It seems everywhere we turn someone is talking about “clean” eating. In general the term “eating clean” refers to consuming food as close to its natural state as possible, and avoiding processed foods and those with added refined sugar, sugar substitutes, excess sodium, modified food starches, additives or dyes. Examples include eating fresh string beans with olive oil instead of canned string beans with processed butter sauce or whole fruit and fresh bread instead of toaster pastries. It is not a diet, but more a lifestyle approach. There is, however, no government, academic or medical definition of “clean eating”. It is important to note that all food ingredients in the United States are approved by the Federal Drug Administration as GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe). Any new additive – such as a new sugar substitute – must go through rigorous testing before companies may incorporate it into foods for human consumption. Much of the promotional information on the web and in magazines for clean eating is anecdotal, stories from individual experiences, not evidence from scientific experiments. A diet composed of mostly vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains and minimally processed meat and dairy is one any Registered Dietitian will get behind. This is what we like to call “clean eating”, not to be confused with “clean eating” trends that include cleansing or fasting for weight loss or health goals.
To determine a food’s healthfulness, one must consider its nutrient density: The concentration of naturally occurring protein, carbohydrate, heart-healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants in relation to total calories. Foods that are closest to their whole state are far more nutrient dense than their processed, sold-in-a-package counterparts. Translation, a meal of steamed brown rice with fresh sautéed vegetables packs a higher nutritional value and a lower calorie level than boxed rice mix and anything with “helper” in the title. Reach for an apple, not a packaged apple pastry.
While focusing on nutrient-dense food is certainly a great approach to following a meal plan that promotes good health and weight control, remember that even “clean” foods can lead to weight gain if too much is consumed. Recommended daily calorie intake levels based on age, weight and activity level can be calculated at choosemyplate.gov.