Clean Eating 101: Healthier Eating Made Easy

By , Tiffany McCauley
Are you curious about the term clean eating? Have you ever wondered what it is exactly or whether it might benefit you?
In my experience as a "clean eater," this way of eating can be a fabulous way to improve your health.
Clean eating in the most simple terms means eating real food—foods that are whole (unprocessed) and in their most natural state. In other words, people who subscribe to clean eating try to avoid foods altered or processed by humans or manufacturers.
That being said, there are many different approaches to eating clean, and none of them are wrong. Everyone from carnivores to vegans can eat clean and it doesn’t have to be complicated. While some people put lots of strict dieting rules around their "clean" diets, that's not the case for everyone. Eating clean really can be delicious, fulfilling, filling and simple! Here's how.
What Exactly Is Clean Eating?
For the most part, clean eaters subscribe to these general guidelines:
  1. Eat plenty of vegetables, both raw and cooked.
  2. Eat unprocessed lean meats that have not had anything added. This includes fresh chicken and fish and even lean, humanely raised beef and game.
  3. Enjoy whole grains instead of the processed or refined variety.
  4. Eat smaller, more frequent meals about every 2 1/2 - 3 hours.
While some people put more restrictions on their "clean" diets (such as avoiding flour, sugar, dairy or other food groups at all costs), anyone can clean up his or her diet by focusing on the basic guidelines listed above. Some clean eating philosophies you may encounter include:
  • The fundamental approach: These eaters follow the broader concept of clean eating by simply avoiding processed foods. They don’t worry about calories, macros, or meal frequency. They just eat real food, all the time.
  • The diet approach: These folks usually follow a strict diet regimen and will typically eat 5-6 small meals per day. Usually, they are focused on a particular goal such as weight loss or even fitness competitions.
  • The 4-hour approach: Some feel that eating every 2 1/2 - 3 hours is simply too much and they will take the diet approach, but with less frequency and slightly larger meals.
There is no right or wrong way to eat clean—just the right way for you to feel good and get your desired results.
How to Start Eating Clean
Not everyone can afford to dump the majority of food in his or her kitchen and start from scratch. So don't! Start your clean-eating adventure the easy way!
When you make your shopping list each week, select one or two items to switch with clean items. For example, if you need bread this week, make it a point to find "clean" bread (100% whole grain, no added sugar and identifiable ingredients such as whole wheat flour, salt and yeast). If you ran out of white rice, pick up a package of brown rice this week. It doesn’t have to be difficult to make the transition to clean foods—not does it have to happen 100% overnight!  With this slow and steady approach, you don’t have to spend hours at the store reading labels either. Start small: You are also more likely to stick with it if you don’t shock yourself with a sudden change.
Clean Eating for Beginners
  • Start slow and within your budget. Don't worry about drastic changes or being "perfect."
  • Organic foods are popular among clean eaters, but if you can’t afford them, just do the best you can. 
  • Teach yourself to properly read labels. Focus on the ingredient list. Select foods with fewer ingredients—and ingredients that you recognize as real food.
  • Understand that you will make mistakes. The important thing is not giving up.
  • Don’t stress over minor things. Keep the bigger concepts in mind and always work to improve. It's about choosing the healthiest choice—not depriving yourself.
  • If you do have something that doesn't mean your definition of "clean," don’t throw in the towel. Make your next meal clean. That’s the difference between a diet and a lifestyle change.
How to Eat Clean on a Tight Budget
Many people assume that clean eating is expensive. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.  Here are some tips for shopping clean on a budget:
  • Look for in-store coupons. Coupons and sales flyers for your grocery store are more likely to highlight discounts on real food (like fruits, vegetables and unprocessed meats) rather than the coupons provided by food manufacturers, which only discount processed foods.
  • Shop in bulk. Bulk items are often far more affordable than the packaged varieties. If your store offers bulk food bins, you also have the option to buy as little or as much as you want at a given time.
  • Stock up on sales. When your store does have a sale on clean food staples such as meats or frozen vegetables, take advantage of that by stocking your freezer. It will save you money in the long run.
  • Manage your food well. This is a big one. We throw away a ton of food in this country every day and it contributes to our food bills in a big way. Freeze cooked foods you know you won’t get to right away and don’t cook so much that you can’t eat it before it goes bad.
  • Buy whole chickens. These go on sale regularly. Be sure you use the entire bird by making broth for soups with the portions you don't eat (bones, necks, backs, etc.). You can always freeze it if you can’t use it right away. Try these suggestions to get the most for your money out of a whole chicken.

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In response to looseingits comments I am exactly the same only I am 58. Will wait on your answer to her. Thanks
Just wondering, I have been eating clean for a year and a half, although I have taken the fundamental approach thinking I have been eating better than I ever have in my life, I am unable to lose any weight. I exercise moderately, 3 to 5 days a week , I eat nothing processed, no sugar, no flour, nothing from a can, only fresh fruits and vegetables, and meat a couple times a week. What would you recommend to help me to lose weight. I am 57yrs old female . Can you recommend a diet plan to follow ..any help appreciated ..Thank You Report
This really helps. Thanks a lot! Report
I have been working at eating cleaner lately. I want to know what yogurt is the best choice. There is so many different kinds on the shelf! Report
I would like a schedule of meals I should eat on a daily basis Report
Great information! I'm on the right track. Thank you very much!! Report
Thanks for publishing this. I've seen lots of references here on Sparkpeople to "eating clean" but I've never been sure EXACTLY what it meant. Looks like it's pretty much what I've been trying to do but now I'll know for sure. I'll have to check out Tiffany's web site, too. Good, helpful article. Report
4-Ward- I don't think the article is misleading. I agree that buying things processed is more expensive and much less healthy...but I believe what the author was referring to was the fact that it can be expensive to throw out all of your food and start all over again. She's showing how to do it gradually while still being able to not waste the food in your pantry and re-buy everything at once. Letting you know you don't have to completely overhaul your pantry and fridge in one night. :)
Reneetc1- You can learn to do things you don't already know how to do-like cutting the chicken. YouTube is a great resource. You have to be careful when you shop for meat. Places like Whole Foods if you have one (or a similar store) will have the cuts of meat you need more readily available or a local farmer. Quinoa is a great replacement for rice if you don't like brown but want if you're still wanting to stay away from processed and nutritionless white rice. :) Report
Starting slow is so important to success and so hard to do. Jumping in with both feet has been my downfall many times through the years. 'Being perfect' is an obession I've had to learn to suppress. Report
Many of these suggestions are good. Getting seasonal veggies and fruit saves money, and you get them at their peak. I'm not a brown rice eater. Have tried and can't stand the taste or the consistency. So I stick to my white rice. How many people know how to cut up a whole chicken? And finding good cuts of meat isn't always easy. Report
Lot's of good info! I may try this, sounds like a positive change! Report
I now have a better understanding of clean eating. Thank you Report
Although I eat every 2.5 to 3.0 hours and I don't eat bread or much processed food, I have never considered myself a "clean" eater. I do eat some sugar. I have thought lately that I need to make a better effort to eat cleaner. Report
I had not even considered the expense perspective but it is true that shopping for basics without extra boxes and packaging does save money and greatly reduce the added salts and sugars I consume which is a good thing. Thanks for the added perspective. Report
The article is a bit misleading, making it sound like this is a more expensive choice. We've been shopping this way for years, not for health reasons, but for expense reasons. Processed is ALWAYS more expensive than making something yourself once you do the real math to see how much you're paying for a tablespoon of dehydrated vegetable or a cup of pasta thrown in a box or frozen dinner with tons of extra salt. The added bonus was that it cut our sodium down to less then 1/4 of what it was when we were using canned veggies, pasta sides and tv dinner lunches. Report
Who knew! I have been adjusting my nutrition consumption using these same principles (with fabulous results I might add, more energy, better digestion) but did not have a clear description for it. Now I can explain it with greater clarity and understanding. I love eating this way, it is simple and basic and I really do not worry about calories and over consumption. Just add some physical activity to your day and you are good to go. Great article! Report