What the Heck IS ‘Clean Eating’, Anyway?!?

Clean Eating

When I first started running and losing weight again nearly two and a half years ago I used my old tried-and-true methods of heavy restriction, fat-free foods, and heavy intake of fruits and vegetables. But as I started rapidly ramping mileage, it became clear I needed more fuel – and the problem peaked when I really bonked hard in the second half of my first half-marathon.

But I really had no idea what I was doing … but I knew that I needed to focus on increasing my intake at breakfast and lunch, as well as healthy snacking throughout the day. Here was my approach:
– Focus on getting loads of fruit at breakfast, but also plenty of protein through nut butters.
– Eat a lunch heavy on fruits and vegetables, again ensuring plenty of protein.
– Have fruit and nuts at my desk for snacks – pistachios have been my choice 90% of the time.
– Try new things I was reading about like Quinoa, Flax, and so on.
– No ‘protein bars’, processed foods, pre-made drinks, etc.

My diet when running has always veered towards heavily fruit & veggie based, but for whatever reason this time as I ramped my weekly mileage from 15 or so to the 40+ it has been for more than 2 years, I have had no desire for processed foods, breakfast cereals, packaged snacks, or whatever else. Sourdough pretzels were about the only pre-made snack I had any desire to eat.

What I didn’t realize for more than a year after I started was that I was embodying the hot new trend called ‘clean eating’.

I had never heard the term until after I started my blog last fall and came upon it checking out someone else’s posts, and came to realize that it wasn’t just about washing your foods and making sure your hands were clean before coming to the table.

So what IS ‘clean eating’ and why should we as runners care?

Here is a description from Eating Well Magazine:

Eating clean is a good way to refresh your eating habits: it’s about eating more of the best and healthiest options in each of the food groups—and eating less of the not-so-healthy ones. That means embracing foods like vegetables, fruits and whole grains, plus healthy proteins and fats. It also means cutting back on refined grains, added sugars, salt and unhealthy fats. And since you don’t have to count calories or give up whole food groups, it’s easy to follow.

So basically, it is the same thing that was called ‘eating healthy’ in the 70s back before the food industry perverted that with all of the artificial sweetener and HFCS-laden ‘fat free’ food.

Looking at the list behind the Eating Well article, as well as similar ones at CNN, Cooking Light, Prevention, I saw a pretty common set of thoughts:

1. Eat Whole, Natural Foods and Limit or Eliminate Processed Foods

The general rule is that if you cannot see the main ingredients when looking at the product, it is not a ‘clean’ or ‘natural’ food source. Generally if it is made in a factory it is suspect (even ‘natural’ products), and definitely products that should be refridgerated but don’t require it are highly processed. There are many guidelines people use such as ‘no more than 6 ingredients’, or ‘if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it’, or if the chemical diagram looks like an elaborate cave drawing … maybe you should just pass.

While there are a number of other things on the list, for me everything keys off of this one: because reshaping a fully loaded diet without all of that boxed and packaged crap will pretty much require you to carve your path through ‘clean eating’ territory.

2. Increase Your Intake of Vegetables

While I don’t necessary believe in the ‘limitless fruits and veggies are OK’ – mostly due to my own history with eating and limits – I do think that when you fill your diet with the amazing variety of fresh (and frozen) veggies available at pretty much every modern grocery store, you will have delicious meals that are great for you.

When I was a kid, parties at relatives had celery loaded with cream cheese, and more recently they have been used as carriers for creamy salad dressings often loaded with both saturated fats AND HFCS. Skip all of that and either eat them raw or with some hummus (about the easiest thing in the world to make with a food processor).

3. Cut Down (but do NOT eliminate) Saturated Fats

But load up on healthy fats. Saturated fats are often found in processed foods, but are also found in butter, cheese and not-lean meats. Healthy fats come from minimally-processed plant oils, nuts and nut butters, avocados, and so on.

So how do you cut down on saturated fats? First off, choose leaner cuts of meats, avoid processed meats (like deli meat, reducing this will also help with salt and help you limit processed ingredients), use the grill or broiler, and so on.

BUT … there is new evidence that blaming saturated fats is all wrong, that eating it in moderation can help ward off strokes and diabetes. I look at it this way – keep the intake of fats under control, and focus more on getting fats from things like nuts and avocados that deliver multiple benefits rather than just through oils or butter/ghee.

4. Reduce Alcohol Intake / Don’t Drink Your Calories
This is a two-fold recommendation. We all know that sugary drinks – soda, energy drinks, sports drinks, etc – are a bad idea because they dump loads of sugar and calories into your system. The goal is to get most hydration through water, or perhaps unsweetened tea. Don’t use those ‘chemical soup’ drops – get a fruit infuser and make your own delicious fruit flavored water.

Alcohol is beneficial in moderation – 1-2 drinks per day at most – but too much dehydrates you and adds loads of calories. Fruity mixed drinks in particular cross lots of boundaries on this list. I’ll stick with my glass of red wine and be happy! 🙂

5. Avoid Added Sugars

If you have ever eaten a full meal with someone who has just come from China or some other Asian countries for the first time, aside from ‘portion shock’, you will hear that the desserts are unedibly sweet … but it is what we have been brought up with for the last half-century. Cake frosting, donuts loaded with sugar, ice creams, and so on … we love our sweet-treats! Cutting down on these – particularly anything you don’t make yourself – is a step in the right direction.

But it goes beyond that – I know many folks love their Starbucks … and not just a cup of black coffee or tea like I tend to get! Over vacation my younger son made several Starbucks trips and got huge frozen Mocha Frappuccino drinks with tons of sugar and whipped cream. One of those has 500 calories, and 26% of your daily fat and 29% of carbohydrate recommended values.

6. Control Your Salt Intake, and Use Other Natural Seasonings

Salt in excess can mess with your blood pressure, and added salt is something I gave up 30 years ago completely. My Dad had a heart attack (yeah, unrelated I know) and there were blood pressure issues in my family, so BAM, gone.

If you have eliminated most processed and refined foods, you will suddenly have much less added salt in your system. And when you are cooking, a little salt added along with a combination of fresh (at this time of year) or dried herbs will do much more for flavor than bland foods with salt and pepper dumped on them!

7. Choose Whole Grains

Whole grains include more nutrients than refined grains because the bran and germ are not removed. My rule is generally the ‘can I see it’ mantra, but that isn’t absolute. I have been leery of ‘whole grain’ claim on bulk cereals, store breads, and so on – because for a long time the FDA rules have been lax on companies refining and reconstituting the grains in a certain way to pass the definition of

Refined foods in general lose many of the nutrients we need and should care about getting. Rather than worrying about whether it is ‘whole grain’, seek out things like whole steel-cut oats, brown rice, flax, chia, and quinoa. Aside from being absolutely delicious (ok, my family would debate me on quinoa falling into that category!), they are healthy and whole sources and full of nutrients.

8. Eat Less Meat

I used to buy a 1.5lb steak for Lisa and I to split before we had kids – I would eat about a pound, whe would eat 8oz. Basically the two of us were eating *8* servings of meat! So my comment here isn’t to remove meat from your diet, but to normalize portions. This helps limit saturated fats as well. In our house with two large teenage boys it is hard to balance, but we work to keep portions under control … also use non-meat protein sources.

Things like beans and legumes are a great way to increase protein intake using sources without so much ‘baggage’ – with meats we need to worry about feed sources, GMO of feed, grazing and humane treatment, and so on.

9. Increase Fruit Intake

Similar to veggies, eating whole, natural fruits in season are just amazing in terms of the flavor, nutrients, fiber and juiciness delivered in a portable package!

The two ‘watch-outs’ are juices and dried fruits. Buying bottled juice is a problem because you lose all of the fiber and it changes the glycemic index – I wrote about this last fall, saying “Juicing not only destroys a number of fruits’ beneficial compounds and antioxidants, it removes nearly all of the natural fiber. Suddenly you have all of the sugar and none of the fiber … which takes fruit from ‘super food’ to ‘danger food’!”

As for dried fruit, things like banana chips are fried (and loaded with fat) and pineapple chunks are havens for added sugars; for better options stick with dried apples, plums (prunes, which I actually love), sundried tomatoes, and raisins.

10. Eat More, Smaller Meals and Healthy Snacks

This is another one of those items that has been proclaimed as the ‘next big thing’ in weight loss, then debunked, and now rises again as a way to maintain a ‘clean eating’ lifestyle.

The thought is this – by not overstuffing, you reduce the risk of skipping meals; and by not allowing too much time to pass you reduce the risk of overeating at your next meal.

Also, by eating a more moderate amount more often, you are keeping your blood sugar levels steady so energy doesn’t fall off during the day.

11. Balance Macronutrients at Each Meal

If you have a bowl of cereal with strawberries and some coffee for breakfast and feel full … don’t be surprised if you are hungry by 10AM. Why? You are lacking in protein. Most people eating the ‘standard American diet’ do this, and especially for athletes it is a very bad idea. That is because protein is an important muscle builder … and also why in spite of not being a fan of supplements I definitely understand people supplementing with a protein shake during the day!

Lisa has always been excellent at this – she hates being hangry by 10AM so builds breakfasts loaded with protein; in fact, she has always been great at developing balanced meals – and I have learned so much through the years!

12. Include Physical Activity in Your ‘Diet’

This one I thought was odd, but it shows up enough in these lists that it is worth noting. My context is this – you have taken steps to get your diet right, and for a reason: you want to feel better and be more healthy. Getting physical activity helps to burn more energy, reduce fact, build and strengthen muscles, help keep your heart and lungs healthy and even aids your bones and joints!

Bottom line – eating ‘clean’ is an investment in yourself … seal the deal by keeping active!

Other Resources

There are more great articles (pro AND con) here, here, here and here. I also found a great set of articles compiled at Gracious Pantry, and while I don’t necessarily agree with everything in all of the linked articles … it is a great resource that is loaded with info.

There is even a Clean Eating Magazine!

Why Does This Matter for Runners?

The mantra ‘food is fuel’ is just SO important if you want to get and stay healthy and get the most out of your running (or any activity, really). Knowing what is ‘in your fuel’, to continue the analogy, is critical. And once you get this mindset, clamping down on your choices is a natural (if not always easy) progression.

Looking at the history of the term, it comes from the 90s when there was a backlash against all of the added crap, and makers of more processed foods sought to ‘clean up’ their ingredient lists. THAT in turn came from the 60s and 70s when there was a backlash against the ‘convenience food’ industry pushing processed meals as ‘the future’. Over time, it migrated to people talking about their eating habits; we seek to ‘clean up’ what we are stuffing into our faces.

So … Why Bring This Up?

As I mentioned yesterday, I am at least 200 blog posts behind in my email, and I have no clue now many more between Twitter, BlogLovin’ and WordPress. But in a couple of posts and comments on different blogs I saw the words ‘clean eating’ tossed about like a meaningless buzzword, and also used like a hammer to beat down people and declare something as ‘truth’.

As I said before, ‘clean eating’ is not new, but rather stems from the general movement towards healthier eating habits. There is no absolute right or wrong way to do this, no ‘clean eating’ police … it is just something many of us try to do for our health and fitness benefit.

What Do You Think About the Term ‘Clean Eating’ and What Sorts of Habits do YOU Follow?

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33 thoughts on “What the Heck IS ‘Clean Eating’, Anyway?!?

  1. You know, I stopped trying to label how I eat – but I agree with you that this “clean eating” thing isn’t a trend or something new (or even a diet)! To me, it’s just making rationale choice about what we put in our bodies.

    That being said, I’m pretty sure my diet doesn’t qualify as “clean eating.” I eat what I can afford and usually, probably less than I should. It’s a process I’m working on, and I’m determined to eat according to what makes me physically and mentally feel good. No labels, even the non-label “healthy eating.”

    • I think that you were smart to kill the labels – because regardless of what our brain tells us, attaching labels CAN add meaning to things.

      And I agree that it is more important to deal with the ‘eating enough’ than the ‘meeting a checklist’ approach. That was huge for me – feeling well fueled for a run is a HUGE thing. And well, you kinda have to prep for a 68-day push, right?!?

  2. I typically follow what is described as “clean” eating but I will also indulge in a delicious piece of dark chocolate/PB cake when the occasion arises too. Everything in moderation is my theory. Since I almost never eat meat, my diet is very high in fruit and veggies so that part is very easy for me.

    I generally can balance my meals (I zone my food a lot) but the protein piece is what I struggle with most, so I do supplement with protein shakes to get the recommended amount to sustain my body and workouts. I am also a big fan of nuts, mostly almonds just because they are so easy to find.

    I am FAR from perfect and there are days that just fly out the window because of work meetings, holidays, etc, but overall, I think I do fairly well.

    • The sentence, “Since I almost never eat meat, my diet is very high in fruit and veggies so that part is very easy for me.” makes me very jealous. I never eat meat, but left to my own devices, I’d probably be more carbetarian than vegetarian. I like veggies and fruits a lot, but oh, I love the carbs. Perhaps my favorite lunch of all time is a huge baked potato (toppings optional). Oh the carby deliciousness. I consciously work on adding fruits and veggies to my diet and I also continuously work on increasing the variety of the fruits and veggies. I also try to focus on protein and since nuts and meat/fish are out, protein powder is one of my main sources (my running buddies aren’t big fans of “bean-heavy” protein days).

      • I actually don’t LOVE carbs (with the caveat of fresh bread). I do eat some carbs, like quinoa and brown rice here and there and since we have a toddler, we do have some whole wheat pasta thrown in the mix for dinners since he is going through a ridiculous phase of finickiness right now…but I could live without most of it. However, give me a steaming loaf of homemade bread and I’m done for! HA! I think I have always naturally gravitated towards fruits and veggies. One thing that helps a lot with fruits and veggies is buying what is in season, it usually tastes better and is cheaper. Also, if I have it readily available, I make better decisions!!

    • I think “Everything in moderation” is a great mantra .. .I used to say ‘find excess within moderation’. 🙂

      And it is great that you can keep things balanced – and really important to recognize that protein is lacking, since it is hard to get enough for many people. And with the busy life we all lead, ‘doing fairly well’ is pretty freaking good in my book! haha

  3. I think we are so focused on HOW we eat “clean eating”, “dieting”, “vegan”, “gluten free”, “paleo diet” that we forget to eat what’s just good for us and what makes us feel good. My husband is a vegan but I don’t want to be a vegan 100% of the time. I try to focus on eating good healthy foods 80% of the time and about 20% of the time not so good foods. I know what I feel like when I eat poorly so I try not to do that.

    • Exactly Piper! 🙂 Suz talked about the 80/20 rule today as well and it is a perfect analogy I think. And what you say about knowing the feeling of not eating well – so true, I am more sensitive than ever to that!

  4. I think clean eating is just making more reasonable food choices and eating less junk. I eat cleanish. I have incorporated more whole foods into my meals and try to eliminate the processed stuff. I have a toddler and a husband who doesn’t care, so there are definitely days I struggle and hot dogs it is! I’ve become a more conscious eater as my health has become more important to me. So while I’m not clean every meal every day, I am aware of what I’m putting in my mouth.

    • haha – it is definitely harder when you feel like you’re alone. When my wife did Weight Watchers about 10 years ago we ALL went along for the ride, and still use many of the things we learned. Everyone eats what I cook (mostly, except quinoa), and with my wife needing Paleo-ish diet for her system … we are very conscious. But sometimes, yeah …

  5. “Clean” definitely seems to be different for everyone, but hopefully now people know that eating food from packages isn’t necessary or particularly healthy. But the specifics of what is “clean” are still up for debate if you look around the internet.

    • Thanks Michele, and I agree – but sadly the sales figures show that people still gobble up ‘packaged health foods’ and fat free crap and artificial sweeteners hand over fist … fortunately the trend towards eating real food is growing, as is the information that it doesn’t HAVE to be expensive (except for people like you who pay the ‘Whole Paycheck’ premium 🙂 ).

  6. As always, spot on. Clean Eating has become, in my mind, what (excuse me for saying this) eating disorders have become. A convenient label to describe something that fits whatever people want it to in order to fit their mind set. I say this to you because I think that you will know what I mean–I think that clean eating (like ED’s) have become a scapegoat for some and a marketing ploy for others. I will say that Eating Clean/Clean Eating magazine does a good job of staying true to the foundational tenets of eating clean–they don’t give you a recipe for a Quest Bar and hashtag it eatclean. If you tell me that a freaking Quest Bar is clean eating, I will slap you. It. Is. Sludge.
    I can’t say that I eat a “clean” diet. I love me some diet soda, I use spray butter (and regular, but you know, the whole fats thing), I eat ice cream every night (again, the “light” versions because of the fats, but not the no sugar added. I don’t do well with those fake sugars and sugar alcohols.), and a myriad of other sins. But I am VERY careful and VERY cognizant to do less of this during training season (except for ice cream, duh), and I also am very sugar conscious because I know that I am going to have ice cream every night. I prepare my own meals, and when i don’t, they are usually salads where I can really see what I am getting. Am I perfect? nope. But it is what works for me. And I don’t judge how others eat.
    Just don’t tell me Quest bars are clean. 17 g of fiber my ass!

    • haha Quest bars … like so many of those things I really feel like we’re on the second round of ‘granola bars’ from the 80s, where they were loaded with so much crap that you might as well have just eaten a Snickers!

      And I think that people who get all judgy about ‘clean’ are likely similar to me in that what they eat is fully their own choice without any restrictions. Lisa has always had to be careful so I am used to it, but reading blogs I am amazed at how many people need to be cogizant of what they stuff into their face.

      And your love of ice cream, one of my 3 favorite foods, makes you just even more angelic in my eyes, haha

  7. I think you’re doing it just right. The healthy living blogosphere can be a messed up place when it come to eating. Tons and tons of bloggers are on the restrictive diet bandwagon and package it up as healthy. In the end, all that restrictive eating (which is not clean or healthy) is only hurting them and I’m not giving out awards for how little a person can eat or how weird they can make their diets. Kind of drives me crazy, if you can’t tell!

  8. It almost feels like we are all making this whole “eating well” stuff harder than it has to be. There are many different versions of “healthy” and likely many different understandings of “clean eating” as well. Hopefully we can call agree that processed junk is not clean. When it comes down to it I just hope that people can be as knowledgeable as possible about their choices. I liked Susie’s example about the Quest Bar. If you are just eating it because its labeled as “clean” you should probably look into the ingredients and find out for yourself what’s actually in there. It’s one thing to knowingly make choices about your eating- yes I am going to occasionally enjoy ice cream or pizza or wine…but I am not going to pretend that its clean (even if it is marketed that way). Great post!

    • So true Lisa! It is all about informed decisions – clean and healthy only mean something if we put them to use fueling our bodies to DO something or be healthier. Otherwise it is pretty much just another fad diet.

  9. ^^ YES I totally agree with Lisa. Back when I was switching up my diet I had heard of clean eating, but didn’t really know what it was and I felt so much anxiety over it. Like what if I did it wrong!? But then I realized after doing some research that eating cleanly was something that I pretty much did already. So I just cut some extra BS out of my diet and that was that. I didn’t really have to do much of anything at all. I am far from a text book clean eater but I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that has to be all or nothing and I think a lot of people take it WAY too seriously.

    • Totally! And Lisa nailed it – this is basic, common sense stuff, and we are just overthinking it all! And like you say, some people take stuff way too seriously, like someone is going to say ‘well, you failed ‘clean’ for July because of that bag of M&M’s … try again next month’! Um, no.

  10. I agree and have found it really interesting to read about other people’s thoughts on clean eating. Honestly it seems like a nice way to do what you want. There are plenty of woman that I’ve seen (especially when I worked with eating disordered college students) that used clean eating as a description to further their eating disorders with no questions asked.

    On the other side I do believe food is fuel and that you have to eat well to preform well.

    • Exactly – that was also what Amanda said, and is so true … I mean, what are you supposed to do- NOT eat that massive red velvet cake you had on Instagram?!? No way! haha

    • It is funny – I cooked spaghetti squash with fire roasted tomatoes and roasted sweet potatoes last night, and it was the first time my son’s girlfriend had it … fortunately it turned out well. She was surprised that the meal was vegan, but loved it all. Nice to open up people’s eyes to the many ways to get ‘good eats’!

  11. Pingback: Can’t We All Just Get Along? And Blog-Reading FOMO! | Running Around the Bend

  12. You pretty much summed up my understanding of clean eating 🙂 Right now I’m focusing on limiting my alcohol intake (not that I drink much, but sometimes when you go out for a 5a7 with some friends, it’s easy to get caught up), reduce meat consumption (summer=grill=steak, I’m sure you understand me on this one), limiting deserts (once again summer= weddings/get-togethers/picnics with abandance of all that sweet stuff). I’ve also been enjoying adding beans, quinoa, freekeh to my salads. Oh, and water, water, lots of water 😀 Well, that’s my understanding and application of my knowledge about ‘eating cleaner’ 😀 xoxo

    • haha totally get you on the grilling 🙂 For us, it is fall and winter that are more dangerous for sweets because my wife and I (and younger son) all like to bake … so we have cakes and cookies and scones flowing – in summer it is too hot to have the oven going!

      And I think your thoughts on eating cleaner are perfect!

  13. LOVE this post. I practice almost all of the tips you mention, and I do sometimes refer to ‘clean eating,’ but I understand the backlash and comments around it. I especially agree with Lisa’s point in the comments above. To me, clean eating means eating as many fruits, vegetables, and minimally processed foods as you can, and focusing on a sustainable balance (balance of many things – macronutrient balance, adding in some treats, etc.). Wow on the 8 servings of meat – kind of makes my stomach hurt to think about it, but that’s not abnormal at all!!

    • I really think Lisa nailed it as well (and in many fewer words than I needed!). And it is funny putting things into servings – I grew up in the 70s where ‘normal’ was half your plate being meat, 30% starch and 20% veggie (often from cans, yuk!). Last night I mentioned that to Lisa and we looked at our dinner with about a 20/20/60 mix of meat/starch/veggies – which is pretty typical now. Not that I don’t love a nice steak every now and then 🙂

  14. I love the baby picture.

    My personal trainer asked me to start keeping a food journal in part because I feel like I need to tweak some of my eating habits. One thing that became obvious right away is that I am terrible about eating a decent lunch. Which is why I am starving at dinner. Fortunately we usually eat good food for dinner, but I suspect I could be doing a whole lot better by spreading out how I feed my body nutrients.

    But you’re right, as we go down the healthy exercise road, it seems like many people do start thinking better about how they fuel themselves. It’s hard to weed through all the trends sometimes, though.

    • Yeah, totally with you … and that is a big part of why I have fruit and pistachios at my desk for afternoon snacks. Just to be sure I am all set for my intake in case my lunch doesn’t cut it.

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