Food used to be simple. You ate what you grew on the land or you bought from nearby farmers. Processed food was nothing more than canned, frozen, or cured. Today, food is much more complicated — and we're both better and worse off for it. We can eat a greater variety of healthy foods than our ancestors did (think fresh berries in winter), but we also can eat a lot more highly processed, chemical-laden ones. And that fare seems to be winning the day, if our epidemics of obesity and diabetes are any indication.
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But an increasing trend toward clean eating — with its emphasis on whole, fresh, traditional fare — could mark a turning point in our sometimes dysfunctional relationship with food and help us achieve good health, culinary satisfaction, and optimal fitness.
Be a budget organic! Use our guide to help you decide what to buy organic and what to skip.
To help you clean up your own diet and reap the benefits (weight loss and possible decreased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer), we created these nine rules. You'll be eating clean in no time.
1. Toss a few heavily-processed staples. Instead of overhauling your pantry all at once, start by eliminating corn oil and soda--both highly processed, says Nina Planck, author of Real Food: What to Eat and Why. "That alone," she says, "is a huge first step." (Another easy step is replacing refined breads and pastas made from white flour with ones made from whole grains.)
2. Clean up the biggest part of your diet. To keep it simple, assess what part of your diet supplies the most calories, suggests Mary Ellen Camire, PhD, a professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Maine. If you're an omnivore, buy meat that comes from grass-fed cattle and eggs from pasture raised chickens, but stick to conventional produce instead of organic. If you're a vegetarian, buying organic produce makes more sense.
3. Shop the perimeter of the supermarket. Most whole, natural foods are on the outside aisles of grocery stores--that's where the produce, dairy, and meat sections usually are. As you go deeper into the center of the store, you encounter more processed and packaged food. "Find the stuff that spoils," suggests nutritionist Johnny Bowden, PhD, author of The Most Effective Ways to Live Longer.
4. Read labels. It's the easiest way to distinguish a "clean" food from a highly processed one. Think about it: A head of lettuce has no label (totally natural), while a bag of ranch-flavored corn chips has a dozen or more ingredients (highly processed). Instead of eliminating all processed foods, study the labels on the packaging and choose those with fewer and simpler ingredients (avoid hydrogenated oils, artificial flavors and colors, stabilizers, preservatives, excessive amounts of fat and sodium, and added refined sugar).
5. Think nutrients per serving. Consider the amount of nutrients in a product rather than focusing solely on price. Ask yourself if the price of the food is worth the nutrients (or lack thereof). You can make this assessment on every item by comparing the protein, fiber, minerals, and vitamins against fat, sodium, sugars, and chemical additives. Some clean eaters also focus on the environmental impact of the food. Some stores are promising to make the assessment easier. Walmart is phasing in a sustainable product index designed to help consumers judge at a glance the environmental impact of a product (including food).
A new organization called the Ecological Food Manufacturers Association is pushing companies to go even further. "A consumer should be able to pick up a product and, by looking at one little score, instantly know how safe, planet-friendly, and nutritious it is," says EFMA founder and CEO Winston Riley. NuVal (a food rating system designed by David Katz, MD, MPH, and other medical experts, which gives points to foods based on their nutritional content) is available in more than 500 supermarkets nationwide. The higher the score, the cleaner the food. You can also use your iPhone to access GoodGuide, a free application that offers health, environment, and social responsibility information, plus ratings, on over 50,000 products (or go to goodguide.com).
6. Cookmore meals at home. This is an easy way to shift more of your resources toward whole food and potentially save money. Plus, many restaurants rely on highly processed food to create their meals. To make home cooking easier, master a few one-pot or one-pan dishes with simple ingredients that you can whip up quickly and that will feed the family for days. "In my fridge right now, I have some beef chili and meat loaf," says Planck, a mother of three. "Each makes a wholesome meal with plenty of leftovers." Cooking helps you appreciate and enjoy your food more, especially if you share the process with others, says Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food. He recommends involving family by giving them a job (wash, chop, stir, set the table, etc.). As a bonus, he notes that people who cook tend to eat more healthfully and weigh less than those who don't.
7. Adjust your tastebuds. If you're accustomed to eating food with lots of salt, sugar, fat, and other additives, you'll need to retrain your tastebuds to appreciate the more subtle flavors of whole foods. For instance, if you don't immediately like the taste of brown rice, mix it with white (in decreasing amounts) until you adapt. (You can do the same thing with whole grain pasta.) It works for salty and fatty foods, too. Instead of switching immediately to, say, low sodium soups, mix a regular can with a low-sodium version and adjust the ratio toward less sodium as you get used to the flavor. It can take up to 12 weeks to adjust, says Richard Mattes, MPH, PhD, a professor of foods and nutrition at Purdue University.
8. Follow an 80-20 strategy. Eating plans go bad (and are eventually abandoned) when they turn obsessive. Clean eating is no different. To avoid that trap, take an 80-20 approach. That is, try to eat natural food 80% of the time, with a 20% buffer for when you're traveling or socializing or simply can't.
For Camire, clean eating is all about the pleasures of food. She remembers some advice that celebrity chef Alton Brown of the Food Network delivered at an Institute of Food Technologists conference a few years ago. "I'll never forget it," she says. "He said, 'You know, as long as it's made with love...' That really stuck with me because it goes back to the whole French paradox thing: While the French are talking with family, drinking wine, and turning eating into a celebration, we're scarfing down handheld food in our cars. His message was to think about where your food is coming from, who's preparing it, and especially how you're eating it."
In other words, be mindful. It's a word that comes up repeatedly in discussions of clean eating. Be more mindful of how you shop, how you cook, and how you eat.
"I choose to eat this way for many reasons, and one of the biggest is enjoyment," says Pollan. "There doesn't have to be a trade-off between pleasure and health. If you eat this way, you can have both. This diet is amplifying the voice of your mother, the voices of your grandmothers, and the voice in you. It's not rocket science. In fact, it's not even science; it's just common sense."
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