See what it really means to eat clean before tidying up your diet with our one-week healthy eating challenge

By Julie Stewart
June 12, 2015
Levi Brown

You might think you follow a clean diet, but do you really? The term "clean eating" has been used to describe everything from highly restrictive diets to simple efforts to eat more unprocessed foods, says Ayla Withee, a registered dietitian based in Boston and author of the blog Eat Simply.

So what's the real definition? "To 'eat clean' means to eat a diet that is rich in whole foods and food products that are minimally processed and do not contain artificial ingredients," she says. Another way to think about it: "The foundation of clean eating is choosing foods closest to their natural state," says Michelle Dudash, R.D.N., chef, nutritionist, and expert on eating clean. That means having fresh fruit instead of applesauce or juice and whole grains rather than white bread, for instance.

There are lots of reasons to embrace clean eating, but perhaps the most important one is nutrition. "Whole foods are naturally nutrient-dense, so you'll consume more vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and other important compounds that are functionally important for every cell in your body," says Withee. You'll also feel more energized, reduce your risk of diseases, improve your fertility, and even improve the health of your hair, skin, and nails, since you're filling the nutritional gaps in your diet, Dudash says. Whole foods also tend to contain more fiber, which is important for satiety and weight control. Many people who switch to a clean diet quickly notice improved digestion and lower cholesterol as a result of higher fiber intake, says Withee.

Then, there's the matter of what you don't eat when you eat clean. When you eat whole foods, your body doesn't need to process the preservatives, additives, or other potentially harmful chemicals present in so many packaged products. "This means less work for your liver and other detoxification systems," says Withee. "This alone can help reduce 'brain fog' and increase mental focus." Some clean eaters also notice a decrease in bloating because their sodium intake drops. Plus, a growing body of research suggests that some additives in our food supply have carcinogenic effects and even mess with hormones that regulate weight, appetite, mood, and fertility. "We know there are some negative effects, but the jury is still out," says Dudash. "I think down the road we'll find more benefits in eliminating those foods from our diets."

It's helpful to think about processed food as a continuum, says Dudash. "Any food is on a continuum of some sort of processing, short of maybe something you pick up at the farmers market or grow in your backyard," she says. Take wheat, for example: "On the left you have a whole wheat berry, and on the right you have processed white bread," she says. "There are a lot of foods that fall on that continuum." The closer to the wheat berry, the better.

The best part? Clean eating isn't as hard as you think. For one, you don't need to eliminate entire food groups. And it's anything but boring: no juice cleanse or mono-food diet here. Just real, good food.

Start with a commitment to eat clean for just one week. (We've laid out all the specifics for you in our 7-Day Clean Eating Challenge.) You'll likely see a noticeable decrease in inflammation and bloating from the reduced sodium and increased fiber alone, says Withee. Start by piling half your plate with fruits and vegetables, says Dudash. Then, follow these rules to tidy up your diet:

Buy ethically raised meats. Many animals raised for meat are pumped with antibiotics and hormones and fed diets that don't optimize their health, says Withee. Skip the conventional products and opt for meats with the USDA Organic label. "Meat from grass-fed or pastured animals that are raised locally is generally the cleanest option," says Withee. It's often healthiest too-studies suggest that grass-fed beef contains more omega-3 fatty acids and micronutrients than conventional beef, for instance. Look for meat shares in your community where you can ask how the animals were raised and fed (check or for options in your area).

Be seafood smart. Since there's no organic fish yet, shopping for seafood can be a bit trickier, says Dudash. She recommends wild Alaskan salmon instead of farm-raised salmon because of its lower content of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), contaminants linked to harmful health effects. However, some farmed fish, such as tilapia, are fine. Check for more information on the sustainability and safety of your favorite fish.

Cook ancient grains. Bread, pasta, cookies, crackers, and other refined grains can spell trouble for a clean eater. "Refined grains lose much of their nutrients, naturals oils, enzymes, fiber and flavor during the refining process," says Withee. Look for ancient varieties of grains like spelt, farro, amaranth, and buckwheat, which are nutrient-dense and tend to be easy to digest, recommends Withee. Quinoa, brown rice, and sorghum are also good choices, and it's smart to eat a variety of whole grains to maximize their unique nutrient profiles. Cook them from scratch either on the stovetop, slow cooker, rice cooker or pressure cooker. "Whole grains freeze beautifully, so you can make a big batch and have whole grains ready for side dishes, salads, soups, and breakfast porridges," says Withee. If you can't part with bread, choose something with sprouted grains, such as Food For Life's Ezekiel bread (find a store that carries it). Rye and whole wheat will do in a pinch.

Avoid colorful mixed drinks. The point of eating clean is to minimize toxins in your diet, so it would be counterproductive to drink alcohol in excess. However, a nightly glass of wine is fine. Choose organic or biodynamic to reduce the chances that extra chemicals are in the bottle, says Withee. An occasional cocktail is fine too, but mix smart. "I cringe when I see grenadine or maraschino cherries being mixed into drinks because they're full of dyes and preservatives," Withee adds. Choose smart mixers like seltzer water with a lemon or lime twist, she suggests. If you're making your own cocktails, mix a homemade margarita with fresh lime juice.

Approach caffeine with caution. Coffee and tea are natural foods packed with plenty of antioxidants. Energy drinks and bottled iced tea? Not so much. They tend to be full of sugar and other unnecessary ingredients, says Dudash. 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-the equivalent of two cups of coffee, says Dudash.

DIY milk. Since cow's milk causes bloating, stick to the cleanest non-dairy milk for the week if you can: homemade cashew milk (it lacks the additives of other alterna-milks). Soak cashews in water for at least four hours, and then blend one part cashews with four parts water, says Withee. Add a small amount of honey, cinnamon, or pure vanilla extract to taste. If you need a simpler milk solution, Withee suggests unsweetened, organic dairy products because, as with meat, healthier animals produce healthier food. Yogurt is okay, but stick with plain yogurt (including unsweetened Greek) and kefir because they're easy to digest and won't cause you to bloat. Feel free to add fruit or a small amount of natural sweetener such as local honey or real maple syrup. You can also have cheese and butter from grass-fed cows.

Pop the right proteins. Whey protein is a proven muscle builder, but do you know what else is lurking in that canister of powder? "It is really difficult to find a truly clean protein powder," says Withee, because these products are highly processed. "Your best strategy is to make a protein-rich smoothie with less processed foods such as Greek yogurt, kefir, chia seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, some nut butter, fruit, and vegetables," she says. If you can't part with the convenience of packaged shakes, read the ingredient lists carefully and look for terms you recognize, says Dudash. Consider grass-fed milk protein or pea protein instead of isolated soy protein, which is exposed to lots of chemicals and solvents during processing, she suggests. (We like the vegan and raw powder from Sunwarrior, $30 for 1 lb;