"Clean eating" is best defined as eating foods that are whole, unprocessed, and as close to the way they were grown as possible. Clean-eating plans limit foods and beverages with artificial ingredients, refined flours, and sugar. With over 42,000 food items available at the average grocery store today, choosing foods that fit the "clean eating" bill can be a daunting task. When shopping for whole and unprocessed foods, it is important to read food labels and look past the marketing claims.
Most whole foods are located around the perimeter of the grocery store, so that is the best place to start and fill your cart. Many of the products within the grocery store aisles are processed, with extra salt, fat, sugar, and artificial ingredients added, so use this list to help weed out the whole foods from the more processed ones.
Any and all choices are good, and an essential part of a clean-eating plan. Organic produce is free from commercial pesticides and fertilizer, but eating more of any type of produce has tremendous health benefits. Aim for at least half a plate of any combination of produce at each meal. Choose lots of variety and color, since fruits and vegetables get their color from immune-boosting antioxidants and phytochemicals. Some excellent choices include:
Berries (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries)
Leafy greens (Swiss chard, spinach, kale)
Meats and fish
In general, it is best to limit meat and fish to smaller portions, approximately a quarter of your plate. Good choices include:
Wild salmon, sardines, or mackerel, which are high in omega-3 fats
Organic, skinless poultry (and eggs)
Lean cuts of grass-fed sirloin or tenderloin, or bison, which is much lower in fat and calories than beef
While deli meats are convenient for lunch, many are highly processed and contain nitrates and significant amounts of sodium, which have been linked to cancer and heart disease. The same is true for products like hot dogs, sausages, and bacon. Stick to lightly processed turkey or chicken breast or lean roast beef and choose store-roasted deli meat without additives if available.
Some clean-eating plans advise against dairy foods, but low or non-fat dairy products can provide protein and calcium, and can be part of a healthy, whole foods diet. If you prefer non-dairy products, look for those that are fortified with calcium and vitamin D and free from added sugar. With the exception of soymilks and yogurts, most non-dairy products are not a good source of protein. When selecting dairy foods, choose organic whenever possible, and those that are free from the hormone bovine somatotropin (rBST). Good choices for dairy foods include:
1% or skim milk
Nonfat plain yogurt (sweeten with fruit, honey, or maple sugar)
Nonfat or low-fat cottage cheese or ricotta cheese
Breads, cereals, and grains
Even though many of the foods in this grocery category are processed, it is possible to find some that are not, and many others that are minimally processed. Check the ingredients label to make sure the product is free from artificial colors, flavors, and other additives, contains low or no added sugar, and provides 3 or more grams (g) of fiber per serving:
Ancient grains (quinoa, farro, spelt, amaranth, teff)
Oats (plain quick cooking, old fashioned, or steel cut)
100% whole-wheat (or other whole grain) bread, English muffins, tortillas
Popcorn (jars or bags of kernels)
Unsweetened shredded wheat
Fats and oils
Healthy sources of fat can provide essential fatty acids and vitamin E, but foods that are high in fat are also high in calories, so it is important to choose wisely. Skip butter or margarine, which are high in saturated fat, and premade salad dressing, which has additives, and select heart-healthy unsaturated fats such as:
Nuts, peanuts, and seeds
Olive and canola oil
Grocery store aisles are full of cans and jars of highly processed foods, but the following items are worth a look, because they are convenient, shelf-stable, inexpensive, and they are healthy choices:
Fruit packed in water
Low sodium canned beans
Low sodium canned tomatoes
No-added-salt canned vegetables
Tuna packed in water
Like canned foods, a vast majority of frozen food products are highly processed, but plain frozen fruits and vegetables are a major exception. Stock up on these and keep them on hand for times when you run out of fresh produce. Often frozen fruits and vegetables are less expensive, especially when they are out of season. Check the ingredients label to make sure vegetables are free from high-fat sauces or other ingredients, and fruit is unsweetened. Smart buys include:
Frozen berries, mango, peaches
Frozen green beans, peas, corn
Condiments and seasonings
For many, the biggest challenge of eating a clean, whole and unprocessed diet is having to cook from scratch. Stocking up on the right seasonings makes cooking easier and your meals and snacks more interesting. Make sure you have these items on hand:
Dried herbs and spices (basil, oregano, thyme, cumin, chili powder, cinnamon, nutmeg)
Flavored vinegars (white wine, apple cider, raspberry)
Fresh herbs (parsley, cilantro)
Fresh lemons and limes
Organic vegetable or chicken stock
References and recommended reading
Bison nutritional information. National Bison Association website. http://www.bisoncentral.com/cooking-bison/nutrition-information. Accessed January 12, 2016.
FAQ: Processed meat and cancer. American Institute for Cancer Research website. http://www.aicr.org/enews/2014/08-august/faq-processed-meat-and.html. Published August 7, 2014. Accessed January 12, 2016.
MyPlate. USDA website. http://www.choosemyplate.gov/MyPlate. Updated January 7, 2016. Accessed January 12, 2016.
Supermarket facts. Food Marketing Institute website. http://www.fmi.org/research-resources/supermarket-facts. Accessed January 12, 2016.
Whole grains A to Z. Whole Grains Council website. http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/whole-grains-a-to-z. Accessed January 12, 2016.