You want to eat healthy, right? Feel better, maybe lose a few pounds after months of COVID-19 comfort snacking.

But with so many fad diets and all the confusing hype, it can be hard to know where to begin. “Clean eating,” for example. It sounds so reasonable. It must be good for you, right? And it is ... to a point.

Like any trend, though, this one comes with its own share of questionable promises and surprising pitfalls. So, to help clear up any confusion, we talked to Jennifer Anderson, registered dietitian at Novant Health Heart & Vascular Institute in Charlotte to sort through the good, the bad and the potentially dangerous aspects of clean eating.

Clean eating has been a buzzword for years

Logan Jennifer Anderson head shot
Jennifer Anderson

“Clean eating is basically about choosing whole foods, in their natural state or as close to natural as possible,” Anderson said. “The term means different things to different people, but the gist of it is cutting out processed foods.”

Some enthusiastic clean eating devotees also adhere to other “rules,” including:

  • Eating only home-cooked food and never at restaurants
  • Cutting out all the “white stuff” (sugar, flour, white rice)
  • Buying only local, organic, sustainably farmed goods

We’ve broken it down into some common pitfalls and positive takeaways for you.

Not necessarily true

1. Is clean eating all natural? Probably not.

Defining what’s natural or organic can be tricky, Anderson said. Rice is natural, but organic white rice is still processed and packaged. Brown rice undergoes minimal processing and is nutritionally superior. And not all natural foods are healthy. Organic honey, for example, is a natural sweetener that still contains calories and raises your blood sugar in the same way that other sugars do (white sugar, raw sugar, agave).

Also, most people think organic means pesticide-free, but that’s not necessarily true. Organic farmers can use certain natural pesticides to protect their produce. And, while research continues, we just don’t know for sure if organic produce is more nutritious.

  1. Clean eating is simple? Just try it.

Just take a moment to consider how much time is involved in planning, shopping and cooking every meal from scratch. Add in the idea of never going out to eat – because restaurant food is almost always processed – and any notions of simplicity start to fade.

  1. Clean eating costs less? Probably not.

Depending on where you live, this may not be true. Foods labeled “natural” are usually more expensive. In many rural areas, people don’t have access to health-food stores and farmer’s markets.

Then there are the mostly urban neighborhoods known as “food deserts,” where convenience stores and fast food restaurants are the only options. Considering the stresses and costs of city living, it’s not surprising that a dollar menu can become a mainstay.

  1. Overdoing it can be a problem

For good health, eating only home-cooked, organic foods may, at first, seem like a no-brainer. But clean eating’s strict rules, like cutting out all added sugars and prepackaged foods, can make success unattainable. And if we fall off the wagon and eat food we’ve labeled as “bad” or “dirty,” shame and self-doubt can cause a serious setback for some.

Another danger is that, over time, dieters following strict plans may become obsessive and could even develop an eating disorder like orthorexia nervosa, Anderson said. People with orthorexia take food rules to such an extreme that it threatens their health. Untreated, it could even lead to cognitive problems and a compromised immune system.

  1. Clean eating is sustainable? Hmmm …

“There are some elements of clean eating that would be great to embrace,” Anderson said, “but I, personally, would find it unsustainable, and most of my clients would struggle to maintain it.”

Instead of indulging in all-or-nothing thinking (“I’ll never eat out again!”), consider taking the approach favored by Anderson and other Novant Health dietitians. Aim for small, realistic and achievable changes. They’re easier and really do add up over time.

Clean eating ideas you can use will format as subhead

  1. Trim excess sugars

Most of us know we need to eat less sugar. As of 2016, changes to the Nutrition Facts Label can help. They’re now required to list two kinds of sugar: naturally occurring and added (although some companies have until 2021 to comply with the label changes). Aim for added sugars to make up less than 10% of your daily calories (30 to 45 grams a day for most people).

When you’re reading labels, look for foods with no more than 7 grams of added sugars per serving. At the very least, Anderson said, stick to foods with added sugars in the single digits.

  1. Cut down on sodium

The federal government recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, a limit that most Americans far surpass thanks to heavily processed and restaurant foods. By definition, a low-sodium food contains no more than 140 milligrams per serving. Anderson, however, said aiming for 200 milligrams per serving or less is more realistic and can still help you stay under your daily limit.

For example, you know those whole-wheat crackers whose name rhymes with biscuit? With lots of fiber and just a few ingredients, Anderson said they’re a good snack choice. Although the original variety of Triscuit contains 160 to 170 milligrams per serving – more than recommended – Anderson said it’s still a healthy snack option. Better yet, they’ve come out with a low-sodium option with only 50 milligrams per serving!

  1. Shop smarter

The shelves in the grocery stores’ center aisle contain the most highly processed foods. Avoid them. Instead, try to fill your cart with whole foods like – and you’ve heard this before – fruits and veggies, low-fat dairy, eggs and lean meats displayed around most grocery stores’ outer edges.

More shopping tips? Always make a shopping list to cut down on impulse purchases. And never go shopping hungry, when you’re mostly like to fall off the wagon.

  1. Pre-prep your meals

Meal prep saves time, can be more cost effective, and it’s healthier, too. For example, canned soup is loaded with sodium.

But if you make a big pot of your favorite on Sunday, you can control the ingredients – leaner meats, more veggies and lots of herbs and spices instead of salt. Then you can portion it out for the week’s lunches or freeze it for busy weeknights when you’d usually cave and order pizza.

  1. Think moderation

The dietitian’s unofficial mantra, moderation is key to making sustainable lifestyle changes. The foods we eat 80% of the time have the greatest impact on our health. And choosing mostly nutrient-dense foods will offset the occasional less-healthy choice.

“I prefer seeing clients make small, realistic changes, instead of overhauling their diets overnight,” Anderson explained. “Small changes make a big difference over time, and that builds confidence.” In other words, think cleaner eating.

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