too far, and it's easy to cross this line when you take one aspect of a diet and make it into what the entire diet is about. “For example, Paleo diets can be beneficial and healthy, but some people interpret it as all meat, all the time. This has dire consequences. A good Paleo diet is high in vegetables, nuts and seeds, with some animal protein — not the opposite.”
Just because you are eating oh so clean doesn’t mean that basic dieting rules no longer apply. Jenna Wolfe, lifestyle and fitness expert and author of the new book Thinner in 30, says that even while eating whole, fresh foods, most of us are still eating too fast. Instead, she recommends, “We don't give our appetite time to catch up to our brain. If we slowed down (by chewing food 20 times before swallowing), we'd save a ton of calories per meal.”
It’s another common clean eating pitfall to restrict yourself of all the unhealthy foods (and especially carbohydrates) all day long, only to lose your willpower and overdo it at night. “We eat the bulk of our bad carbs at night when we're tired and stressed and wiped out from dieting all day. If we eliminate simple carbs (white rice, pasta, bread, crackers, sugar) after 6 p.m. every night, we'd save so many calories every week,” says Wolfe.
For those who are new to the world of clean eating, eating more whole wheat (a favorite healthy food that was drilled into us in the ‘80s) just makes sense. But for registered dietitian Lisa Hugh, this may be the biggest clean eating mistake we are making. Hugh explains that most people understand whole grains are better than processed, white flour products, but many people still believe that whole wheat is “good for you.” Hugh emphasizes the distinction between the two — eating more whole wheat, often marketed as multigrain, stone ground or honey wheat, does not necessarily guarantee a healthier whole grain product.
Cleaning up your diet isn’t going to get you very far if you have blinders on. Latching onto one “clean” trend and ignoring all other healthy habits is another common mistake Lizarondo sees in her work as a nutrition counselor. For example, Lizarondo says, “There are many benefits to gluten-free, but a common mistake people make is thinking that gluten-free equals healthy. There are many, many gluten-free products out there that are not good for you! And along with gluten-free, one needs to make other 'healthy gut' practices, such as eating more fiber, eating foods high in probiotics and eating lots of vegetables."
Hugh adds that another popular clean eating trend is juicing and making smoothies, which can often backfire when too much juice, honey and other natural sweeteners are consumed each day. “They may be increasing their fruit and vegetable intake, but may also increase their calories much more than they realize,” says Hugh.
The only way to know what you’re putting in your body is to do your homework first, says Dr. Schreiber. In his opinion, failing to read product labels is one of the easiest — and most effective — clean eating mistakes to correct: “According to the USDA, a product that has ‘organic’ on the packaging only has to be 30 percent made from organic products. A product with the organic seal only needs to be 70 percent organic. Also, just because it says organic does not mean that it is healthy for you.” Dr. Schreiber advises, “Research the specific chemicals that are in your food. The Environmental Working Group has a list of potentially harmful chemicals; if they are in your food, then do not eat it.”
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