Your guide to feeding your body the nutrients it needs to feel your best—no deprivation necessary.
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. “Enjoying an ice cream cone or a slice of birthday cake doesn’t make you a bad person or ‘unclean,’” says Tina Gowin Carlucci, R.D.N., a Virginia-based dietitian and wellness consultant. “But focusing on the basics—vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, and plant-based fats—gives your body the nutrients that it needs and helps you feel your best.”
Science agrees. 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.
Rule #1: Eat Naked
You’ll have an easier time finding clean foods if you think outside of the box—literally. Look for fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and fish you can get from the butcher or seafood counter, and grains and nuts you can buy in bulk. Limit your intake of processed foods—frozen meals, snack bars, meat substitutes—when you’re eating clean.
Rule #2: If You Can’t Pronounce It, Don’t Eat It (with a Few Exceptions)
Before you buy any packaged foods, look at the ingredient list. If you see words you can’t pronounce or that sound like they belong in a chemistry lab, it’s a pretty glaring sign that the food doesn’t qualify as clean.
Red flags include “partially hydrogenated” or “hydrogenated” (code for trans fats), “high fructose corn syrup” (an added sugar), and colors and numbers (for example, red 3 is basically artificial dye).
But like most rules, this one has a few exceptions. It’s likely that you’ll see an unfamiliar ingredient that sounds dangerous but is actually healthy, Gowin Carlucci says. Her top three examples:
- Cyanocabalamin: This is the chemical name for vitamin B12. “Since this vitamin is mostly found in animal products, vegan items are sometimes fortified with it,” Gowin Carlucci says.
- Lactobacillus acidophilus: “This is a type of good bacteria that helps promote a healthy gut,” Gowin Carlucci says. “It’s one of the many probiotics that are often added to yogurt.”
- Xanthan gum: Used in many gluten-free products, this has binding properties similar to wheat gluten.
Rule #3: Choose Carbs with Some Color
In other words, limit the white stuff: white bread, white rice, and white pasta. The cleanest carbs are whole grains that have been touched the least by processing and thus retain more nutrients. Opt for whole grains that look most like their just-harvested state: oats, brown rice, quinoa.
But don’t be fooled by “whole grain” marketing claims on the front of a package. To make sure you’re actually getting whole grains, look at the ingredient list. Whole grains should always be the first ingredient, the list should be short and recognizable, and it should have minimal or no added sugar.
Rule #4: Cut Back on Added Sugars
Foods in their most natural state do not contain added sugar—that’s why it’s called “added sugar.” Fruit can still be your friend, but in the case of sweeteners that have been mixed into foods and beverages during the manufacturing process, it’s best to just say no or look for healthier alternatives. Common culprits include: packaged sweets, sweetened drinks, sauces, and even yogurt.
This can be a tough rule to master for some people—probably the toughest—but the good news is once you cut back on sugar, your taste buds will adjust. Try these ideas:
- Enjoy dessert on occasions, not your average day. When sugar cravings hit, tame them with naturally sweet choices like dates and fresh fruit.
- Make a flavorful, refreshing beverage by adding cucumber, lemon, or mint to plain water.
- Look for foods with no sugar added, or whip up your own sauces and dressings at home.
- Go half-packaged and half-DIY. For example, fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt can be high in sugar. Make your own with plain yogurt and fruit.
Rule #5: Know What to Buy Organic
Some non-organic foods, which are grown conventionally, are laden with pesticides and hormones that can harm your health. But not all non-organic foods are dangerous. For example, strawberries essentially have no protective layer and a high pest rate—so they tend to be coated in pesticides. Buying organic strawberries may be safer. Avocados, on the other hand, are protected by a thick skin. Non-organic or conventional avocados are generally safe.
Rule #6: Approach Caffeine with Caution
Nothing beats plain water when it comes to staying healthy and hydrated, but you don’t have to eliminate all other drinks from your diet. Coffee and tea in particular are natural foods packed with plenty of antioxidants. Flavored coffee drinks and bottled iced tea? Not so much. They tend to be full of sugar and other unnecessary ingredients.
Brew your own coffee or tea, and add a hint of honey or another natural sweetener to taste. To avoid the jitters, stick to 300 milligrams of caffeine or less per day—that’s about two cups of coffee.
Rule #7: Stock Up on Clean Pantry Staples
We’ve all been told that the easiest way to eat clean is to shop the perimeter of your grocery store, and that’s largely true. After all, most of the fresh produce and other whole foods are kept along the outer walls. But the inner aisles are where you’ll find some key pantry items, including:
- Canned beans with no salt added
- Whole grains like oats, brown rice, and quinoa
- Healthy fats like canola and olive oils
- Nuts and seeds
- Seasonings like spices and vinegars
The freezer section is also your friend when eating clean. Frozen fruits and vegetables (plain, without sauce) can be convenient when you don’t have time to cook or if you have challenges preparing food. Plus, frozen produce is frozen at the peak of freshness, so it may even have more nutrients than fresh produce that’s been shipped from afar before arriving at your local grocery store, says Jessica Jones, R.D., a dietitian and co-creator of Food Heaven Made Easy.
Rule #8: Eat at Home
No list of clean eating rules is complete without this tried-and-true tip. Cooking at home means you control what goes into your food—and what doesn’t. Restaurants tend to use way too much salt and sugar to season their dishes, but there are many healthy ways to add flavor. “Fresh garlic, onions, peppers, herbs, and extra virgin olive oil bring full flavors to dishes and help us get over our desire for salt,” says Timothy Scallon, R.D., a dietitian in Nacogdoches, Texas.
For more ways to add serious flavor to your meals without adding salt, check out this simple spice guide.