Clarifying Clean Eating: Moving to the Next Level

Occasionally I’ll read a nutritionist’s “healthy” food suggestions that I don’t consider clean eating at all. Take “whole-grain” pita chips and crackers, for example, which are refined food products. If you’re looking for fiber, there’s hella better alternatives than a snack containing half your daily sodium allowance and a long list of undecipherable ingredients.

When it comes to clean eating, you have to start where you are. If a typical snack for you consists of Fritos and ranch-style dip, then whole-grain pita chips are a step up in the right direction.

Clean-eating-next-levelBut If you want your healthiest body and muscle definition that makes ’em squint, you need to take your clean eating to a new level. You’ll be using every meal or snack as an opportunity to get more lean protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats at a low calorie cost.

How You Know It’s Time

Have you ever heard a little voice in your head while you’re eating? (Am I really eating this?)

Or maybe it’s just a vague sense of disgust. It’s greasy. It’s flavorless. It’s factory-sealed, pressed, and wrapped up nice and neat.

It’s refined beyond recognition and it’s not ok.

Or the day comes when most sweets are just too sweet for you. (I hear this from my clients a lot.)

You’ve outgrown your previous choices and it’s time to move up to the next level of clean eating. You’re ready to bring your physique to the next level, too.

That doesn’t mean you need to be a deprivation freak. You can still enjoy sweets, eating out, and processed foods with a clean eating lifestyle, but as 20% of the 80/20 principle

It’s worth it to moderate these foods – regular consumption of foods high in sugar, fat, sodium, and refined ingredients puts you at risk for weight gain, lethargy, and digestive upset, not to mention heart attack, cancer, and stroke.

It can take several years to move from awareness of refined foods to full-on clean eating. While you might move a lot more quickly that this, taking lifestyle changes slowly is usually a good idea. A few months after global, all-or-nothing changes you might feel put upon, angry, and fed up with being inconvenienced. But easing into changes one food at a time is hardly an imposition at all.

[Tweet “Create a clean eating lifestyle that is sustainable for YOU. Here’s how ->”]

What to Look For

You may have cut out fast food and obviously refined packaged products like Doritos. But do you have a mental checklist for every food you eat?

It’s become automatic for me to check the ingredient list before I buy foods at the grocery store and to check the menu before ordering or even visiting a restaurant. Now I’m so familiar with foods that I can tell just by looking at the packaging or menu item if it meets my requirements.

In addition to the criteria below, you should know your daily calorie and macronutrient recommendation and possibly track your food for awhile. How many carbs, protein, and fats you consume will depend on your goals, weight, age, gender, and activity level.

Incidentally, I recommend looking at the ingredients per serving on food packages, not as a percentage of recommended daily allowance (which can be confusing and is based on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet). For more about how to read ingredient lists and knowing proper serving sizes, see this.

Your mental checklist might look slightly different, but these are the things that are important to me:

High in Fiber

Most Americans get very little fiber, yet a high-fiber diet helps food move quickly through your digestive tract, control blood sugar and appetite, and can help reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and stroke.

You won’t find much fiber in frozen burritos and pizzas, dry soups, chips, and refined baked goods. Eat more vegetables, beans, and legumes, not just more whole grains. Women should get 21-25 grams of fiber per day and men 30-38 grams.

High in Lean Protein

One way I help clients get to the next level with clean eating is by increasing lean protein. Protein has a high thermic effect and satiation factor for fat loss and of course is the building blocks for muscle. When you eat more protein, it’s easier to eat fewer refined grains and processed food. Having 20-30 grams of protein at each meal and 15-25 grams per snack will help you get enough (depending on your body weight).

What is a lean protein? Think lean cuts of beef and pork, chicken and turkey breasts, fish, eggs, whey protein, and low- and nonfat dairy (if you’re a vegan/vegetarian, you’ll need to work harder at getting enough protein).

Close to its Natural State

Heavily refined foods have usually had the fiber and nutrients removed and fat, sugar, and sodium added. That’s why it’s best to eat foods with the short ingredient lists. If you prescribe to the idea of using every meal and snack as an opportunity to get recommended nutrients, you don’t want to waste it on overly processed foods.

I began moving to the next level with clean eating by switching from fast-food burgers to frozen garden burgers. Back then, you couldn’t even find restaurant ingredients online, but I knew fast-food ingredients were heavily processed (pink slime, anyone?). But eventually I realized that “textured vegetable protein” along with 50 other ingredients found in garden burgers wasn’t clean eating. Now we grill homemade lean turkey burgers and freeze them for later.

Low in Sodium

The recommended daily allowance for women age 50 and under is less than 2,300 mg a day, and half the population should get only 1,500 mg a day [1].


[Source: Amercian Heart Association]

The most common culprits of astronomical sodium content are processed meat and grains: Cold cuts, pasta dishes, pizza, chicken dinners, and yeast breads [2].

Eating too much sodium is strongly linked to high blood pressure – that’s a fact! It’s fashionable right now to defend sodium as unfairly maligned. Yes, we need sodium to survive, but most Amercians get way, way too much, so cutting back on proceessed foods will make a big difference in your health.

Low in Fat and Sugar

Fat is a hefty topic, as there are different types with differing effects on the body. Fat is an essential nutrient, but it needs to be moderated, since fat has 9 calories per gram (protein and carbs have 4 calories per gram). Fat should make up 25-35% of your daily calorie intake, with less than 10% of calories from saturated fatty acids.

Omega-3 fats, polyunsaturated fats, and monounsaturated fats are more heart-healthy, whereas omega-6 fat, saturated fats, and trans fats should be moderated, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans [3].

Sugar is also a big topic – is it evil? No food is inherently good or bad, in my view, but it’s how much you eat of it that matters. Overeating of sugar can put you in the obese category and its associated health risks. I look at the total sugar and try to eat as little as possible.

In a future post I’ll talk about clean eating upgrades! You may also be interesting in Clarifying Clean Eating: The 80/20 Principle. For recipes, check out my Clean Eating Pinterest board!

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12 thoughts on “Clarifying Clean Eating: Moving to the Next Level

  1. YES!!! You know I agree!!! AND YES TO where a person starts depending on what they are eating now. For a person eating better but wants to be leaner – it is a whole different thing… it is all about choices & what one wants for themselves & to be lean & cut – it takes more “clean eating” and harder choices… less treats… 🙂


  2. Once you get accustomed to eating quality food sources, like whole food sources, you won’t tolerate processed options. It’s amazing how quickly your childhood fetish with twinkies [or maybe cheesy poofs?] can subside when you go back after eating better. It’s not that those things don’t still hold their childhood fantasy flavoring, but you would rather not waste the calories on something that isn’t altogether pleasurable.

    I would like to recommend that when we talk about fiber we consider soluble versus insoluble. Not all fiber is created equal. Soluble is the ticket.

    Thanks for the article Suzanne.


    • Right?? Twinkies were definitely my childhood fetish. I tried a bite a few years ago and found it to be completely tasteless. Agree about the different types of fiber – good idea to explain that differentiation.


      • Thanks. I’ve run into many people, mostly women, over the years who’ve been frustrated with their results from fiber consumption. After investigation I always find it’s the type of fiber they are eating. Seems to be a game changer.


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