Home Q&A Wednesday Q&A Wednesday: What IS Clean Eating, Anyway?

Q&A Wednesday: What IS Clean Eating, Anyway?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Q: Erika, love the blog. I see lots of posts about clean eating but what exactly is it? Is it just eating only what you’re supposed to eat to lose weight?

I’m glad this question was asked, so that I can clarify fairly.

There’s a difference between eating clean and eating for weight loss. To me, you can neither lose nor maintain a given weight without eating clean, but you can eat clean without it resulting in weight loss. Clean eating is a huge part of permanent weight loss to me, but weight loss doesn’t have to be a part of clean eating at all.

Let me start, first, with the tenets of clean eating.

Even though this has been popularized by the bodybuilding and weight loss crowd (like myself), this originated among the hippie crowd (like myself) as a backlash to the new FDA regulations that allowed adulteration of our food supply. Things like allowing “hyphenated chemicals” and additives and preservatives to be added to our food. You know how there’s always that fringe group that, every now and again, has it right? Well, these hippies were it.

With a focus on fruits, vegetables and the kind (and amount) of meat they were accustomed to, they were unswayed by the “fat free” craze because they knew that “fat free”  meant “also comes with too many chemicals” and, instead of eating anything labeled “fat free,” they simply made dishes that would naturally be low in fat. I’m not sure whether the original clean eaters knew that you actually need fat in order to absorb nutrients, so it’s probably a bad idea to try to cut it out completely, but it doesn’t matter.

The underlying goal of clean eating is eating as close to the source as possible. Be your source mother Earth or a live animal, you want your food to be as unprocessed and as unadulterated as possible.

How do you do this? Simple:

Avoid processed foods like the plague. Why? Check out The Problem With Processed Foods and The Chemical “Processing” In Your Processed Foods for more info.

Skip the soft drinks and juices. That’s right. You heard me. No soda pop. No diet soda pop. No fruit “drink.” It is the world’s largest sugar bomb in a cup, there is no fiber in it, there is no nutritional value to it and the only even remotely natural ingredient in either is “water.” There is no flavoring of natural origin – have your grapes ever tasted like grape juice? have your strawberries ever tasted like strawberry juice? – and no nutritive value to it. If you must have juice, squeeze it yourself, grab something freshly-squeezed/juiced from a farmer’s market (think apple cider) or health food store. Remember this?

Ever wonder why every carton of natural, healthy, 100 percent, not-from-concentrate orange juice manages to taste exactly the same, yet ever so slightly different depending on the brand, despite containing no additives or preservatives whatsoever?

The process indeed starts with the oranges being squeezed, but that’s the first and last normal step in the process. The juice is then immediately sealed in giant holding tanks and all the oxygen is removed. That allows the liquid to keep without spoiling for up to a year. That’s why they can distribute it year-round, even when oranges aren’t in season.

There is just one downside to the process (from the manufacturers’ point of view, that is) — it removes all the taste from the liquid. So, now they’re stuck with vats of extremely vintage watery fruit muck that tastes of paper and little else. What’s a poor giant beverage company to do? Why, they re-flavor that sh-t with a carefully constructed mix of chemicals called a flavor pack, which are manufactured by the same fragrance companies that formulate CK One and other perfumes. Then they bottle the orange scented paper water and sell it to you.

And, thanks to a loophole in regulations, they often don’t even bother mentioning the flavor pack chemicals in the list of ingredients.
Excerpted from The 6 Most Horrifying Lies The Food Industry Is Feeding You | A Black Girl’s Guide To Weight Loss

Yeah, so be smart.

Drink water… lots of it. Your body needs it. Badly. Most headaches, cramps and general discomfort in the body can be eased with a nice tall glass of water. And no, I don’t mean bottled water. Grab a nice, tall, BPA/CFC/LMNOP-free container and keep it full. Learn that warm water is the same as cold water (except that it’s, well, warm) and still beneficial. Drink up, buttercup.

Eat foods that are as unprocessed as possible.Yes, I listed this as different from “avoid processed foods” because this is a separate point. Whereas you should be avoiding hyper processed foods like powdered macaroni and cheese anyway, this is a separate issue. Take, for instance, bread. The ingredients list for “bread” should not be 57 ingredients long. Bread consists of water, flour, yeast, salt and patience. Little more than that. Bread also isn’t supposed to be light, fluffy, airy and sweet. Yeast may give it sweetness, but its not supposed to taste like kool-aid. If you, Clean Eater, have a choice between the 57-ingredient mystery bread and the four-ingredient bread… you take the four-ingredient bread and wonder why on Earth the other exists.

Love your fats. Your body actually needs fat in order to aid in the absorption of certain vitamins, therefore a diet devoid of fat is, in fact, a diet that’d leave you devoid of essential vitamins. At the same time, you have to know which fats are helpful and which are not – trans fats? No good. Oils that come from genetically modified sources – think soybean oil, the average vegetable oil, corn oil, canola oil, rapeseed oil? No good. Good fats – the ones that occur naturally in an item like nuts, avocado, fish, seeds, properly-raised meats – are your friend. Oils from natural sources like olive oil, sesame oil, peanut oil and the like? Your friend.

Reduce your carbon footprint. Skipping all that PepsiCocaDrDew, dropping all those packages of processed food, using a canteen instead of buying bottled water… do you know how much trash you’ll be avoiding? Sometimes doing a little good for the environment can, in turn, do a little good for you, too!

Balance your meals, and make them rainbows. In fancier terms, this maximizes the nutrient density of your dishes, and improves your intake. A little protein (meats, beans, nuts), a little fats (avocado, oils, animal fats) and a little carbs (viva la veggies!) are how you make a meal, and each plate should be a colorful display. Your dinner should never be beige. (I’m talking to you fry and nugget meal eaters, here.) A little red (tomatoes and beets), a little orange (oranges and orange peels, peppers), a little yellow (saffron rices, lemon,) a little green (bell peppers, kale, collard greens), a little blue  and purple (potatoes) can brighten up a plate and improve your nutritional intake.

If you notice, things like cupcakes, cakes and fried food can, in fact, be clean. Is your cupcake/batter flour unadulterated? What about sugar – what kind of sweetener are you using? What oil are you frying in? This is why eating clean is different from eating for weight maintenance, because you could eat properly-fried food every day and still be eating clean. Someone who is trying to watch their weight may strive for more variety than this, though.

It’s easy to see why clean eating was picked up by the weight maintainers, because so many of the tenets of clean eating are big habit-changers: give up soft drinks for water? Cutting calorie-laden, trans-fat-stuffed processed foods? Drink water? Yes. The calories come down, the sugar is cut and the pounds come right off.

With clean eating, my control is restored because I’m not eating foods specially engineered to make me want to gobble the entire container. I have little to no excuse to say “Oh, I’m gonna swallow this whole.” Eating clean was what made me aware of my emotional eating problem. How do you emotionally eat a cucumber? If you can answer that, you deserve an Oscar.

Someone who has to lose weight would do themselves justice jumping in with the clean crowd, but they’ve certainly got extra work to do. Things like counting calories, addressing any stress issues they’re encountering and making themselves aware of how much they’re consuming coupled with how much they’ll need to consume at their new goal weight will be vital, but there’s no safer and healthier way to do it than to simply pare down the intake and bump up the quality.

Lots of other outlets who boast clean eating as their core principle will tack on other weight-related tips for neophyte eaters – things like “eat six meals a day” (which has more to do with preventing overeating than it does “boosting metabolism”), portion control, etc – but the truth is, you can still have an “over-sized portion” and still be eating cleanly… it just doesn’t happen often.

All in all, clean eating is my life now, and I’m eternally thankful that I came across it. Why, I wouldn’t be able to have this blog without all these awesome readers if I hadn’t discovered it… so maybe we’ve all got something to be thankful to clean eating for!

What did I miss? Help me out, y’all!

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Michelle November 9, 2011 - 4:48 PM

This is great information. I noticed you mentioned potaotes. Since they come from the earth, is it ok to have them? Also, with clean eating, you are allowed to have fruit, which in most diets would mean a weight gain cause your body would go out of ketosis which is the fat burning state. Can you explain how I can still loose weight and adapt a healthier lifestyle, not being in a fat burning state.

Erika Nicole Kendall November 9, 2011 - 5:20 PM

Potatoes? Yep.

Rhoda July 6, 2014 - 11:38 AM

Hi Erica, thank you for an interesting break down of clean eating, it was beginning to sound like a hollywood buzzword to me!
I have the same question as Michelle on fruits. Because of their high sugar content, even though its natural sugars, you’re always advised to either cut down completely or reduce drastically on your weight loss journey. I haven’t seen any response to this question

I presume clean eating for weight loss means no fruits?

Erika Nicole Kendall July 6, 2014 - 7:00 PM
Natasha November 10, 2011 - 12:31 PM

Since this is my first time commenting, I have to first shout that I LOVE THIS BLOG! But aside from that, I just recently embraced the clean eating lifestyle and I find that it is much easier and cheaper for me because I make just about everything from scratch. I think the only things I buy now are fruits, veggies, dairy, seasonings, meats, and flours. I make my own condiments (except ketchup), dressings, pastas, breads, granola, sausage, etc. And I manage to do it all for a family of four while working a full time job. I accomplish this by designating one afternoon and evening to cook for the rest of the week.
I want to thank you, Erika, because I started this whole journey after I stumbled upon your blog a few months back. I was already an avid cook and baker, so your blog inspired me to really get in touch with my food and to finally rid myself of my sugar addiction. As a result, the scale is finally moving (albeit slowly) after being stagnant for the past two years. Of course the other result is that I’ve become a food snob! Eliminated processed foods from your diet allows you to actually taste real food and the fake substitutes just don’t cut it anymore. Now, if I want some cake, or cookies, or croissants, I have to add them in to my already busy schedule. This means that I don’t have them very often, but when I do, every bite is worth all the hard work I put into it.
Thanks Erika for educating and inspiring us!

KaNesha December 19, 2012 - 2:48 PM

What blog are you referring to. I would like to read more

Erika Nicole Kendall December 19, 2012 - 5:13 PM

She’s referring to THIS one. LOL

Britt November 10, 2011 - 1:49 PM

Great info! Are there any books you would recommend for us beginners?

Tachae November 16, 2011 - 11:35 AM

My biggest challenge with clean eating is living with my family. Not that I blame them if I have a slip in progress, but more so the way my grandma spends her food stamps!!! She says three hundred dollars is nor enough to feed our family of three! Balogne!!! And guess where she mostly shops? Wal-mart, Kmart, and Gordon’s. -_- won’t even go NEAR Eastern market. So I have to ride the bus there myself. Ugh.

Alicia January 12, 2012 - 2:10 AM

Great post!! So glad to have found your blog! Thanks for all you do!

Vee February 24, 2012 - 9:21 AM

Wonderful post Erika!!

Jd August 1, 2012 - 11:50 AM

I loved the article!! Informative accurate and what I’ve been preaching to many family and friends. I will be sharing this with them.

Carolyn August 29, 2012 - 12:24 PM

I have embraced clean eating but it has become quite expensive. I find myself at the grocery store more than I did in the past. I’m making everything from scratch. Fresh veggies, fruit and lean meat. To be honest clean eating has opened my eyes to a lot of different foods especially veggies.
Since I’ve cut out all the processed foods the weight is falling off. I love the fact that I now know what I’m putting into my body and how my body reacts to food. Its the best decision I’ve ever made!

BTW, I love your site!

cathy August 29, 2012 - 2:24 PM

If u can’t afford to buy organic is it alright to used supermarket vegetables and fruits.

Erika Nicole Kendall August 29, 2012 - 10:21 PM
laurie September 5, 2012 - 10:46 AM

I wanted to respond to your question, “How do you emotionally eat a cucumber?”

If we eat emotionally in order to keep our minds and spirit distracted from uncomfortable feelings, then it’s probably true that we can eat anything—cucumbers, carrots, anything—emotionally. Yes, we’d be eating clean but we would still be eating as a distraction to our daily lives.

In dealing with any substance use & abuse (and food is a substance that is easily abused), the key is to break the emotional cycle. I’ve seen many people deny the habit because the substance itself is considered positive. A friend worked at a famous butter-cream-sugar bakery and while she had “willpower” to not ever eat the sweet treats, she was reprimanded for eating over 50 lbs of carrots each week (they were trying to figure out what was happening with the inventory when someone put together how one employee was always teased for having a carrot in her mouth and turning orange). My friend left the job shortly thereafter because she could not break this eating habit without getting whacked out—because it wasn’t clean eating, it was emotional, compulsive eating that kept her from eating sweets and that also garnered her praise from folks who thought she was such a clean eater. The fact that carrots in moderation are okay obscured the fact that they are very sweet and also led to sugar crashes.

Cucumbers might not affect the body the same way but eating them emotionally would still be eating them emotionally. (And here, I should disclose that there is a cucumber pickle made with a squeeze of orange and a hit of pepper sauce that is one of my emotional comfort foods; I’ve noticed when I am stressed out that I tend to make this dish of my homeland over and over again. It might not be bad for me, but the act of using it to calm me might be. But as I am awake and aware, I can observe this and check in with myself rather than just eat mindlessly.)

I also know of many folk who go overboard with “clean” eating as it gets caught up in their self-esteem and self-image. Obviously, that’s not what you are aiming to do here, but I want to point out that anything can be used to eat emotionally and it can and will be different for people based on their personal histories, cultural foodways, and current living situations. The key is to stay awake and stay aware; observing HOW we eat is just as important as choosing WHAT we eat.

I love the work you are doing here; grateful for what I learn and for being pushed to think more deeply. Thank you.

Erika Nicole Kendall September 5, 2012 - 11:04 AM

I think you make an excellent point – the component of emotional eating that is the satisfaction that comes from an attachment to an item, or the comfort that comes from it.

If you do, in fact, have faint memories of sitting in a kitchen with your mother while she cut up cucumbers and salted/peppered them for you and you ate them together, you very well could become an emotional cucumber eater should she suddenly pass away.

All of this underscores the need for introspection, consistent and constant self-evaluation and beyond-adequate coping skills, much like what you’ve mentioned here.

What I was referring to with that quote had more to do with the cycle that comes with the sugar/fat/salt trifecta, but I think that what your comment says is invaluable to the conversation, too. Without full inclusion, it sort of alienates those who are, in fact, “emotional eaters” with “comforting” attachments to “healthy” vices simply because their vices are healthy. Thank you for bringing that up.

Nick July 2, 2013 - 6:37 PM

I was a personal trainer for years and I can’t stress enough the purpose of clean eating. It’s for your health and more people need to implement it into their diets

Long Cao July 3, 2013 - 9:28 AM

I reallllllllly think things like this are behind the cancer and diabetes problems in this country. Nasty chemicals and overeating. And people blame going outdoors without sunscreen for causing cancer…. SMH

Erika Nicole Kendall July 3, 2013 - 11:43 PM

To be fair, different kinds of cancers react to different kinds of stimuli…so while its silly to dismiss the potential links between cancer and food preservatives, it’s equally unwise to dismiss what we currently believe about skin cancer.

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