What is Clean Eating?


Recently, I gave a nutrition talk to a women’s club. I’ve done these sort of talks before, and I have them mapped out with the precision of a sleepy Monday morning commuter attempting to jam her subway pass into a vending machine (which is to say, rather loosely – I prefer to leave room for adjustment based on changing audience interests). No vending machi–, er, challenge is insurmountable to this friendly RD. Anything can fit into the nutrition field.

Well, perhaps not everything.
Well, almost anything.

Bottom line: I love a good challenge. That’s why I was over-the-moon when the women’s club asked me to talk about “clean eating”. I’d never done a clean eating talk – perfect!

The club members listened so attentively and asked such good questions, I left a happy RD. I thought I’d share a few highlights with you.

What is Clean Eating?

There’s no strict definition of Clean Eating, but the idea is that we choose whole foods with short ingredient lists. You can think of it as replacing processed and packaged foods with fresh and natural foods. You haven’t added anything, like adding sugar to tomato sauce, and you haven’t taken anything away, like stripping the bran from wheat to make white flour. You focus on quality of food rather than how many calories or how much fat is in them.

The key to eating clean is looking at ingredients lists and ditch foods that have really long lists, or ingredients you can’t pronounce, or additives like sweeteners, colors, preservatives, and stabilizers, or foods treated with hormones or antibiotics. Clean eating means choosing organic when you can, because you’re looking out for both your health and the health of the environment. It makes sense to eat clean, because we really are what we eat. What we eat become the building blocks of our bodies and every other part of ourselves.

What are some benefits of clean eating?

(1) Cheaper, because you’re using inexpensive ingredients instead of paying $4 for a frozen dinner.
(2) Easier, because you probably have a lot of ingredients on hand and won’t have trouble finding the rest in the grocery store. Talk to your friendly local RD if you need a helping hand.
(3) Healthier, because you don’t have extra salt, sugar, and unpronounceable ingredients in your food. When you’re eating clean, you know what’s in your food. For example, how many of us have come home after a weekend trip where we ate out a lot and snacked on packaged food and just felt bloated and tired? I know I have! Whenever that happens to me, all I want to do is go back to clean eating.

Remember the sugar content of sweet iced tea?


All that sugar goes down easy and makes staying healthy hard.

How do I eat clean?

Ah ha! This is where I use my dietitian-y powers to bring back our pal MyPlate. Review the Update Your Plate series if you need a refresher, beginning with post numero uno. Here’s where I’m going to set off a sentence in italics to make it seem more important.

You can think of Clean Eating as the plan and MyPlate as a way to put that plan into action.

How do we combine Clean Eating and MyPlate? The trick is to think of “Clean Eating” versions of the foods you would eat in each MyPlate spot. For example, say you want to fill half your plate with salad, then have some chicken and rice. You might start with a salad covered in store-bought dressing with a mile-long list of five-syllable ingredients, plus a frozen prepared breaded chicken breast and a cup of buttered white rice. Even though this meal follows MyPlate, it’s loaded with salt, sugar, and fat.

How do we Clean Eating this? (And yes, I just verbed the phrase “clean eating”.)

I’ll give you a moment to think about it.

And give you a sunrise picture to inspire creativity.
And give you a sunrise picture to inspire creativity.

How about:
(1) Make your own dressing (30-second oil and vinegar to the rescue!).
(2) Marinate and grill chicken.
(3) Serve brown rice cooked with herbs or turmeric and cardamom. Brown rice is one of those start-it-and-forget-it kind of dishes.

The overall goal is not to eat “perfectly”, because really, there is NO such thing as perfect eating. I can’t emphasize that enough. Instead, the goal is to eat healthy most of the time and enjoy our foods.

And that’s why I ended the talk with a dark chocolate tasting, which is seriously the most awesome way to end any talk.

Q: What’s your definition of “Clean Eating”? What are your healthy eating challenges?

P.S. Looking for some Clean Eating recipes? Well.

P.P.S. A friend I met over the weekend:

overly friendly pelican

I think “Overly Friendly Pelican” would make an awesome band name. You heard it here first, folks.


  1. I think we eat pretty clean as I make pretty much everything from scratch. The last thing I’m still working on is getting rid of ketchup and a few other bottled sauces, but I’m almost there… And, yes, dark chocolate tasting is definitely the most awesome way to end anything! 🙂

  2. I love this post! I was just thinking about blogging about clean eating because I saw another blogger talk about how she was clean eating. At first I thought, “oh, I should do that” and then I thought to myself, “don’t I already do that?” It’s so nice to have a dietitian to relate to. 🙂

    1. It is! So glad you stopped by 🙂

  3. Yay for clean eating! I try to keep our breakfast, lunches, and dinners clean but dessert is probably about as not clean as you can get. Though it is always homemade!

  4. Hi Jessie! Spring is the perfect time for clean eating methinks – I always feel a little more energetic and motivated at this time of year and it seems easier to eat whole, vibrant, fresh foods without doing too much with them. I was never a smoothie person, but these days I’ve been enjoying some lovely colorful smoothies in addition to eating mostly whole foods, and it feels so good!

    I love the photos in this post. I wish I could attend one of your talks! It sounds so fun!


  5. My eating clean challenge is living 24/7/365 on the road in hotels with only a microwave to cook.

    Any suggestions?

    1. Hi John, great question! The MyPlate guide is going to be your friend (see the icon in the sidebar). You can cook all kinds of whole grains in the microwave (here’s an example with rice: http://www.wikihow.com/Cook-Rice-in-a-Microwave) – parboiled grains are even quicker and easier. For the protein part of the MyPlate, canned fish, beans, or chicken works really well, and you can get marinated versions that are ready-to-eat. ou can even get marinated ready-to-eat tofu! For the fruit and veggie half of the plate, you can get really creative. There are a lot of frozen veggie blends (stay away from butter sauces 🙂 ) that heat in a few minutes. Fresh produce can round out the plate if you’re in an area that carries it.

      I’m not sure if you can bring a cooler around with you, but if you can, it’s even easier to have these foods on hand all the time. Good luck!

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