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Here’s what clean eating is all about

The clean-eating trend is more of a philosophy than an eating plan. Could it work for you?

One small thing:Choose to eat foods close to their whole, natural state as far as possible. Stock up on fresh and frozen vegetables as well as wholegrains and other less processed foods, rather than relying on convenient, more processed food products.

Is your food clean? No, we don’t mean “has it been washed?” (although that’s important too). We’re referring to the rising health trend of “clean eating”, which describes a commitment to eating fresh whole foods, as close to their original state as possible.

The most appealing aspect of this lifestyle, which focuses more on health than weight loss (although this may be a welcome side effect), is that you don’t have to count kilojoules or cut out any food groups.

Keep in mind that it’s not a rigid set of rules, but rather a general guide, a more user-friendly approach to healthy eating than the restrictive diets so common these days. We’ve put together a brief crash course to whet your appetite for clean eating, looking at the basic do’s and don’ts. (But remember, these are meant to inform, rather than restrict, your diet.)

Do get fresh

By fresh, we mean choosing either fresh in-season or freshly frozen produce over pre-prepared, more processed foods. In-season fruit and veg are less likely to have spent time in cold storage (where they can lose nutritional value), while frozen produce, perhaps counterintuitively, is often more nourishing than out-of-season fresh produce because it’s frozen quickly right after harvest, locking in nutrients.

Don’t ditch grains

While dried grains and legumes aren’t “fresh”, they play an important role in clean eating – as long as they’re whole, or close to whole. Lentils, brown rice, wholewheat flour, beans, quinoa, millet, whole buckwheat, couscous, groats, barley and chickpeas, for example, are excellent sources of fibre and nutrients.

Do opt for whole

This is the central tenet of clean eating: eating foods as close to their whole, natural state as possible. “It’s well recognised among nutrition professionals globally that we should increase our intake of whole foods,” says registered dietitian Leanne Kiezer. “Eating whole foods means that none of the nutrient properties of that food have been lost during processing, and one can enjoy all the benefits the food has to offer.”

Don’t choose ultra-processed food

The word “processed” is somewhat problematic, in that it doesn’t really tell you whether a product is healthy. “Food processing has a bad reputation that isn’t always justified,” says Kiezer. “Some food processing is required in order to render certain foods edible. For example, many wholegrains could not be eaten if they weren’t processed to some extent, meaning we’d lose out on their nutrient benefits. Certain forms of processing don’t affect food nutrient levels but may help to extend shelf life, make food safer or improve palatability.”

The degree of processing is key, explains Kiezer. “The processed foods you choose should have at least one recognisable wholefood component. It’s the difference between canned tomatoes and a commercially prepared cookie – technically, both are processed, but only one is ultra-processed.” While some lightly processed foods (such as canned tomatoes or seed bread) can safely be eaten regularly, ultra-processed foods (such as chips or biscuits) should be consumed in moderation, as occasional treats only, she adds.

Do go easy on the meat

While meat is an excellent source of vitamin B12, iron and other nutrients, an excess has been linked to cancer and heart disease. So a good clean-eating rule of thumb is to use meat sparingly to add flavour to plant-based meals, rather than it forming the bulk of the meal.

Make sure excess fat is removed, and avoid processed meats like bacon, polony and ham, which may contain nitrates from the smoking process, and more salt than their unprocessed counterparts. Sustainable fish and lean chicken are good options, but stay away from ultra-processed versions of these meats.

Don’t cut out food groups

Although there are Paleo and vegan “versions” of clean eating (the concept is somewhat open to interpretation), the core philosophy doesn’t exclude any major food groups – clean eaters try to include protein, carbohydrate and fat from a variety of sources in every meal. After eating plans punting regimented and exclusionary diets, you might find it rather refreshing to go back to a less restrictive way of eating.

Do avoid additives

Clean eating encourages keeping additives to a minimum, including salt, sugar, preservatives, colourants, emulsifiers, binders and fat replacers. (Tip: the longer the list of ingredients on a food label, and the harder the names are to pronounce, the more likely it is that the food doesn’t qualify as clean eating.) The idea is to stay true to the integrity of the food by adding natural flavour with herbs and spices.

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