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Clean eating basics: It's surprisingly easier than you think

You don't have to stop enjoying food to eat clean. It's more about choosing foods in their whole, natural state.
/ Source: TODAY

You might be surprised to learn that before the term "clean eating" became a buzzword, we used to call it simply "healthy eating."

Cleaning eating means choosing real foods in their whole, natural state.

Despite many popular interpretations — from Martha Stewart to Gwyneth Paltrow to "Eat Clean Live Well" author and chef Terry Walters — it's challenging to find a clean-eating plan that is both rich in nutrients and something you can stick with long term.

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The foundation of all clean-eating plans is limiting (or eliminating) all packaged and processed foods. But some recommendations include elimination of red meat, gluten and dairy. Others espouse juicing to 'rest" your digestive tract (nothing could be further from the truth: food is the best workout for your digestive tract).

Before you start any plan, always talk to your doctor before eliminating whole nutrient groups from your diet.

Clean eating is a concept that must be followed regularly, over time, to reap real health benefits. But you don't need to be a perfect eater —no one is! If you stick with these recommendations at least 80 percent of the time — give yourself a little "wiggle room" — you'll feel more satisfied after eating and boost your energy level.

The best — and easiest — clean-eating strategy would be quite familiar to our parents and grandparents. It's a "one-size-fits-all" eating plan supporting a healthy heart, brain and digestive tract.

Following a clean eating plan is much easier than you might think. It doesn't require a lot of extra time or money to follow these seven basic tips:

1. Avoid most packaged and processed foods

The first step in clean eating. Read labels to avoid added sugars, salts and fats.

While bagged, boxed, or canned foods can be a convenience — especially for healthy, out-of-season foods (think canned tomatoes), make the habit of looking for added sugars, salt and fats.

You can always "correct" the flavors if you choose, with your own additions.

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2. Choose real foods

Look for foods that you can recognize in their whole, natural state.

Choose seasonal fruits and vegetables for nutrient density and freshness. And include frozen fruits and vegetables in the mix (without sauces).

3. Cut back on added sugars

All humans are born with a "sweet tooth". And fruit is nature's candy. Fresh or dried, before there was candy, cookies, cake and other vehicles for loads of added sugars, we turned to fruit.

Portable, economical, and a treat for your taste buds. And there is a range of sweetness in fruits. Slightly under-ripe fruit is on the lower end of the sweetness scale, while super-ripe and dried fruits concentrate and boost the sweetness signals.

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4. Limit saturated fats/avoid trans fats

Processed and packaged foods are the main sources of trans fats, but meat also contains small amounts. Saturated fats are found in fatty meats, full fat dairy, butter and coconut/palm oils.

Use heart-healthy plant-based oils like nuts, olives, and avocado.

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5. Cook and eat at home

While not a food-specific recommendation, when you cook at home you know the ingredients and seasonings in every dish. No guesswork or taste-testing for hidden fats, salt and sugar found in restaurant meals and prepared foods. You can personalize your eating with spices and herbs instead of salt, smaller amounts of healthy fats, and a lot less sugar.

6. Stay hydrated

Our bodies need abundant water for optimal function. And while fruits and vegetables are mostly water and contribute a large portion of daily fluid needs, added fluids are needed daily. While the newest guidelines suggest drinking "when thirsty", most people ignore these signals, or don't really recognize them. Aim for at least six glasses of water daily (which also includes non-caffeinated drinks, like herbal teas and coffee and seltzer). Spruce up your water with a slice of fruit, or even cucumber and mint.

RELATED: 9 signs you're dehydrated

7. Limit caffeine and alcohol

New science fully documents the health benefits of moderate amounts of caffeine. Caffeine can boost alertness, energy and mental focus when used modestly.

As caffeine intake rises, so do negative side effects including jitteriness, anxiety, stomach upset and insomnia.

Aim for up to 300 mg daily, which is about two large mugs of coffee (typical coffeehouse size of 16 - 20 ounces), or four large mugs of tea.

If you find you're "caffeine-sensitive" with these guidelines, as many people are, cut back to an amount that is symptom-free for you.

And while alcohol can be a health plus, limit your intake to up to one daily serving for women, and two for men. A serving is not the size of your glass. It's:

  • 5 ounce glass of wine
  • 12 ounce beer
  • 1.5 ounces of spirits

Don't add alcohol as a health booster if it's not already part of your lifestyle.

Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D is NBC News nutrition and health editor

This story was original published in June, 2015