What Is Clean Eating, Anyway?

The concept of clean eating isn’t clearly defined. Learn the core values and guardrails to find out if this approach is one for you!

Let’s talk clean eating.

The concept has been around for a while, but this lifestyle approach hasn’t become much more defined since its inception. That’s because no regulatory agency has defined “clean eating,” so it can mean different things to different people and different food companies. While there’s a wide spectrum of “cleanliness,” there are some core ideologies around what a clean eating meal plan includes or (perhaps more importantly) doesn’t include, that we can can take a look at.

(Psst: Here are three ways to make clean eating fun!)

The less processed, the better

This is the overarching theme of clean eating. At its core, the foods are simple and healthy. When meals are served, you can tell what the ingredients are that made up each dish because they haven’t been processed into another form or type of food. Oats look like oats, not like crunchy O’s served up in a cereal bowl. The ingredients used aren’t typically made up of other ingredients. For example, sauces are made up of oil, onion, garlic, tomato and basil, not a jar of pasta sauce from a grocery store shelf that includes 15 ingredients, not all of which you can pronounce or find in your home kitchen. It’s that less-is-more mindset that guides the clean eating choices.

Ever wonder how to make a homey casserole clean-eating style?

Eat more fruits and vegetables

If you want your ingredients to be made up of very few ingredients, then fresh fruits and veggies will be the star of your show. Try to find a nutrition label on a peach–there isn’t one because a peach is made up of only peachy goodness. Not only will eating more fruits and veggies mean you’re eating foods that are less processed, but it will also move the needle in the healthy direction, a core value of clean eating.

Learn the best way to clean your fruits and veggies.

Skip refined carbohydrates

Stripping the bran and germ away from grains is, by definition, processing. It’s changing the food from it’s natural state into something different. In this case, the change strips away healthful nutrients. Other forms of processed foods that are far from their natural state include things like corn chips, crackers and sugary breakfast cereals–they look nothing like the corn, wheat or rice that they are made from. If you don’t know a lot about cooking whole grains, no worries! This guide explains it all.

Consider the environment

This core value is part of the clean eating experience, but probably has the most variety in terms of what this means to different people. It might mean buying foods with little to no packaging, reducing food waste, choosing produce that’s been sustainably farmed, using cage-free eggs, eating less meat (and choosing grass-fed when you do) or focusing on foods with a small carbon footprint. There’s a huge spectrum of ways that food choices impact the environment and it’s an important thing to consider when clean eating.

One of may favorite things about the concept of clean eating is that it can make actual food prep a lot easier because it focuses on the ingredients. Just a few wonderfully fresh ingredients paired together in a creative way will really let the natural flavors shine through. It also means less grocery shopping, cooking and cleanup!

Think clean eating is right for you? Start with these 10 dietitian-approved clean ingredients!

Try Clean Eating with Our 14-Day Meal Plan
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Peggy Woodward, RDN
Peggy is a Senior Food Editor for Taste of Home. In addition to curating recipes, she writes articles, develops recipes and is our in-house nutrition expert. She studied dietetics at the University of Illinois and completed post-graduate studies at the Medical University of South Carolina to become a registered dietitian nutritionist. Peggy has nearly 20 years of experience in the industry. She’s a mom, a foodie and enjoys being active in her rural Wisconsin community.