Clean eating continues to be the easy target of tired attacks in recent years. The in-vogue bashers call it obsessive, overly restrictive, and ill-defined, but these criticisms are ignorant and usually accompanied by a hidden agenda. Ironically, clean eating is a series of simple habits that make obsessing and restricting completely unnecessary.
Sure, you can get neurotic about pretty much anything if you have that propensity to begin with, including counting calories, measuring food, weighing yourself, and basically monitoring yourself to the Nth degree.
And if you haven’t read Tosca Reno’s The Eat Clean Diet, maybe clean eating does seem ill-defined. But Reno’s book has become the standard for the clean-eating lifestyle and it says nothing about reading food labels and measuring food as a full-time job. It lays out the principles quite clearly.
So what is clean eating then? Here I’ll describe my approach as an unapologetic clean eater whose life was changed by becoming aware of what I feed my body. I’ve been able to maintain my weight into my forties without cardio or deprivation, a time when your body becomes greedy about holding onto fat. Consistency in how I eat and strength train has allowed me to retain a high metabolism and keep my body fat from creeping up.
Maybe the reason critics don’t get it is because clean eating is actually quite simple: it is a mindset and automatic habits.
Know What You’re Eating
At its heart, clean eating is about the content of your diet.
In the words of author Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” (Excerpt from In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.)
Before I looked at ingredient lists, I suffered from debilitating digestive issues. I’m talking about lying down every day (or needing to) from severe bloating, cramps, and fatigue. By 2 pm my discomfort was in full force and by evening I was so tired I could only plop down in front of the TV.
I also carried extra body fat which put me in the “average” category of body composition (and there isn’t much muscle definition at that level).
Like so many Americans, I mindlessly ate whatever tasted “good” and was convenient. I was accustomed to eating overly processed foods you could pull out of the freezer or prepare from a box. I never questioned what was in that frozen burrito, garden burger, or dry soup. I ate fast food whenever I wanted, had chips for lunch, and had a daily milk chocolate habit.
Now, you can say that none of these foods is inherently dangerous or poisonous, but they do contain long lists of additives: artificial ingredients, hydrogenated oils, preservatives, refined sugars, and sodium. They also can contain very little fiber. high-quality protein, and nutrients.
I began becoming aware of ingredients little by little. When I noticed the changes in my gut health and energy levels, I was propelled to keep going. This change didn’t take that much effort – just a mindset shift: thinking about how foods affect my body, thinking of my body as an exact result of what I ate, and wanting to feel better.
I was lazy about food before clean eating and I’m still lazy about food. I’m not a big cook or someone who loves grocery shopping. I don’t pour over recipes, make peanut butter from scratch (though I’d like to), or track every gram of sugar. But clean eating has become so automatic for me that I can think about food as little as I want.
Make Good Choices
Your transition from eating too many overly processed foods to more natural, wholesome foods may happen over a period of a year or more. Quick, global diet changes are also quick to die.
I slowly built an awareness of processed foods and at the same time an intolerance of salty, fatty, artificially enhanced food products. At first, eating a processed garden burger was an improvement over a fast-food burger. Over time, even a garden burger became too salty and overprocessed for me.
Now, much of what I choose to eat is unconscious; that is, I barely have to think about it because I follow my gut. To break it down:
- The fewer ingredients, the better.
- The closer a food is to its natural state, the better.
- The more fiber, the better.
- The less refined sugar and fat, the better.
When you eat this way, you leave more room for vitamins, minerals, and fiber in your diet instead of empty, calorie-dense foods that leave you hungry a short time later.
Be a Creature of Habit
Habits let you be on automatic pilot, and that’s really the key to consistent clean eating. You’ll notice that none of these habits involve deprivation or obsessing:
- I bring healthy snacks when I leave the house so I’m not caught hungry and desperate for calories.
- I aim to eat a salad every day for lunch, along with lean protein like tuna, turkey, or chicken.
- I always have a full water bottle or glass nearby.
- I cook my lunch staples in advance and freeze them in individual-sized portions.
- I drink iced tea instead of soda or juice.
- I minimize alcohol.
- I indulge in sweets and treats on birthdays and special occasions (and I don’t crave them otherwise).
- I don’t keep sugary treats in the house (unless for short periods around holidays when my daughter gets them).
- I eat regularly without really thinking about. When I’m hungry, I reach for one of my healthy snacks or I realize that it’s lunch or dinner time.
- I eat enough at my meals so that I’m not hungry at night or snacking wildly.
- I have a rotation of healthy recipes I can rely on.
- I minimize eating out and when I do, I need to know what’s in my food.
Being on automatic pilot is what makes clean eating such an effective nutritional strategy. When clean eating is a set of habits, you stick to your appropriate calorie intake automatically. Your gut is healthier. And you don’t have to think about food all the time.
This article originally appeared on workoutnirvana.com.