Clean eating — filling your diet with nutritious and unprocessed foods instead of calorie-, sugar- and fat-laden processed ones — has a powerful effect on your health. Diet is so important to your wellbeing that some doctors are even prescribing vegetables to their patients, no joke!
Go online, though, and you're likely to find tons of conflicting advice on what's healthy and what's not. The truth is that clean eating doesn't have to be complicated, and it definitely doesn't mean deprivation. Just follow these 10 simple rules and you're covered!
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1. Eat the Rainbow
Veggies form the foundation of a clean diet, and you’ll want to include them at virtually every meal. Make veggie selection a snap by choosing produce of all different hues: green, red, yellow, white and purple/blue. This ensures you’re not only eating several types of veggies every day, which is essential for avoiding diet boredom, but you’re also getting a range of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients to nourish your body.
2. Pick Plant-Based Proteins
Eating clean doesn’t have to mean going vegan, but you should consider swapping out meat for plant-based protein at least a few times a week. Protein-rich beans, lentils, soy and nuts all supply fiber and other essential nutrients like folate, which supports healthy blood flow. And eating soy protein in place of meat can lower your cholesterol, too, a study found.
Use chickpeas — an excellent source of protein — to add texture to salads, or to make your own hummus. Include quinoa in your diet as a cleaner alternative to pasta in in soups, or as the basis for healthy vegan dishes, like this delicious daal.
3. Allow Some Convenience
Obviously, eating clean means nixing processed foods, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take some shortcuts to make your diet easier. Pick up pre-cut veggies and fruits at the grocery store — or even pre-made zucchini noodles or riced cauliflower — which offer convenience without sacrificing nutritional value. Doing so will ensure you always have cut veggies on hand (perfect for no-effort snacking!) and will shave a few minutes off your meal preparation, so you can stick to your diet.
4. Choose Low-Energy Density Foods
Clean eating focuses on foods with a low-energy density — those are foods that have relatively large portion sizes with few calories (like leafy greens, which have less than 10 calories per cup). Low energy density foods fill up your plate — and your tummy — so you feel satisfied and full without having to take in tons of calories. That makes it easier to stick to your diet and lose weight and, because low energy density foods tend to pack in lots of nutrients, you’ll also feel energized.
At 0 calories, water is the ultimate low energy density drink. Make sure you’re sipping all day to stay hydrated. Drink a half-ounce for each pound of body weight, plus 12 oz. for every 30 minutes you work out. And pair smaller portions of your favorite foods with delicious salads to lower the energy density of your meals.
5. Fill Up on Fiber
Whole grains, veggies, fruits and legumes are all staples in a clean diet, and all packed with fiber. Fiber promotes healthy digestion. Fiber keeps your food from breaking too quickly and instead slows things down, so you can avoid nasty post-meal blood sugar spikes that would otherwise make you feel hungry and drained. At the same time, fiber adds bulk to your food, lowering its energy density so you can eat bigger portions without taking in too many calories.
Bulk up your meals with a handful of extra veggies, snack on fiber-packed raspberries and eat whole grains, like quinoa.
6. Go Nuts
The ultimate superfood, nuts pack in healthy fiber and plant-based protein, along with fat and minerals. The fat in nuts is the unsaturated kind that actually boosts heart health, and also helps you absorb other nutrients, including vitamins, from your food. And nuts also supply magnesium — a mineral needed for muscle function — plus iron for healthy circulation.
Snack on a handful of nuts or a spoonful of nut butter to stay full between meals. Or use almonds to make your own almond milk — it’s a cleaner alternative to dairy milk.
7. Dark Chocolate and Wine? Totally Fine.
Clean eating doesn’t mean foregoing your favorite foods, it just means choosing treats that offer nutritional benefits, too. Dark chocolate and wine — especially red or rose — offer tons of antioxidants that offer heart-healthy and neuroprotective benefits. Dark chocolate also contains copper — a mineral that promotes glowing skin — plus manganese for healthy joints.
Keep your diet clean by picking the right portion. For chocolate, that means enjoying one ounce; for wine, it’s 5 ounces a day, max. Looking for inspiration? Try these healthy chocolate-banana bites!
8. Avoid Artificial Sweeteners
We probably don’t have to tell you to skip sugar drinks, like cola. But the artificial sweeteners found in diet drinks aren’t great for you, either. Even though diet drinks don’t have sugar or calories, they’re still incredibly sweet, which keeps your taste buds “trained” to crave processed-tasting fare. If you’re downing diet drinks, you won’t develop the same appreciation for subtle flavors of veggies, lean proteins and whole grains, which may mean you’re more likely to feel deprived when you’re eating clean.
Crave a sweet drink? Blend up a homemade smoothie, instead.
9. Search out Sneaky Sugars, Too
We hate to be the bearers of bad news, but even “healthy” sugars aren’t so great for you. While ingredients like brown rice syrup and agave sound healthier than plain ol’ sugar, they’re still a concentrated source of calories -- and they’ll keep you craving sweets.
Try to minimize your intake of these sweeteners to retrain your taste buds. If you really need to use sweetener, try stevia: It’s very concentrated, so you won’t need to use much, and it’s naturally free of calories.
10. Remember “Clean” Doesn’t Mean “Perfect”
Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t worry. While it’s easy to get caught up in the “rules” of clean eating, living healthy means nourishing your body to live the happiest, healthiest life you can, and sometimes that means letting loose!
Don’t let your clean eating plan get in the way of the occasional night out, family BBQ or holiday get-together — just enjoy your meal then get back to your typical diet the next day. A meal or two every now and then won't hurt you; no harm done!
You can also indulge healthfully by making healthier versions of traditional treats, like these healthy brownies.