What does ‘clean eating’ actually mean and is it worth a try?
Clean eating is often mentioned in news articles and splashed across Instagram. However, you might be left wondering – what does it really mean?
The confusion arises because there really is no strict definition of clean eating. The term tends to be used in a more universal way to refer to a healthy diet. “The definition of clean eating will vary from person to person but is generally based on consuming whole foods and avoiding processed foods,” says nutritionist Shannon Young. “This means consuming mainly fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and healthy fats and limiting highly processed snack foods, sweets and other packaged foods.” However, Shannon adds that some variations of the diet may involve excluding gluten, grains and dairy or only eating raw food. Essentially, it’s a fairly flexible term.
While the term ‘clean eating’ is somewhat derided these days, ultimately, a wholefood diet should always be the gold standard – regardless of what specific ‘rules’ you follow. “Real food is packed with antioxidants and nutrients and eating a diet rich in nutritious, unprocessed foods will protect against chronic diseases,” explains Shannon. “Eating a diet mainly composed of heavily processed foods, containing additives and preservatives, can result in excessive calories, sugar, fat and sodium. These can negatively impact our bodies and play a role in the development of obesity, diabetes, hypertension and certain types of cancer.”
In saying that, there’s no need to have an ‘all or nothing’ attitude towards eating clean. One preservative isn’t going to ruin your diet completely. “It’s about considering your overall dietary pattern and striking a healthy balance between consumption of fresh produce and processed products,” advises Shannon. “It’s important to look at your overall dietary quality. If you have a diet high in processed foods that use a lot of additives and preservatives, then you will be at a higher risk of the damaging side effects. You are also at risk of missing out on essential vitamins and minerals found in fresh produce.”
Are additives actually bad?
You should aim to eat plenty of wholefoods, however, not all additives are bad news. “While certain food additives have been linked to some pretty scary side effects, there are plenty of others that can be safely consumed as part of a healthy diet,” says Shannon.
“Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is responsible for the approval of which food additives are allowed in Australian foods. All food additives used in Australia undergo a safety assessment, which includes rigorous testing, before they are approved. Many of the food additives used by the food industry also occur naturally within foods that people eat every day.”
How do I get started with eating clean?
If you do want to overhaul your diet and get more goodness in, Shannon says the basic principles are:
- Plenty of fruit and vegetables so you get enough fibre, vitamins and minerals
- Lean protein and complex carbohydrates at each meal
- 2-3 servings of healthy fats a day
- Organic, where possible
- Drink 2-3 litres of water each day
- Overly processed foods
- Artificial sweeteners
- Sugary drinks
- Chemical additives and preservatives
- Saturated and trans fats
- Calorie-dense foods with no nutritional value
There’s no need to change every single thing about your diet at once, just make smart swaps where you can.
One last thing to be aware of is that many processed foods are high in added sugars, so sugar cravings can kick in when you switch to a wholefood diet. Want to quash those cravings? “Don’t skip meals and make sure you include low GI, high protein foods to stabilise your blood sugar levels,” Shannon advises. “Dehydration can often be confused with sugar cravings. If you feel a craving coming on, drink a big glass of water and then reassess if you are still wanting sugar.”
While the term clean eating may be overused, it’s really just about getting more goodness in your diet. Ultimately, that’s something we can all get on board with – regardless of what label you put on it.