How to Start Clean Eating in 7 Easy Steps

Eat more of the good. Eat less of the bad.

That’s the whole idea behind clean eating. It’s all about, well, cleaning up your diet so that there’s a greater focus on whole foods (think fruits, vegetables, protein and healthy fats), and less reliance on processed or refined foods.

The benefits of adopting a clean diet are pretty clear (reduced incidence of disease, increased quality of life, and a longer life expectancy, just to name a few). But ditching the donuts, pizza and mocha lattes can be a lot tougher than it sounds. (Seriously, if you need proof, check out this obesity map.)

The good news is there’s no need to wing it. Here’s your seven-step plan to help get your eating on track.

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7 Steps to Start Clean Eating Without a Hitch

“The best motivation to inspire change comes from within.”

1. Pinpoint your reason ‘why.’

Building any new healthy habit will require some effort, and eating clean is no exception. That’s why it’s so important first to determine what’s inspiring you to change. Maybe you signed up for a race or have a reunion coming up and want to look your best. Maybe you’ve been feeling sluggish and want to increase your energy throughout the day. Perhaps you’re thinking about your long-term health and what you can do to stay healthy in the future. These are examples of intrinsically motivated, positive reasons to aim for cleaner eating. And that’s a good thing.

Research has shown that the best motivation to inspire change comes from within, and is rooted in positive thinking. Cleaning up your diet because someone told you to do it, or because you feel guilty about your current eating habits just isn’t as powerful.

2. Determine how much time you’re willing to commit.

It has often been said that new habits can be formed in just 21 days, but research has exposed some flaws in this thinking. Making meaningful life changes can often take several months or more. “People need to be aware that any goal worth achieving is going to take time. There is no fast-track to developing life-changing habits,” says Cassandra Smith, clinical counselor of health behavior change.

After establishing your ‘why,’ it’s time to sit down and think about how much you’re willing to devote to the process — from meal planning and grocery shopping, to food preparation and cooking. Making a relatively minor diet tweak, like changing your usual snack from a bag of chips to a piece of fruit each day, might be a habit achievable in the short-term. But shifting towards a truly clean diet is a much longer-term objective for most. Have an hour to steal from your Sunday TV line-up? That could mean prepping healthy lunches for the entire week (try these brilliant meal prep ideas to get started). Have 30 minutes a day? How about kicking your greasy takeout habit for good with these 30-minute dinners?

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3. Do a thorough audit of your current diet.

Despite the ever-growing obesity epidemic, 90 percent of American adults report themselves as having a healthy diet. But how healthy is it really? Keep a food journal, and there’s no escaping the truth, says Erin Turner, certified wellness coach. “So often we think that we are on track, but when we actually see on paper what we are consuming, it is easier to tell where we might need to cut back,” she says.

Start a food journal (or download one of these fancy apps), and begin tracking everything you eat and drink for at least three days. This will help you gauge your starting point and allow you to identify any patterns emerging. Next, simply make two lists:

  1. The not-so-healthy foods you want to reduce or remove from your diet. Note: If this list gets long, pick three to five obvious choices that you would like to deal with first (e.g. soda, fast food, sugary snacks, etc.).
  2. The nutritious foods that are missing from your current line-up. A clean diet focuses on eating high-nutrient foods, not simply cutting out the junk. How many veggies are there? If you’re coming up short, come up with three to five you like most and add those to your weekly grocery list.

4. Choose your targets wisely.

The Pareto Principle states that 20 percent of your efforts are going to lead to 80 percent of your results. This is true in many areas of life, including clean eating. After listing the less-healthy foods you want to reduce or eliminate from your diet as well as the super-healthy foods you want to incorporate, the next step is to make some strategic choices. Setting a few small goals that you can consistently act on is a much more effective approach than trying to take on everything at once. And they can add up fast.

Case in point: Leo Babauta, the best-selling author of The Power of Less, who in less than a year quit smoking, lost 40 pounds, began running marathons, became a vegetarian, and accomplished a host of business- and personal-related goals. In his book, Babauta shares his secret: “Select one habit…only one habit per month. You can choose any habit — whatever you think will have the biggest impact on your life.” What small clean eating habit are you going to target first? And which changes will likely to offer you the best chance of success? At the start of a new month, simply add on from there.

5. Make your goals specific and measurable.

Let’s say you want to begin the process of clean eating by tackling your evening cookie obsession (this is your “20 percent” from Pareto’s Principle). But how exactly do you go about defining this goal? Maybe you’ll make a statement based on moderation: “I’m going to stop eating so many cookies.” But what does that mean exactly? Is one cookie per day allowed? Does the type of cookie matter?

Be specific and make your intentions measurable: “I will put all the cookies in the freezer and will only take one out per day.” Or better yet, “I will stop eating preservative-laden prepackaged treats and allow myself one of these healthier homemade protein bites after dinner.” There is no ambiguity in this statement. You have a clear path that will lead you to control your sweet tooth.

The same goes for adding healthy foods to your diet. Saying “I will make a green smoothie each day for breakfast” is a specific action that will ensure your breakfast includes spinach, kale, or whatever green you choose.

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6. Shop with a purpose.  

Just like eating itself, grocery shopping is based on habits. You likely follow a certain route when you hit the store, so be prepared to forge a new course (hello, produce aisle!). Bring a detailed grocery list, and stick to it. (Pro tip: Avoid those chips and soda aisles altogether.)

Sure, some research shows that clean eating will put a bigger dent in your bank account than a diet filled with cheap convenience foods, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Some clean eaters practice a Meatless Monday to reduce their grocery bills by up to $1,500 per year. Looking for in-season produce, and buying in bulk are two other ways to keep your food costs down. (For more clean-eating-on-the-cheap tips, head here.)

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7. Meal prep now, eat healthy when it counts.   

Last but not least, it’s time to turn those healthy ingredients into clean, wholesome meals you’ll love. Start by searching out simple recipes that you can whip up quickly. You can find inspiration on healthy food blogs around the web, or grab an app to do the recipe searching for you.

Sure, meal prep is likely going to take a little more work than slapping together some PB&J’s, but you don’t have to do it all by hand either. There are all kinds of kitchen gadgets that can help get the job done with less effort. And be sure to prep in extra large batches so that you have plenty of leftovers to store or freeze for easy clean eating all week long.

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When it comes to clean eating or any other health-related goal, achieving a sense of mastery is vital. When you experience success, you are likely to want (and get) more. Set a time each week or every few weeks to evaluate your progress. Is your current clean eating goal still an effort to achieve each day? If so, that’s OK — keep working on it until it becomes manageable, effortless, or even automatic.

When the effort is gone you’re ready to take on a new challenge, something that will move you closer towards a truly clean diet. What is the next “20%” that you want to work on? Again, the clean eating process takes time. But imagine how you will feel when you can look back, just as Leo Babauta did, and see all the positive changes you’ve successfully made.