“Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” writer and activist Michael Pollan has famously advised. This guideline is the basic premise for clean eating, one of the most talked about diets right now. But the diet, which is all about choosing foods raised, grown and sold with minimal processing, is less about dieting, and more about going back to the basics, in an effort to stave off disease and promote a healthy weight. Here are four ways you can make your great-great-grandma proud.
1. Choose whole foods.
Sayonara, Slim Jims. The most important principle of clean eating is to eat foods in their most natural state, says Michelle Dudash, R.D., author of Clean Eating for Busy Families. That means opting for sprouted wheat over white bread, oranges over orange juice (fresh-squeezed is OK). And meat that lists “mechanically separated chicken” on its shrink-wrapped label? That’s unsurprisingly out, too.
The hunt for whole foods has a proven upside, though. Research shows diets high in fiber from foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains can reduce inflammation linked to a slew of chronic diseases, like heart disease and diabetes, all while helping regulate your weight.
2. Keep it local.
Processed food in the U.S. often travels more than 1,300 miles to reach consumers, and produce can sometime travel up to 1,500 miles, or more. This means your food could be on a truck for up to two weeks before it reaches your plate. Buying local produce not only reduces your carbon footprint, it helps ensure you’re getting the most nutritional bang for your buck. All that extra time food spends on a truck can cause nutrients, like vitamin C, to oxidize and diminish.
One study found that after four weeks, the level of vitamin C in orange juice went from 27 to 65 mg/c (milligrams per cup) down to just 0 to 25 mg/c, and researchers believe the same applies for whole fruits and vegetables. Plus, buying locally grown produce ensures you’re getting foods that are in season, which tend to taste fresher, says Dudash. Even better: “When your food tastes better naturally, you don’t have to manipulate it with all that salt, sugar and fat,” she says.
3. Read labels.
Let’s face it, when you’re busier than ever, the vending machine is sometimes the only option to keep your stomach from grumbling over your boss’ voice. But when it comes to convenience foods, always read nutrition labels to ensure what you’re buying is made with natural ingredients, not chemicals, says Dudash. Zero in on (and do your best to avoid!) packaged foods that contain added sugars, artificial food coloring, preservatives and chemicals. And don’t overlook artificial sweeteners. New research suggests they can disrupt your metabolism. The artificial stuff might also affect your body’s ability to process real sugars, which could set your weight loss goals off track.
4. Conquer the kitchen.
Think eating clean is too costly or labor-intensive? If you have your kitchen properly stocked with ingredients, you can whip up a healthy meal in the time it would take to order takeout, says Dudash. You’ll probably save money, too. Not to mention, you’re more likely to be eating over-processed, higher-calorie foods if you eat out.
While preparing your own clean meals might take some getting used to, all you need is a little knowledge up front about nutrition and finding the right foods, says Dudash. Not a fan of kale? Don’t force it. “There are so many healthy foods out there; you’ll find plenty that you like,” she says.
Looking for some clean ways to get creative in the kitchen? Head to our recipes section for some healthy, easy takes on your favorite foods.