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Clean Eating: Choosing Unprocessed Foods

color spectrum of fruits and vegetablesI started eating clean four years ago to battle digestive issues like cramping and bloating after eating. But I’ve also used clean eating as my compass for staying lean year after year while building muscle.

I follow a middle-of-the-road approach that is stress-free and unrestrictive. It’s easy to follow this healthy eating lifestyle because I make the decisions – there are no good foods and bad foods in my world.

But before I explain more about my own philosophy, let’s look at the basic idea of clean eating.

A Style That Suits YOU

The term “clean eating” was popularized by books such as The Eat Clean Diet by Tosca Reno and magazines such as Oxygen and Clean Eating. But the concept of clean eating actually began in the 1960’s as part of the health food movement.

Just as with any eating style, interpretations of clean eating are found across the spectrum. Personally, I believe it’s unrealistic for most Americans to eat only organic, grass-fed, sustainable, local, and/or wild foods.

How many of us have access to or the time to round up such ingredients, which are often more expensive and available only at health food markets? I prefer a more practical and moderate approach, and I still get all the benefits of clean eating.

While there are several clean eating principles, I want to talk about eating unprocessed foods here.

Back to Basics

Clean eating foods are in their most unprocessed form and include grains, vegetables, fruits, and meats. Why unprocessed? Pre-made boxed, canned, and frozen foods contain significantly more salt, fat, sugar, and chemicals than foods in their natural state. They’ve been pounded and pulverized and the original healthy ingredients have been diminished. These added ingredients can also cause weight gain and stomach upset.

Unprocessed also means unrefined, including grains and sugar. We eat whole grains that still have their outer layer and natural sugars such as honey and agave nectar instead of overly processed white sugar.

When we talk about unprocessed we also mean avoiding high-salt (sodium) foods and eating too much saturated fat. In a nutshell, eating healthy.

That’s why I stopped eating the following: Frozen meals, burritos, pizzas, and “garden burgers;” dry and canned soups; deli meat; most cheeses; fatty sauces and gravies; sweets; chips and crackers; and fast food. I also decreased how much I ate at restaurants and the amount of red meat I consumed, as I had high cholesterol at the time.

I’m not saying I never have a deli sandwich or a garden burger. That’s the beauty: If I eat clean 80 to 90 percent of the time, I don’t think twice about grabbing something for convenience the other 20 to 10 percent of the time.

But by planning ahead I’m able to avoid being in that situation too often. Thinking of foods on a scale from unprocessed to highly processed is helpful, as shown with these 23 ideas for keeping various foods unprocessed.

It Doesn’t Have To Be Complicated

You may wonder if I make everything from scratch, and the answer is no. I don’t like to think about food much and I don’t particularly enjoy food prep or cooking. I do a minimal amount of prepping during the week such as grilling and freezing meat, boiling and freezing pasta, and boiling eggs.

Then I simply make my own turkey or chicken burger instead of a garden burger, or my own burrito instead of a frozen one. I pull out frozen natural ingredients for convenience or cook up something simple.

A rigid, dogmatic line of attack isn’t necessary, either. Many foods that are nutritious are also processed: milk, yogurt, cereal, jarred spaghetti sauces, canned (unsalted) beans, bagged brown rice, pasta, and frozen fruits and vegetables, for example. If you’d like to eliminate those foods you certainly can, but the clean eating lifestyle doesn’t require it.

Additional clean eating principles include:

  • Eat more frequently to avoid low blood sugar crashes
  • Eat lean protein and complex carbs at each meal for long-lasting energy
  • Practice portion control
  • Drink 8 cups of water per day
  • Avoid alcohol or drink in moderation
  • Prepare food ahead to avoid relying on “convenience” foods.

As you can see, clean eating doesn’t mean eliminating a food group or even a particular food; it encourages you to make healthy decisions based on healthy eating principles. I don’t always eat clean; on special occasions and holidays I may choose to eat a little refined sugar or other processed food.

But after eating this way for four years I honestly do not crave or even marginally desire those foods now. Excess salt, sugar, and fat upset my stomach, assault my taste buds, and make me feel lethargic. Clean eating is my lifestyle and always will be.

  • Nikki O’Carroll

    Im curious, Ive started tracking what I eat and measuring out my portions but I still find my carbs high and my protein low. What is the best way to even out the numbers for the best results for weight loss? What should My carbs, protein and fats percentages be for a 1500 calorie diet?

  • Coach Calorie

    I like to aim for between .8-1 gram per pound of lean body mass in protein, carbs around 25% of cals, and rest filled with healthy fats. I think that’s a good starting point.

    If you need a higher ratio of protein to carbs, you need more animal protein – beef, chicken, fish, eggs, etc

    • willknitforbeer

      How do you do this if you’re vegetarian or vegan. I’m in the same boat. I need more protein but haven’t been able to manage it yet.

  • Lumpz Gal

    Argh i dont understand the eating healthy i try so hard just not engf hours in a dae to mke healthy yummy dishes i alwaes mke boxed fish bake it canned baked beans .. ftied eggs wth lil bit of pil . O boiled eggs .. r thy bad fr you canned Tuna???

  • Coach Calorie

    You need to cook in bulk so that you only have to reheat and eat. No one expects you to cook 5 square meals a day. Most of my meals are the same besides dinner.

  • teachermomva

    Great article! :) I experience a lot of digestive issues if I start eating more processed food or grab a soda…so this just reminds me to keep on track. The body communicates a lot to us! We just have to listen!

  • Coach Calorie

    Vegetarians usually have a higher carbohydrate intake, which is protein sparing. This means you can get away with lower amounts of protein. High sources include legume, lentils, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.