How to Eat Clean for Beginners from A Dietitian

Eating clean is something that we all want to do more of, but what exactly is it and how do we adopt it into our lifestyle? This blog post is the blueprint of how to eat clean, especially for beginners.

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It probably goes without saying that as a registered dietitian, I strongly support eating clean. It’s something that I practice in my own life, and I spend a great deal of time educating my clients on how they can also make healthier choices. Eating clean is something that a lot of people think is a time consuming and expensive lifestyle choice. In fact, it’s quite easy to eat clean and it can actually be very affordable once you learn some new techniques for meal planning and doing your grocery shopping.

Also, eating clean doesn’t have to be boring. There is a misconception that eating clean means you’re just sitting around munching on vegetables all day. While it’s important to get as many fruits and vegetables as you can into your diet, there are other healthy choices that can help you increase your energy levels, boost your metabolism, reduce inflammation and prevent disease.

In this article I’m going to go over the basics of what clean eating is and how it can impact your life for the better. This doesn’t have to be overwhelming, and you surely don’t have to become bored with what you’re eating. There are some amazingly delectable clean eating recipes out there.

What Exactly Is Clean Eating?

Clean eating is so much more than just making healthy choices for your meals and snacks. This is a lifestyle choice that encourages you to focus on things like whole foods and unprocessed foods. The goal is essentially to increase your nutritional intake so your body can thrive. You’re eliminating all of the junk that really doesn’t serve you any purpose. Ingredients like preservatives, artificial ingredients and refined sugars really don’t benefit your body in any way. It’s time to say goodbye to them and replace them with much more nutrient dense foods.

It takes some time to learn what you should eat and what should be avoided when you’re following a clean eating diet, but the process really isn’t very difficult. There are some easy rules to remember. Such as, foods that are still in their whole form are perfectly fine to eat. This includes fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. You want to avoid anything that has been processed and put into a box. If you are purchasing a prepared and packaged food item, you can read the ingredient list to see what’s been included. If you can’t pronounce some of what’s on there, it’s time to put the item back and move on to something else.

Why I Believe In Clean Eating

When I was younger and I started my journey to becoming a dietitian, I took a lot of classes in college about the nutritional composition of different foods and how certain foods affect the body. It was really interesting to me how much our diet can affect how we feel and how our body functions. I mean, diet alone can prevent and reverse a number of diseases and health issues. The food that we eat can even impact our mood and mental health. There’s really no end to how much food and clean eating can transform our lives.

As I’ve gotten older and I’ve worked with more and more clients, I’ve seen how much educating people on food, diet and clean eating can help them. Clean eating is something I practice each day in my own life and will continue to do so. It’s not always easy to make healthy choices when there are so many tasty, unhealthy foods tempting us. However, I stay motivated because of how good I feel when I make healthy choices. There are different methods of clean eating. But for me, it’s a lot about choosing organic whenever possible, staying away from refined sugar and limiting my refined carbohydrates. The result is better mental health and weight management. I also don’t deal with any major health issues that need to be managed by a doctor, and I largely attribute that to my healthy diet and lifestyle.

It’s Personal and Unique to You!

Clean eating may look different for everyone. What I avoid in my day-to-day diet may be things that other people can tolerate pretty well. When I meet with a client, they receive individual attention and guidance that works with their body and lifestyle. It’s never a one size fits all approach.

Also, I should note that clean eating is something you should follow on a daily basis, but there is always room to indulge here and there. The goal is to indulge as a treat now and again, not every single day. It’s ok to have a slice of birthday cake at a family celebration or enjoy an ice cream cone on a hot summer day when you’re spending time with your children. What you eat prior to that point and what you eat afterwards is really what’s important. Finding your personal balance is what you should strive towards.

Clean eating shouldn’t be considered a diet or a fad. It’s something you should educate yourself on and make your lifestyle choice. It’s not designed to help you drop all kinds of weight, though it’s common for a lot of people to experience a few pounds of weight loss when they first get started. Clean eating will facilitate healthy food choices that will allow you to manage your weight more effectively thanks to a boost in metabolism, consuming less saturated fats, etc. It will also provide your body with all of the nutrients that it needs in order to feel good, experience a healthy immune response, fight back against disease and so much more.

Gain Knowledge of Ingredients Used in Clean Foods

The best way to start with making a change to clean eating is to educate yourself on what’s clean and what’s not. The more you learn about different foods and what they are made up of, you’ll be able to come up with a more diverse daily diet. A lot of people fail at clean eating because they don’t know the right foods to eat. They fall back on what they know, which probably isn’t very healthy.

I suggest that you do some reading on clean eating. There are so many online resources that can get you started, and there are books and recipe books that will further your education. You can also meet with a registered dietitian like myself, who can help guide you in the right direction regarding what you should be eating. Once you know what ingredients you’re looking to avoid and what to include, it will become routine to grocery shop and meal plan using healthier alternatives.

The Benefits of Clean Eating

Eating clean can benefit your life in so many ways. Let’s take a look at what people most commonly experience when they get away from unhealthy foods and start making healthier choices.

Healthiest Way to Weight Loss, For Sure!

A lot of the foods that are unhealthy don’t contain a lot of nutrients. Even though those foods may fill us up for the time being, we end up feeling hungry soon after. This leads to eating too many calories, but they’re not useful calories.

If you’re looking to lose weight, you might be thinking that clean eating isn’t going to provide you with enough sustenance. This couldn’t be further than the truth. Watching what you put into your body and making sure that it’s as nutrient dense as possible will help your body function more efficiently.

Your metabolism will help you manage your weight better, you’ll have more energy to exercise, and you’ll feel like you can think more clearly and have a positive attitude. All of these things together result in a really healthy method of losing weight and keeping it off long term.

See our best fruits to eat to help lose belly fat!

More Nutrients in Your Body, It Will Thank You!

So many Americans are deficient in multiple vitamins and nutrients. Unfortunately, most people don’t even know it. Nutritional deficiencies can lead to problems like fatigue, weight gain, high blood pressure, irregular heart rate, skin issues, sleep problems and disease. If you make sure that you’re consuming an adequate amount of nutrients from whole foods, your body will thank you. You’re going to feel amazing once you’ve detoxed from some of the junk that you’ve been eating on a regular basis. Feeling as good as you do will be the motivation that you need to keep going on your journey to clean eating.

I believe in a very diverse, clean eating lifestyle. By that I mean that you try to source a little bit of all the healthy foods you can get your hands on each day. I recommend that you consume fruits and vegetables at every meal. This includes plenty of green vegetables, which are high in B complex vitamins and iron. Whole grains help keep you full and energized thanks to B vitamins, zinc, iron, magnesium and antioxidants. Lean meats are the essential protein that you need to keep going all day and healthy fats often provide you with adequate doses of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are excellent for cardiovascular and brain health.

Feel Full Longer Throughout Your Day (Less Snacking)

A lot of people have the best intentions when it comes to clean eating, but they have difficulty getting it right. When healthy meal choices aren’t made, this can lead to more snacking throughout the day. That snacking is what tends to be unhealthy, as people reach for a bag of chips or a candy bar. Snacking is perfectly acceptable as you should eat when you’re hungry, but a lot of people find that clean eating helps them stay full for longer periods of time. If you do need to snack, I recommend that you educate yourself on healthier choices like smoothies, a piece of fruit or a nut-based trail mix.

Improves Brain and Heart Health

Your brain health and your heart health are very closely related. There are a number of unhealthy habits that can affect the blood vessels and arteries that exist in both locations. By eating unhealthy foods that are high in saturated fats and cholesterol, you can increase the amount of plaque buildup in your arteries. This increases your risk of heart attack and stroke. Clean eating is an excellent and natural way to keep your arteries clean without the need for prescription medication that can cause a number of unpleasant side effects.

By nourishing your body with nutrient dense foods, you can improve your focus, problem solving, energy, motivation, blood pressure, heart rate and more. By avoiding things like sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives and artificial ingredients, you can reduce inflammation that could negatively affect your brain and heart health. There are so many delicious and nutritious foods that are good for your heart and brain. Learning how to bring out these flavors in your cooking can open up a whole new world of wellbeing for you.

Improves Digestion

Cleaning eating prevents overloading the digestive system with foods that are hard to digest and foods that cause inflammation. When you keep your gut health in check, you’ll experience fewer bouts of gas and bloating, you can reap the benefits of more regular bowel movements and you can even boost your body’s immune response to illness and pathogens.

Clean eating usually incorporates a good deal of foods into your daily diet that are high in fiber. That fiber can create a more diverse microbiome in your gut that aids in weight loss, more efficiently removes toxins from the body and even more optimal brain health. High fiber clean foods include things like beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, strawberries, blueberries, oats, chia seeds, flax seeds, chickpeas, lentils and avocados just to name a few. There are dozens more.

You’ll Get Better Sleep

There are certain foods and beverages that can greatly impact your sleep, especially those which are high in refined sugar or caffeine. These should be avoided as part of your clean eating diet. There are other foods that are hard to digest, and they can actually keep your body very active during the nighttime hours. That means you can experience trouble falling asleep or difficulty staying asleep. A cheeseburger and fries just an hour or two before bed isn’t going to sit well, and it’s absolutely going to lead to an increase in fat on the body since you’re not burning it off while you sleep. Eating clean and whole foods will keep your blood sugar levels consistent, which prevents you from waking up hungry in the middle of the night or experiencing bouts of insomnia.

Challenges of Clean Eating

Nobody said that eating clean was going to be easy to start with, and there are definitely some challenges along the way. You’ll have days when you just don’t feel motivated to make the right choices. This is perfectly normal, but it’s important to ensure that the good days outweigh the bad. A little indulgence here and there is an important part of healthy eating, so you don’t feel deprived or unhappy about the clean eating plan that you’re following. Let’s take a look at some of the other challenges that exist as part of clean eating.

Could Get Expensive, But It’s Better Than Spending Money on Junk Food

Clean eating can sometimes cost a little more money, but it really depends on what you were eating to start with. If you were buying a lot of low-cost, processed foods, then you probably weren’t spending a lot of money. Making the switch over to whole foods will be more expensive. However, this is an investment in your body and your life. Spending money on clean eating is much better than spending money on loads of junk food. You’re going to get far more for your money in the way of nutrients that benefit you.

Also, the cost of your groceries will go up if you’re opting for organic items over non-organic counterparts. For my clients that are on a tight budget, I like to educate them on the items that you should always try to purchase organic. Certain food products are more likely to be contaminated with pesticides and fertilizers than others, and those are the ones that you’ll want to buy organic. You may have heard of the “Dirty Dozen”, which refers to produce items that are likely to be the most contaminated. Swap them out for organic if possible. This includes:

  • Strawberries
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Nectarines
  • Apples
  • Grapes
  • Bell peppers
  • Cherries
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Celery
  • Tomatoes

You Must Sacrifice Unhealthy Eating Habits

People very easily get set in their ways and allow their bad habits to continue. It’s perfectly fine if you don’t know where to start. That doesn’t mean you can educate yourself on clean eating and take a journey down the path to healthier eating. The first thing that needs to go are your unhealthy eating habits. Some of the most common unhealthy habits include:

Skipping breakfast

This is the most important meal of the day. It’s your opportunity to get started right. If you skip breakfast, you’re more likely to consume more calories later on in the day, from foods that aren’t healthy options.

Binging

Even if you’re allowing yourself to eat one of your favorite “cheat” foods, that doesn’t mean you should over consume that item. Binging is a bad habit that can lead to becoming overweight, unhealthy and unhappy. A good way to avoid binging is to portion out what you can eat, leaving the rest of the bag put away. Don’t allow yourself to go back for more.

Emotional eating

People often turn to food to make themselves feel bad after a bad day at work, a fight with a friend or the loss of a loved one. There are healthier ways to cope with your emotions that won’t negatively impact your health.

Eating late at night

Make sure that you’re eating enough healthy foods early on in the day, so you’re not tempted to eat late at night. Your dinner should be the last big meal that you eat. If you need to snack in the evening hours, opt for something light that is easy to digest and doesn’t contain a lot of sugar or fats.

Will Take Time to Plan, Prep and Cook

There is a certain degree of planning and preparation that is involved in clean eating. You should be meal planning for the week ahead, then you will go to the store and pick out the items that you need. Avoid being tempted to throw extra snack items in your cart at the grocery store. If you feel the need to snack, make sure that you have fruit and other healthy snacks available in your refrigerator and pantry. You will also need to cook your meals at home. Clean eating involves ditching those overly processed, microwaveable dinners for healthier options that you’ve prepared so you know what’s in them. Again, this is an investment in your health. Consider it a form of self-care.

Which Foods Qualify as Being “Clean?”

Now it’s time to talk about the different foods that are safe to eat when you’re following a clean eating diet. I’m going to mention the most commonly sourced items and the ones that are easiest to work with when you’re starting out. Keep in mind, there are plenty of other healthy foods out there that you may want to look into and try for some variety in your diet.

Clean Foods….

I’ve given you some basic information on how you can determine if foods are clean or not, but now I want to get into more detail about choosing the foods that you should include in your day-to-day meal planning. The cleanest foods that are available at the grocery store, follow these guidelines:

  • They are naturally very high in nutrients
  • They contain real, whole food ingredients
  • They are organic whenever possible
  • They are made with healthy oils like olive oil and avocado oil

Clean Foods Are Not…

  • They are not made using GMO ingredients
  • No artificial preservatives, dyes, sweeteners or colors have been added
  • They do not contain fillers
  • They do not contain oils that can cause inflammation, such as vegetable oil or canola oil

How to Eat Clean for Beginners

Are you ready to get started with a cleaner way of eating and living? I’ve compiled some information that can be your initial guide for how to eat clean. As you feel more comfortable making healthy choices and cooking for yourself, you can learn about additional foods and ways to eat clean. s

You Need to “Clean up” the Recipes You Already Eat

You don’t necessarily have to completely give up all of the foods that you’re currently eating. There may be ways that you can clean up your favorite recipes, using healthier alternative ingredients. For example, swap out white, refined pasta with a whole wheat, or vegetable-based option. Those ground beef and Italian sausage meatballs that you’re used to making can use ground turkey or ground chicken as a healthier alternative. Sour cream can be replaced with plain, Greek yogurt. Opt for foods that are baked not fried using excessive amounts of oil.

Small Changes at First and One Change at a Time

Clean eating doesn’t have to be an experience where you go cold turkey on all the other things you eat. A lot of people find great success in making some small changes to start out with and then adding more changes as they go along. Maybe start by ensuring you’re working enough fruits and vegetables into your meals. Then, assess your meals to see what kind of unhealthy ingredients can be swapped out for healthier alternatives. When you go to the grocery store, spend a few extra minutes seeing what organic options are available for the foods that you frequently buy. This process involves a good deal of learning, but once you know what your healthy options are, this is a complete lifestyle change that is actually quite easy to manage.

Plan Your Meals

It’s always better to sit down and compile a meal planning list for the week to come. If you don’t have any options planned, you’re more likely to pick up some takeout or fast food on your way home. You might want to grab something processed from the freezer and quickly heat it up. Clean eating is just like any other meal preparation in that there are difficult recipes that take some time, but there are also healthy options that only take a few minutes to get ready. Have a mixture of both ready to go. If you’re running late and need to get dinner on the table, it’s a night where you would reach for one of your simpler, clean eating recipes. When you have more time to work with, spend some time in the kitchen focusing on what you’re making.

Read Nutritional Labels

You’ll need to learn how to read nutrition labels. A general rule of thumb is, if you don’t know how to pronounce something, you should probably put that item back on the shelf. Look for products that contain whole foods that you know what they are. You’ll probably be reading a lot of labels to start with, but you’ll eventually learn what your go-to items are.

Shopping Tips When Looking for Clean Foods and Beverages

Here are some of the tips I share with clients that make shopping for clean foods and beverages much easier:

  • Stick with small grocery stores or health food stores whenever possible. They usually offer products from healthier brands and have a lot of produce available.
  • Shop for seasonal items if you’re concerned with budget. Buying things that are hard to source will cost more money.
  • Don’t forget frozen fruits and vegetables as an affordable option. Flash frozen produce is very nutrient dense.
  • Buy organic in regard to the “Dirty Dozen” I talked about earlier.

Conclusion: Remember This about Clean Eating as a Beginner

Making the switch to a cleaner eating lifestyle is something that can transform your life in so many ways. You can improve your body on the inside and outside while even feeling better from a mental standpoint. I’ve seen plenty of clients come through my door who have seen dramatic results from clean eating, and I know that this is a choice that you should strongly consider. Finding that right balance of what you do and do not eat can take a little time, but you’ll find your groove quickly. Eating clean will become your normal way of life in no time.

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Courtney D'Angelo, MS, RD

Courtney D'Angelo, MS, RD, earned her masters degree in Nutrition and Foods from the University of Georgia. She's a Registered Dietitian at Morrison Healthcare and has a strong passion in helping people improve their wellness!

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