Making Clean Eating Work for You, Not the Other Way Around

I’ve been watching different interpretations of the phrase “clean eating” and scratching my head a bit. Clean eating has more interpretations than many other “diets” out there, and I like to think that’s because it’s is an eating lifestyle, not a diet. But are you making clean eating work for you rather than trying to change your life for clean eating? And are you confused by what eating clean means exactly?

What is Clean Eating?

If recipes like “clean eating fudge” put a hopeful smile on your face, think again. Some websites call anything without processed ingredients “clean eating.” But to me, clean eating consistitutes foods that are closest to their natural state and include these qualities:

  • Low in fat, particularly saturated fat (and zero trans fat)
  • Low in sodium
  • Low in refined sugar
  • Shorter ingredient list
  • High in fiber
  • High in vitamins in minerals (nutrient dense)

The clean eating version that has worked for my clients and myself is a lifestyle – it includes eating consistently, following the 80/20 principle, advance prep, reading food labels, a combination of complex carbs, healthy fats, and lean proteins at every meal, and generally just eating nutrient-dense foods instead of commercially packaged foods. When you follow these principles, you automatically limit the amount of processed or unnatural ingredients.

My version of clean eating is to limit sugar and fat, even if it’s “natural.” In my world, eating clean means striving to get as many natural foods and as few unprocessed foods as I can. Notice the words striving to. There’s no way I would realistically follow a strict diet or eliminate certain ingredients altogether; therefore, I’ve found ways to eat as natural as I can without becoming obsessive.

Obviously, scrubbing your food to make it “pure” is a bogus way to describe clean eating and if someone wants to demonize an eating method, there’s always a way. And any diet you obsess about it isn’t a good one (people do that with all kinds of diets).

My Own Story

Put simply, I don’t eat junk – chips, sweets, fast food, etc. – because I don’t want to, not because I’m on a restrictive diet. I remember what if felt like when I used to eat junk and I don’t want to feel that way again.

My eating lifestyle has evolved over a period of years; it didn’t change overnight. In my twenties I ate cheeseburgers, candy bars, and beer almost every day. I also suffered from irritable bowel syndrome and debilitating digestive pain and lethargy. I had high cholesterol too, and I didn’t even consider that my diet could alleviate any of these symptoms. It wasn’t until my mid-thirties that I learned about clean eating and my symptoms disappeared.

So I do remember what it’s like to have little awareness of what you eat. I remember wanting to satisfy cravings and hunger that was out of control due to low blood sugar. I had no idea that what I was eating was making me feel terrible physically and raising my bad cholesterol too.

Although I’ll indulge on special occasions, I’ve lost all appetite and cravings for junk. That, coupled with memories of what junk makes me feel like is what keeps my clean eating lifestyle going day after day.

I should mention that I don’t believe in “good” foods and “bad” foods… I believe we can simply make healthy choices. That’s it.

YOUR Story

Your background and reasons for wanting to eat clean are different from mine. When I say make healthy choices, I mean to educate yourself about what makes you healthier and feel the best. You’re doing that right now by reading this blog. Keep going and find out what works for you instead of trying to adapt your body and life to a rigid set of eating rules.

If you’re on a mission to lose weight, you can abide by temporary calorie restriction until you’ve reached your goal weight. After that, studies show that trying to maintain a strict diet is almost always unsuccessful (unless you’re a bodybuilding competitor who employs the use of a coach) and lots of regular moderate-intensity exercise keeps the weight off the best (as much as 300 minutes per week).

If you’re at a point of weight maintenance, you already know you need to be selective about what you eat. If you choose clean eating, adapt it to your own schedule and lifestyle instead of making your lifestyle fit clean eating. That’s the only way you’ll sustain this eating method over the long term.

Are you following a “diet” or eating lifestyle? Is it working for you or do you need to give yourself permission to change it up?

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26 thoughts on “Making Clean Eating Work for You, Not the Other Way Around

  1. Trying to learn about healthy eating is beginning to feel as difficult and confusing as trying to learn about the presidential candidates. Each person/article has their own agenda to push, a different idea of “healthy” (As you mentioned, people have different ideas of clean eating), so it gets very frustrating and I end up calling it quits and making Rice Krispy treats instead lol (That may or may not have happened last night.)

    I used to work with someone who was super health conscience and when I chose an apple over my normal bag of chips in the afternoon, she still criticized my choice of fruit. What?!

    I’m not interested in fad diets, I just want to eat healthy. For me, that’s included almost completely excluding fast food from my diet (Once or twice a month, usually when I’m eating with other people). No sodas, ever. (Once or twice a year, so almost never lol) Cooking at home as much as I can, and including fruits and vegetables in my diet. But then you hear that coffee is bad or coffee is good, or bread is bad, or why wheat is good for you, the benefits of a gluten free diet, or that gluten free is all in people’s head. It really gets muddied up and confusing.


    • I get your frustration Amy. I recommend Oxygen magazine and “The Eat Clean Diet” by Tosca Reno as excellent resources, not just for “clean eating” but for general healthy eating guidelines. That’s all clean eating really is – healthy eating repackaged with some additional parameters thrown in (frequent meals, protein/carbs each meal, etc.). Good luck and let me know if I can help.


  2. Suzanne—you hit the nail on the head by noting the oddity of “clean eating” fudge etc. (I read a post not long ago on a weight-loss blogger’s site about why brownies made with some sort of “natural” sugar were “clean,” whereas those made with white sugar weren’t. I don’t know about you, but on the rare occasions when I go for a splurge, I go for the tastiest brownie around—as in bring on the butter, white sugar, and chocolate!)

    You know my own allergy to this terminology, and your post helps illustrate the reasons why. You and I follow very similar food habits. Like you, I don’t choose highly nutritious stuff for fat-loss reasons—I eat the same things whether I’m maintaining or cutting.


    • We really are on the same page, Mary. I’m with you – when I eat decadent, I go all the way. LOL! As I said to Amy’s comment above, clean eating is simply healthy eating repackaged. Alright by me!


  3. I feel very strongly about not eating processed foods with very few expections. My diet consists mostly of meat (mostly lean but not all), vegetables, olive and coconut oil, and some dairy. I keep trying to eliminate the dairy but I just like cream in my coffee too much. That’s when I cook at home, anyway. It all goes to hell when I eat out or when someone else cooks… or when there’s tequila involved.


    • Anything you can keep up works, Kendra. Curious why are you trying to eliminate dairy? That’s a tough one and not really necessary unless you react violently to it (there are plenty of lactase aids). Eliminating staples from your diet can lead to feeling deprived and frustrated. And oftentimes unfortunately it can also lead to failure because it’s very difficult to keep up.


  4. I don’t diet. I changed my lifestyle. For ME clean eating is a bit different than your interpretation and I think that’s fine. It can mean different things for everyone. For me, I ate a ton of processed crap while I was losing my weight. I had to retrain myself to eat a portion size (what a shocker that was when I realized I was eating 3 portions) and so I ate things like Lean Cuisines, snack packs that were measured out and 100 calories, etc.

    After keeping the weight off for awhile, I started to feel gross eating that crap. I decided to eliminate a lot of the processed foods I eat. I’ve been successful. I eat things that grow in earth, that live on the earth (or sea) and less things that come from a box. I feel a million times better.


    • I always find it interesting to hear about your evolution from eating smaller processed portions to eventually eating healthy small portions. Processed frozen meals, boxed foods – they are the worst and send my stomach into cramps.


  5. I will respond more later or tomorrow as I am behind on other stuff BUT I am writing about my not so conventional eating & boring eating on my post tomorrow.. too funny we did this at the same time. I am just for what works for one may not work another but as long as it works for the person & the doc/blood reports say they are healthy – go for it! 🙂


  6. This is a great post Suzanne!
    I tend to follow Tosca Reno’s definitions of clean eating, which means reducing the whites (sugar, flour, salt) and eating food as close to it’s natural form as possible.
    Do I bake with white sugar and flour? Of course! But not all the time and I try and ‘clean’ up my recipes by adding more nutritious items including flax seed, chia, wheat bran etc.
    I think it’s more important to find what works for you than follow a particular set plan or diet.


  7. I love and agree with your sentiment. I think we all have to find the way for works for us. I agree with the general principals but also realize we live, work and travel in the real world. When I started my journey in 1999 I certainly wasn’t eating any version of clean. I managed portions and ate things better for me, but certainly not perfect. That is where I had to start. Now, my diet is substantially different because I learned that I felt better and keeping my weight off was easier when I ate more whole and minimally processed foods. But I am still not perfect. I still eat cereal from a box (Kashi) because I need a quick option to eat in the car. I still buy protein bars to supplement the ones I make. It’s about giving our bodies the best we can in a way that is liveable.


    • You’re the second person I heard from who said she managed portions to lose weight, not the content of the diet. Later came the cleaner eating. Almost everything is processed and it’s not all bad… milk, yogurt, some cereals. We all just do the best we can and tweak as necessary.


  8. interesting way of looking at it, and i can relate. Clean eating is so skewed these days. TO me, it means real food, and balanced nutrients. That basically comes down to meat/veggie/natural fat. Ya know?


  9. You are so right – clean eating is in the eye of the beholder! My definition continues to evolve over time. These days, it is usually about avoiding processed foods, particularly sugary items. 🙂


  10. Finally getting back for more! 🙂 When you wrote this: The difference is that I indulge so seldom that when I do, I feel perfectly comfortable using white sugar (an ingredient not used at the Gracious Pantry). – I agree!!! You know I have my treat cookies & I do eat other stuff but as you can see from my “what I eat post”, in general I eat pretty clean for me & what works for me.. I am lazy & want easy! 🙂 This is no diet for me – this is just my life…. 🙂


  11. I have been eating my version of clean for almost 2 months now (but started easing into it a few months prior to that). I’ve drastically reduced the packaged foods and refined grains and sugar. I each several smaller meals a day with protein and lots of vegetables and fruit. I asked myself the other day if I can keep this up forever and I realized I really can. I don’t feel deprived (I do sneak a little chocolate every once and awhile!) and I feel so good. I can’t even tell you. My energy! My digestive system! My skin, hair and body all look so much better. I am one happy girl.


    • WOW! Congrats on this, it’s huge. Sounds very similar to how I approached it. You’re so right that ENERGY is one of the biggest benefits from these changes. So happy for you!


  12. Suzanne,
    I’m so glad I found you and your blog via twitter! I saw myself in your description of becoming a “clean eater.” I too have IBS and I know this is what I need to do in order to feel healthy again. Reading that you don’t want to go back to the other way of eating just confirms to me how much I need to get to that place in the first place. As I read your story, I could see that this has helped you SO much that, there’s just no question as to whether you would go back to that.
    I’m happy to follow along now. 🙂


    • So fun to connect with you! Thanks much for reading and commenting. I really do encourage you to try this approach for controlling IBS. IBS is debilitating – I get this. So when you find out what’s causing the problem it’s insanely good stuff! Please keep me posted on how it’s going.


  13. I am with you on what clean eating is and I don’t consider a recipe clean if it contains a cup of sugar or a cup of vegetable oil. I avoid processed foods and all the other bad stuff as much as I can but I would rather eat something processed like cottage cheese than anything with sugar. But I guess it is all about preference and how we understand it.
    I am sad that people run into some recipes that are named clean but are still full of sugar for example, eat those foods and believe they are living a very healthy lifestyle.


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