The body and mind benefits of clean eating
Should you try clean eating to lose weight or age better?
By now you’ve likely heard of the concept of clean eating, but just in case, in essence it means eating more whole foods and fewer processed foods, and being mindful of the quality of those foods and how they were produced. The subject of clean eating can be a little charged at times because some people find it elitist or disparaging of other foods, but I don’t take it this way so I hope you won’t, either! In my view, it's a good directional goal no matter where you are on your healthy eating journey and clean eating comes along with some pretty amazing benefits.
What is a processed food?
This may seem obvious, but a processed food takes a longer trip through the manufacturing process, and this may alter its form from its natural state. A prime example of this is refining grains. This process removes the bran and the germ from a whole grain in order to create foods, like white bread, crackers, cereals, and snack foods.
Foods may also be processed in order to prevent spoilage (so they stay fresh in the fridge or pantry longer), ingredients may be added to improve the flavor or texture, and vitamins, minerals, and even probiotics and other healthful compounds may be added to boost the nutritional profile. This may seem like a benefit, but since these compounds are not natural to the food itself, it's considered a form of processing.
There are degrees of processing, too. Oatmeal is a good example of a food that you can buy with varying degrees of processing—from steel cut on the less processed side to quick cook (in the middle) to instant oatmeal on the more processed side of the spectrum.
In essence, a clean eating pattern moves away from processed foods and towards more wholesome whole foods.
Does clean eating help you lose weight?
In short, yes, weight loss may be a benefit of clean eating. When you look at the studies on highly processed food, they regularly link higher consumption with higher body measurements and less healthful outcomes (such as heart disease and diabetes). On the flip side, studies on whole foods and body weight point to the fact that people lose weight when consuming more whole foods. One study looking at the effect of different diets on weight loss grouped participants in two different regiments (low carb or low fat), but both groups were given the suggestion to eat minimally processed foods and cook at home as much as possible (basically, eat clean). The quality of the food was discussed and the participants were given certain measures of quality food, such as whole grain, pasture raised, grass fed, and simply, real food. Everyone was also given instruction around limiting added sugars and refined grains as well as embracing veggies and whole foods. Notably, the study didn’t set calorie guidelines for people. After a year, everyone lost weight, and impressively, improved other markers of health, such as waist measurements and blood sugar and blood pressure levels. This points to the fact that by just moving toward more quality, whole foods and away from ultra-processed foods, it may be a little easier to lose weight or offset future weight gain.
There’s been a lot of research on people following a Mediterranean Diet, which is essentially a whole foods diet that’s limited in processed and sugary fare. In one, which compared a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil, another Mediterranean diet rich in nuts, and a control, low-fat diet, those in the higher fat Mediterranean diets not only lost more weight, they also had improvements in their waist size compared to those in the low fat group, despite being able to consume as much of either fat as they pleased. Another study looked at older people on this clean eating-type plan and found that their diets were especially rich in a class of antioxidants called polyphenols. After five years, a link between higher polyphenol levels and lower body weights and waist measurements emerged.
I’ve said this before, but I strongly believe that if you just look at calorie levels or the nutrition facts panel on a packaged item (where you find the fat, protein, carb, fiber, sodium, and sugar content), it would be like buying a car off the internet. The picture might look good, but you might find it’s a lemon when you look under the hood. In this case, the ingredient list represents looking under the hood. That’s where you’ll discover whether a packaged food has preservatives, additives, or artificial ingredients (such as artificial sweeteners).
How does clean eating help you age better?
A big benefit of clean eating is that you eliminate highly processed food—namely refined grains and added sugars. These foods age us by increasing the body-wide inflammation and oxidative cell damage that can trigger concerns of aging, such as memory problems, heart disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer. the same processes also accelerate skin aging, which means more wrinkles and duller skin.
However, the reverse is true, too. A cleaner, whole foods diet that has plenty of plant-based foods—not just veggies and fruits, but also nuts, seeds, beans, whole grains, and plant-based fats, like avocado and olive oil—has been shown to lower inflammation and supply the antioxidants needed to defend against cell damage. Studies looking at people eating more of these whole foods show they have a lower risk of heart disease and diabetes, and a lower risk of memory decline that may occur as we age. Another benefit is better vision. They also have more glowing skin with fewer wrinkles.
On top of that, a clean eating pattern—rich in veggies and fruits and other whole foods and low in processed foods—is linked with improvements in mood and emotional wellbeing. This has an impact on aging as well. In general, a positive outlook and higher life satisfaction is linked with healthier outcomes and it can even help us offset future health problems and hospitalizations, according to research.
5 easy clean eating tips
You all know that I don’t think convenience foods are public enemy number one, but I do favor packaged items that take into account some clean eating principles. And I also embrace a mostly clean meal plan. Here are some easy tips you can try:
1. Choose more whole foods. This is a no-brainer, but think about simple swaps. Instead of white bread, you might consider a whole grain version, or you might consider taking those sandwich fillings and using them to top a salad instead. A good example of this is a taco salad made with a bed of crunchy greens, brown rice, chicken, black beans, tomatoes, and guac. Think about simple ways to choose more whole foods, like leaning on frozen fruits and veggies as needed or picking up a rotisserie chicken on your way home from work. (It’s OK!!)
2. Opt for minimally processed foods. When choosing convenience foods, look for ones that are less processed. If you’re currently using instant oatmeal, switch it up for quick cooking oats, or even better, try some steel cut oats instead. For bars and snacks, look for ones that have real food ingredients. Some minimally-processed whole foods time-savers that I regularly rely on are: canned beans, roasted nuts, nut butter, ready-to-eat salad greens, hummus, pesto, and lower-sugar jarred marinara sauce.
3. Be on the lookout for added sugars. Sure, added sugars are in desserts and sodas, but they’re also in a lot of coffee drinks, sweetened tea, cereals, yogurts, granola bars, sauces, soups, breads, and more. It’s nearly impossible to avoid them altogether (and it isn’t necessary), but it’s a good idea to cut way back. The first step to doing this is reading the ingredients to spot them. Some examples of added sugars are: honey, brown rice syrup, fruit juice concentrate, cane syrup, cane sugar, and date syrup. I wrote about added sugars for NBC News Better so check out my article for more information on natural sugar, artificial sugar and table sugar.
4. Try to limit artificial sweeteners, colors, and flavors. I get it if diet soda is your thing—I’ve had my fair share. But I also used to wear acid wash jeans and velour track suits—and thankfully, I've moved on from those fashion trends! In general, these artificial foods and ingredients aren't part of a clean eating plan and they don’t serve us well. The evidence is even mixed about whether artificial sweeteners help you on the weight loss front. A very recent study suggested that high consumption of artificial sweeteners was linked to a higher risk of stroke, which raises some more concerns. And I think it’s just common sense that red dye #2 is probably not that good for you. This is NOT meant to scare you! If you’re eating red candy or a diet soda every now and then and for the most part, your eating habits are healthy, it’s all fine. :)
5. Look for the highest quality you can buy. You might consider grass fed beef or organic chicken or pasture-raised eggs, for example. Or you might consider organic produce, particularly for the foods you eat most often. Again, this is not meant to cause any concern. Eating nutritious foods is priority number one! But if you’re ready to raise the bar and take your eating habits to the next level, this is a good direction to head in.
If you're looking for some easy recipes that incorporate these clean eating principles, download my free booklet: 10 easy meals & snacks you can make in 10 minutes or less. It comes with a bonus free grocery guide so you can breeze your way through the store! And if you're ready to rejuvenate your body and mind and experience more energy to take on life's adventures, schedule a free call to learn more about my packages. You may already know what clean eating entails, but I bridge the gap between knowing and doing!