What is clean eating? Well, it depends on who you ask.
Since you’re reading this I’m going to assume that you’re asking me. Not being one to hesitate to give my opinion, I’ve put it all together for you within this “What Is Clean Eating University” for your reading pleasure, raw and uncut.
Before we jump into the What Is Clean Eating coursework, I’m going to tell you unequivocally what clean eating is NOT. It is not watching what you eat.
By the way, what does watching what you eat mean anyway?
Counting calories? Eating smaller portion sizes? Limiting carbs? Eating low fat? Eating less fast food? Visually examining your food before it enters your mouth? All of the above?
I’ll tell you what it means to me: NOTHING!
It is the most ambiguous nutritional strategy possible. Because it lacks specificity it leaves an infinite number of “outs”. Seriously. How lazy and non-committal can a goal possibly be?
Truth be told, “clean eating” as a description isn’t much less ambiguous than “watching what you eat” and can carry different meanings for different people.
Those following a paleo lifestyle will have different views than a vegan on what defines clean eating. Don’t worry. I’m not going to get into all of the nit-picky philosophical nuances here.
What I am going to do here at “What Is Clean Eating U.” is address what clean eating is from a level that should be applicable for everyone. If a certain food is “off limits” for you, for whatever reason, then don’t eat it.
I feel that clean eating is much more about what you should be eating than what you shouldn’t be eating, though either perspective is fine as long as it works for you.
Momma raised me to be more of an optimist, so I’ll be mostly addressing the “dos” of clean eating rather than the “don’ts”.
The primary goal of clean eating is to provide your body with the most nutrient dense foods as possible, while avoiding a number of dangerous entities like artificial sweeteners, HFCS, genetically modified foods and a whole host of chemicals and other additives being applied to our foods.
Doing so will bolster your immune system, prevent countless diseases, elevate your energy levels, enhance your metabolism, balance your hormones, optimize your cardiac health and give you the body of a Greek god or goddess.
Alright, eating clean alone may not allow you to achieve the Adonis Index by itself. But when combined with an effective training plan, it sure makes it a whole lot easier, as you’ll see your body fat levels drop and lean muscle increase – even while maintaining a similar caloric intake.
I believe the clean eating information you’ll be learning today to be the absolute healthiest way to eat. Period.
The potential benefits one may receive from applying this material is so vast that it’s almost unquantifiable. But, because I’m not one to shy away from a challenge, I will do my best to quantify everything for you below – and do so in great detail.
Be sure to sharpen your pencils and pay close attention. There will be a pop quiz a little later on.
It’s time for your first course: What Is Clean Eating 101…
What Is Clean Eating 101 – Natural Whole Foods
If there’s a single commandment that would encompass clean eating in a nutshell (nuts are clean-eating-approved, by the way), it would be: Thou’s diet shall consist of natural whole foods.
Natural whole foods refer to foods that are in their natural, unprocessed state. Think fruits, vegetables and raw nuts.
Attention! Buying these items organic is a plus as it will go the extra mile to help ensure you’re not ingesting a host of dangerous exogenous chemicals.
There are a couple of items that would technically make the list of being a natural food that you’ll want to exercise extreme caution with: corn and soybeans.
Nearly 100% of the corn and soy produced in the U.S. is genetically modified. Genetically modified foods are turning out to be a VERY SERIOUS PROBLEM.
I won’t be going into the numerous health problems now being associated with GMOs here, but this shortened version of the powerful documentary, “Genetic Roulette”, will give you an idea:
The full version contains way more information and I can’t recommend watching it enough (click here to rent or purchase the full version of the documentary).
As it relates to corn and soy products, you should only purchase those that are labeled as USDA Organic or verified by the Non GMO Project as not containing genetically modified ingredients.
Before moving on, I want to point out that eating clean doesn’t mean that you can eat whatever foods you want and get or stay lean.
Yes, as a general rule you can eat more calories from natural foods and still lose fat than when eating processed foods containing ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners and other chemical additives.
However, the average person eating 300 grams of carbs per day is likely going to put on fat – even if said carbs are from natural sources.
By the way, this is one problem I have with programs like Weight Watchers. They assign a point value of zero to fruits, which sends a horribly misleading message.
Fortunately for the czars of the Weight Watchers community, the average “weight watcher” isn’t going to eat more than a couple pieces of fruit per day.
Nevertheless, there is a certain percentage that will take the zero point value to the bank and eat enough fruit that their ability to lose fat is completely compromised, and may even see the number on the scale go up because of it.
So don’t get the impression that just because you’re eating clean all other nutritional considerations go out the window. A calorie is never just a calorie and your macros will ALWAYS matter.
Okay. We’ve sufficiently established the necessity of eating natural whole foods for clean eating, mostly covering the fruits, veggies and nuts portion of the nutritional tree.
“But what about proteins?”
I’m glad you asked. What Is Clean Eating 201 is now in session….
What Is Clean Eating 201 – Complete Proteins
Everyone knows that proteins – and the amino acids they’re comprised of – are the building blocks of muscle. If you didn’t know that, it’s safe to say that you’re new to the world of fitness and nutrition.
Well, you’re certainly in the right place. Keep reading and be sure to soak it all in.
You’ll also want to sign up for my newsletter to stay up to date on everything I’m doing here on CraigLeonardFitness.com. I’ll provide you with the signup form at the end of this article.
So, clean proteins…
Many foods that fall into the fruits, vegetables and nuts categories contain protein in their nutritional profiles. However, it’s important to note that NONE of these proteins contain all of the amino acids required for building new muscle tissue.
I’m going to keep this high level, but what you need to know is that ONLY proteins that contain ALL of the essential amino acids can be used by your body to build new muscle tissue.
The essential amino acids are those that are not produced by the body and must be ingested, which is why these particular amino acids are called “essential” (i.e. it is essential that you get them from your diet).
Proteins that contain all the essential amino acids are called complete proteins and foods that contain complete proteins are typically those that are animal proteins. That is, they are produced either directly or indirectly from animals:
- Fish / Seafood
There are a few outliers like quinoa and soy, but the majority of foods that contain complete proteins are contained in the list above.
If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, you will have a very difficult time providing your body with complete proteins. Your only viable option is to combine incomplete proteins together in such a way that you end up getting all the essential amino acids from two or more incomplete protein sources.
This requires a very strategic nutritional strategy that can be quite cumbersome. It can be done, though.
I’m getting a little off track here, but I felt obliged to point this out to my vegan and vegetarian friends who may have been feeling left out.
Looking at the list above, there are a number of factors to be concerned with when it comes to clean eating. These concerns are deserving of their own full articles, which I will likely be writing in the future.
For now, here are the basic points you need to know and follow:
- All beef/steak you eat should be grass fed. Grass fed beef is superior in just about every way to beef sourced from grain fed cattle. Grass fed beef is: Leaner; Higher in vitamins E & B; Higher in calcium, magnesium and potassium; Higher in omega 3 fatty acids; More optimal in terms of its ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fats; Higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has TONS of practical health benefits. Also, do not buy grain finished beef! The benefits of grass feeding are mostly gone after a couple months of being fattened up with grains and genetically modified corn feed.1
- Your poultry and eggs should come from free range (i.e. not fed exclusively GMO corn) chickens that are not injected with hormones and antibiotics. Unhealthy animals provide unhealthy foods. The harmful chemicals they possess are passed up the food chain into our bodies where they wreak all kinds of havoc. For instance, antibiotics in poultry are extremely problematic for your gut flora, which is believed to be responsible for up to 80% of your immune system health and is directly correlated to the likelihood you’ll develop any number of debilitating diseases. This is why many doctors are now saying this supplement is the most important for people to take regularly. Free range poultry also contains higher amounts of omega 3 fatty acids, among other nutritional benefits.
- Your fish should come from wild caught sources. Farm raised fish are fed absolutely detestable foods, including chicken feces.2 Did you swallow back the vomit that just hit your mouth? Yeah, the fact that farm raised fish are fed chicken poop is nasty enough to avoid it at all cost. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the feces also likely comes from chickens fed a diet of nothing but genetically modified corn, adding further insult to the matter.
- Milk, whey, casein and cheese all come from cattle, fall into the dairy category and, as you might have guessed, should all be derived from grass fed sources. Most protein powders are not clean eating acceptable. Not only do most not come from grass fed cattle, but they also contain synthetic ingredients and dangerous artificial sweeteners. Still, having a whey protein supplement on hand is much too convenient to ignore, which is why I consider whey protein to be an essential supplement. Not for any additional nutritional benefit, but for the sake of convenience ONLY. In case you’re curious, I only use and recommend this whey protein supplement.
The final point that deserves to be made is that those in the paleo
cult community are against dairy of all kinds. My research and experience has been that those who aren’t lactose intolerant or allergic to dairy can consume it in moderation without any problems.
In fact, many dairy issues people develop stem from consuming tainted dairy products that come from grain fed cattle that are also injected with antibiotics and hormones.
The paleo cult association above is mostly tongue-in-cheek. I have little against the paleo diet and feel that it is an excellent nutritional lifestyle to pursue.
I just don’t feel that dogmatically dismissing milk as something our ancestors didn’t drink is a little assuming, especially for those of us that don’t ascribe to evolutionary theory.
That being said, I am open minded to the possibility that cow’s milk may be problematic for humans and am intellectually honest enough to change my stance on milk if such evidence ever surfaces in conclusive fashion. As of now, raw milk from grass fed beef appears to be completely clean and safe for those without preexisting dairy concerns.3
It can be challenging to find a source of raw milk from grass fed cattle. RealMilk.com is a great place to start your search.
Congratulations! You’ve just passed What Is Clean Eating 201!
What Is Clean Eating 301 – Clean Fat Sources
When it comes to clean-eating-approved fats, simply avoiding fast foods & processed foods, only consuming cattle based products from grass fed sources and eating free range, cage-free poultry products will largely cover your bases.
Trans fats are a no-no! These are fats that are typically found in processed foods and many fast foods.
Trans fats will reduce your good cholesterol (HDL – High Density Lipoprotein), increase your bad cholesterol (LDL – Low Density Lipoprotein), degrade your cardiovascular health and put you at much greater risk of developing heart disease.
As a general rule, saturated and unsaturated fats are perfectly acceptable.
Saturated fats were previously thought to be responsible for all the problems now attributed to trans fats. They have since been vindicated as research has demonstrated that saturated fats from natural sources are actually quite beneficial to our health.
Saturated fats actually raise LDL cholesterol (bad) levels slightly more than trans fats. However, they also raise HDL cholesterol (good); something that can’t be said when talking about trans fats.4
So where should your fats predominantly come from when eating clean?
Avocados, olives, nuts, coconut, olive oil and coconut oil are all great sources of clean fats.
Attention! Do not use canola oil in your cooking. Canola oil is produced from corn, which is more than likely genetically modified. You should avoid vegetable oil for the same reason.
While olive oil is a clean and healthy source of fat, it’s one that you want to be careful with. First, you don’t want to cook with olive oil under high temperatures and should only apply it to your foods that require high temperature preparation after they’ve been cooked.
Olive oil has a relatively low smoke point (lower smoke points for olive oil hover at around 225 degrees fahrenheit). The smoke point is the temperature at which the chemical structure of olive oil begins to change. So what’s the big deal?
Well, when this chemical change occurs it’s believed that the altered molecular structure is carcinogenic (cancer causing). This is why you’ll want to avoid cooking with olive oil at anything other than low heat and should otherwise only add it to your foods after they’ve been cooked.
By the way, the smoke point of different olive oils can vary by a large degree and some may be perfectly fine to cook with at high temperatures. When dealing with something like cancer, though, I tend to err on the side of caution.
So, for high temperature cooking applications, you should use coconut oil. As a general rule, coconut oil has a much higher smoke point than olive oil.
Coconut oil also provides metabolic, cardiovascular and overall health benefits not found with any other single source of fat. I personally consume about twice as much coconut oil as olive oil.
A few more points about olive oil…
You will also want to make sure you’re using an olive oil that hasn’t had its purity diluted with other ingredients. According to the US Pharmacopeial Convention, 16% of all olive oils on the market are adulterated in some manner because the FDA does not routinely test imported olive oil for purity.5
Consequently, olive oil importers get away with labeling their products as pure olive oil while containing corn, soybean or canola oils!
To test your olive oil for purity, simply leave the bottle in the fridge overnight. If the oil has solidified in the bottle by morning, it may be real.
If not, you should find another olive oil.
Monounsaturated fats, like olive oil, will solidify at 39 degrees F. So the oil solidifying is more of an indication that the fatty oil in the bottle is mostly monounsaturated.
However, it could still be tainted with monounsaturated fats that aren’t olive oil and pass the fridge test. Still, if it doesn’t pass the fridge test, the purity has almost certainly been compromised.
For more information on choosing quality olive oils, I recommend reading this article from marksdailyapple.com.
You also want your olive oil to be extra virgin. Extra virgin olive oil must be made from olives picked at only the correct ripeness and immediately cold pressed, with the oil being extracted without the use of outside chemicals.
Tests by Consumer Reports have found that 61% of extra virgin olive oils shouldn’t be labeled as such, so you can’t just take the label’s word for it.
As a quick side note, remember that the complete proteins you’ll be consuming will all contain a certain amount of fat, as well. As long as they adhere to the guidelines you learned in “What Is Clean Eating 201” you can rest assured the fats are clean.
Before we move on to “What Is Clean Eating 401″…
I would be doing you a huge disservice here in “What Is Clean Eating 301” by not touching on the importance of including omega 3 fats in your diet. Omega 3 is an essential fatty acid, meaning that your body doesn’t produce it and it has to be consumed as part of your diet. Natural sources of omega 3 include eggs, wild caught salmon and grass fed beef.
The average diet includes far too little omega 3 and far too much omega 6. The main reasons for this will be covered in greater detail within “What Is Clean Eating 401”.
As it pertains to this section, though, omega 3 is a great fat source and is one that should be included in your diet indefinitely. Unfortunately, most individuals don’t come close to meeting the body’s ideal ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fats.
This is why a quality omega 3 supplement is one I consider to be essential and never go without. Bear in mind that most fish oil supplements are far from pure, coming from farm raised fish and containing the poisonous element mercury.
Mercury is known to be very dangerous to humans – even in extremely small quantities. So you can’t just run up to your local drugstore and pick up a bottle of omega 3 fish oil and call it clean.
You want to make sure you’re only using a pure omega 3 supplement that is 3rd party verified for purity.
I personally use and recommend this one.
That covers our “What Is Clean Eating 301” bases. We’re moving into the home stretch…
What Is Clean Eating 401 – Dirty Grains
While there are a number of factors contributing to the mind boggling rates of obesity and disease in America (and around the world) today, it would be incredibly short sighted not to at least place some of the blame on grains – and processed grains, in particular.
Processed grains like breads, cereals, crackers, cookies, cakes, snack foods, rice and pastas make up a large percentage of the diets of most Americans. When my new clients send me their food logs this number is almost always well over 50%.
Of course, any diet that contains 300-500 grams of daily carbs is going to be a fat gaining disaster for most people.
But beyond the fat gaining problems of eating a carb-heavy diet, there are other very good reasons processed grains can’t be considered for clean eating.
First, processed grains contain high amounts of omega 6 fatty acids. Second, all of the foods listed above almost always contain HFCS (high fructose corn syrup), with rice being the lone exception.
Yes, HFCS is even an ingredient in the oh-so-healthy whole grain bread varieties (sarcasm included at no additional charge).
You may be wondering why I’d call omega 6 out as being problematic.
I am in no way arguing that Omega 6 fatty acids aren’t an essential nutritional element for living with optimal health. However, as the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fats in one’s diet escalates, so do a number of health risks.
This ratio becoming unbalanced is where excessive omega 6 consumption becomes a concern.
For instance, this study concluded that high omega-6/omega-3 ratios, as found in today’s Western diets, promote a number of diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
While omega 6 fats are a dietary essential, the lower you can keep them in proportion to your intake of omega 3 fats, the better. Most people concerned with eating clean will ingest sufficient amounts of omega 6 without even trying.
Omega 3s are a little harder to come by, which is why supplementing with them is essential in order to maintain a healthy omega 3 to omega 6 ratio.
My Clean Eating Stance On Rice
Because clean eating involves avoiding processed grains, in general, the majority of your carb intake is going to come from fruit and vegetable sources. There is one processed grain I personally exempt as needing to be eliminated for clean eating: Rice.
Brown rice has a higher ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fats than white rice (white rice contains only trace amounts of each). That being said, a 1/2 cup of brown rice only contains around 0.3 grams of omega 6 fatty acids, so countering this with your daily omega 3 supplement won’t be a problem.
You might think this would lead to me eating white rice exclusively, but when supplementing with omega 3 the omega 6 factor with brown rice is pretty much negligible.
My stance is that either white or brown rice is okay when eating clean.
Actually, there is one caveat to that statement. If you live in the U.S., all white rice will be enriched. When brown rice is stripped and processed into white rice much of the nutritional value in the form of vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and fiber is lost.
I am a little skeptical about how “natural” these enrichment additives are and haven’t found a resource to definitively define their safety. This is why I generally stick with brown rice.
Although, if you prefer to eat white rice, you can always wash your enriched white rice before cooking to remove most of the additives.
Outside of the U.S., especially in Asian countries, non-enriched white rice is more common. So this may be an option for you international readers.
The main reason I’ve concluded that rice is clean eating acceptable is because it is minimally processed and doesn’t contain all the external additives, chemicals and other dangerous ingredients.
Again, the omega 6 concern is minimal and becomes a non-issue when supplementing with omega 3 anyway. The same can’t be said for other processed grains.
Along with my stance on milk, my view on rice is another small divergence from the nutritional philosophy of my paleo friends.
The Japanese have been eating rice for thousands of years, eat it with just about every meal throughout the day, and are some of the most naturally lean and healthy people on the face of the earth (they also live longer).
If rice were so unhealthy, this wouldn’t be the case.
To put it another way: Rice. Is. Our. Friend.
What Is Clean Eating – Graduation Day!
Congratulations! You’ve successfully completed reading the Craig Leonard Fitness “What Is Clean Eating” textbook.
It was a lot to soak in, I know.
So be sure to bookmark this page for easy reference later on and share it with those you think could benefit from it.
Remember, knowing what clean eating is will do nothing to make you leaner and healthier if this knowledge isn’t consistently put into action.
You may not be able to apply everything right away. But you can certainly make considerable strides in the clean eating direction.
If you have an extreme personality, and feel convicted to convert 100% to a clean eating lifestyle, even better!
The point I want to leave you with is that I understand how easy unhealthy eating is and how difficult it can be to break away from its allure. This is not an excuse, however, for you to not step up and take personal responsibility for your health and physical appearance.
Clean eating takes a commitment, but you’re simply not going to be committed 100% of the time. This. Is. Normal.
I personally allow myself a few cheat meals each week and it’s okay if you do so as well.
For whatever reason, the formerly fat guy in me will never lose his affinity for pizza and Frosted Flakes. But times when I indulge in these foods will forever be an exception.
80-90% of the time I’m eating in accordance with the principles I’ve laid out for you in this “What Is Clean Eating” course.
It’s time to apply what you’ve learned and begin reaping the lifelong benefits…
While a college degree may earn you hundreds of thousands of dollars more over the span of your life, your “What Is Clean Eating” degree may save you just as much on medical bills and will enhance your well-being and quality of life by an order of magnitude that is literally priceless.
So go out into the world and make a difference. You have your whole life ahead of you.
[Insert every other corny cliche you hear in graduation speeches here].
- Photo Credits: