Eating clean is about enjoying and having a healthy appreciation of food -- not about deprivation. Food plays a central role in our lives. On the most basic level, it feeds our hunger and keeps us alive. But it also functions on social and emotional levels. So to fully address nutrition and come to appreciate food, you need to consider, from all angles, what you eat.
Focusing on whole, unprocessed foods helps your body prevent and fight diseases and increases your energy levels. This means eating fresh fruits and vegetables, beans and other legumes, whole grains and whole-grain pasta, nuts and seeds, and modest amounts of lean proteins, including fish, eggs, chicken, and tofu. And yes, even the occasional dessert.
Here are the two most important choices to make:
1. Choose whole foods over processed
Whole foods -- primarily fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes -- deliver the vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients (plant compounds such as flavonoids and carotenoids), and fiber you need to feel your best.
By contrast, processed foods have been stripped of some or all of their essential nutrients, making them poor substitutes for whole foods. The preservatives that manufacturers add to processed foods can make matters worse.
Take, for instance, the high amount of sodium found in many processed foods, which has been linked to high blood pressure and heart disease. All the added sugars can cause obesity, diabetes, and blood-sugar spikes that can trigger inflammation. Plus, processed foods often contain artificial colorings and flavorings, chemical preservatives, and additives that can negatively impact our health (and our environment).
Studies have connected the standard American diet (and its high proportion of processed foods) to epidemics such as cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, gastrointestinal illnesses, and certain types of cancer.
2. Embrace a plant-based diet
People who follow a plant-based diet have significantly lower rates of chronic illnesses, including cancer and heart disease. It’s easy to see why: Based primarily on produce, beans and other legumes, whole grains, and nuts and seeds, with modest amounts of fish and other lean proteins, it’s a diet rich in health-boosting nutrients.
Besides being an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, the foods in a plant-based diet contain a wide range of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. They are also high in dietary fiber that helps rid the body of harmful toxins and helps keep the digestive tract working smoothly.
So it should come as no surprise that eating a plant-based diet (similar to the much-touted Mediterranean diet) is strongly linked to lower cholesterol and a reduced risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain forms of cancer. The more you eat a plant-based diet, the more you will appreciate the way it makes you feel. Plus, filling up your plate with plants means there’s less room for animal-based foods -- and their saturated fats, which can raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels and increase your risk of heart disease. Butter, cream, whole milk and whole-milk yogurt and cheese, red meat, and skin-on poultry are the most obvious culprits. You don’t have to cut them out entirely, but rather eat them infrequently and in moderate amounts. Once you incorporate more plants into your diet, you’ll also find they actually help curb your cravings for sugary sweets and other less-healthy options.