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what clean eating means for me

People talk to me a lot about wanting to eat clean, but not really knowing where to start. Or they equate clean eating with the kind of diet that food marketers would have you believe qualifies as healthy and then wonder why they don’t see any of the benefits that clean eating supposedly provides.

This is what I talk about when I talk about clean eating for me.

Lots of water

I’ve been using an app for awhile that keeps track of water consumption, and it’s really helped me with its reminders to hydrate during the day. Hydration has all sorts of benefits, but one of the big ones for me is helping to curb random attacks of the munchies, since often when you think you’re hungry, you’re really thirsty. So I’m less tempted to grab candy from the candy dish at work or eat a random donut in the break room. When I get restless, I drink some more water. It also helps with digestion, and when you’re someone like me with GI problems a plenty, the importance of this can’t be overstated.

It’s worth noting that when I say water, I mean water. I do drink some coffee every day, but don’t fill up your tank with a ton of what I call “fake” water – the kind with stevia or artificial sweetners in it. If you absolutely can’t drink water without it having a fruity taste, try La Croix, which doesn’t have artificial sweetners or sodium. I like La Croix when I feel like having something carbonated and fruity. We also use a Soda Stream to carbonate regular water, when you crave the burn of a soda.

Little to no extra sugar

Sugar really gives me heartburn, so when I stop getting heartburn from sugar, I know I’m eating too much. (Hello, December.) Now that I’m avoiding most sweets, when I do have something, I really feel it, especially when running. So for me, eating clean means staying away from refined sugar. I eat at least two portions of fruit every day, so I am okay with naturally occurring sugars, but I try to keep the other junk at a minimum. I don’t eschew white bread or pasta, which I know is supposed to be terrible for me, but I don’t eat enough of it for it to cause me grief.

Lots and lots of vegetables and fruit

Eating clean for me is impossible without eating tons of vegetables and fruit. There are no fruits that I won’t consume, and I love most vegetables with the exception of beets. I eat more of them in the summer when they are more readily available, but this is a key part of clean eating at any time – and probably the one that’s the most intuitive and easy to understand. Cook them, eat them raw, snack on them, do whatever you need to do to eat that produce.

Limited alcohol

I love craft beer and red wine, and there is no existence I can imagine in which I wouldn’t ever drink them. But when I’m eating clean, I limit the alcohol. Too many empty calories and it causes me to retain water. Plus, I don’t sleep well if I’ve had more than two drinks.

No processed foods

I am not fanatical about this, but I do feel really strongly that highly processed foods are not something that your body wants. I stay away from hyper processed foods all together, and will eat minimally processed things that I don’t have the time to make myself. For instance, I buy taco shells and tortillas at the store, rather than grind the corn myself at home, because ain’t nobody got time for that. I just try to stay away from processed foods with a lot of additives or unknown ingredients. My body has enough problems regulating its own chemicals that I don’t need to introduce unnecessary foreign ones into the mix.

One other part of this processed food thing is to not fall into the trap of products that are marketed to you as healthy. For instance, fat free Cheez-its are not healthy. All of those cereal bars with all the added fiber? You can get just as much fiber from an apple and a lot less sugar. Foods shouldn’t have to market their healthfulness to you – it should be pretty apparent by the nutrition label and your own common sense. I used to live a life where I ate Lean Cuisine entrees and 100 calorie snack packs all day. Sure, I lost weight pretty fast. But I was so unhealthy and I wasn’t giving my body or my taste buds what they needed. Don’t look at the terms that are called out on the boxes to give you the truth – the companies that make and market these products are not your friends, giving you loving guidance and support. They are businesses, looking for your money.

No fast food

I haven’t eaten traditional fast food in more than 3 years, and now it’s only when we’re traveling on the turnpike and I’m super cranky that I really want to eat fries at McDonald’s. Otherwise, it’s not even a temptation anymore. I’m not above eating at restaurants, though when I do, I try to eat at places where the food is made there fresh, instead of reheated from frozen (I’m looking at you, Applebees, blech). And I try to eat vegetarian unless the restaurant specifies where its meat came from – both because of my predilection to eat humanely raised meat and also because CAFO produced meat has hormones and antibiotics that I have no desire to consume, either. Plus, there are so many local restaurants doing it right in Pittsburgh that I’ve never had a problem finding some place to eat if need be.

Cook a lot

It’s not surprising that the bedrock of eating clean is cooking. (That is, unless you can eat at the Whole Foods salad bar every meal or fancy eating all of your food raw.) My diet is at its healthiest when I make a commitment to cooking most days of the week (when I say I, I really mean we, since Mark does at least 50% of the cooking if not more). We make foods that we actually like to eat, and temper recipes we know and love with new ones so we don’t get bored. And we really just love cooking. But you don’t have to love cooking to make simple, clean meals. It’s really okay if you look at cooking as a chore in the same way I look at cleaning the bathroom as one. But it’s still something that has to get done to live a healthy, productive adult life. So we do it.

Cut yourself a break

Perfection is the enemy of good. Don’t overhaul everything in your diet all at once, because you’ll not be likely to stick with it. Eliminate some stuff you know is a problem slowly, and add in the better options. No one ever died from eating an Oreo cookie once in awhile, and I do believe that you can eat some things that don’t qualify as clean and it doesn’t make you evil or weak. Just consider them actual treats – things that you don’t regularly consume. And you’ll likely find that some of them aren’t as appealing over time as they used to be.

Also along the lines of cutting yourself a break is not allowing yourself to fall into the trap of fad diets. You can find a million recipes, cookbooks and recommendations for different types of diets – grain free or dairy free or gluten free or fat free, Paleo or Atkins. If you have an allergy, sensitivity or special medical condition that requires a particular type of diet, do it. If you have moral reasons that lead you to a vegetarian or vegan diet, do it. But don’t take one person’s experience or one isolated study as proof of “health,” I am not an unhealthy individual because I choose to eat pasta (the grain! the gluten! the carbs! oh my!). Use your brain and listen to your body and you won’t go wrong.

  • Jenn @ Running on Lentils

    I eat almost exactly the same. I try to guide my diet by all the things I should be eating, and by the time I get through all the kale and broccoli and mushrooms and walnuts and flaxseed and whole grains and legumes (and on and on), there’s really not much room for much else! I am fortunate that I have always, since a child, been a huge water drinker and don’t like much else. I’m also just not a big drinker, so that’s an easy one for me too. I haven’t eaten at McDonald’s in 10 years ever since I read Fast Food Nation; I think I’ve only ever at BK once or twice in the past decade when traveling and that was the only option. Otherwise, fast food is pretty much my nemesis. Processed food is also an evil for me. When I first went vegan, I went through a phase where the only processed food I bought was soymilk and I made everything else from scratch. That was pretty much my life, and my husband would ask, “Why don’t you just buy ketchup???” I was spending so much time making everything from scratch that I just had to stop. Now, I buy very limited things–tortillas like you, pretzels, almond milk, condiments, and tofu mainly. My biggest challenge is sugar. I love to bake. But, I usually freeze most of what I bake and try to eat things sparingly. I am not gorging myself on sugar daily, but I do eat it. Recently I’ve been trying to eliminate it completely in the days before a race or long run, and I do think it makes a difference.

    • Joanna Taylor Stone

      You’re so right – if you try to make every single thing from scratch, you’ll go nuts. That’s why all women did many years ago was just make food all day. If I didn’t work full time and commute, I’d probably add a few more “from scratch” things in to my life, just because I really love cooking and making food. But I will still be a person with interests and hobbies that I need time to pursue as well. So because doing and having it all is impossible, I just go forward the best I can.