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?