How to start clean eating
Eating clean is simply eating more natural, healthy, wholesome food, and less processed, nutrient-depleting, industrial food. Put like that, it sounds easy, doesn’t it? But how to start clean eating, for the majority of us out there, can be daunting. Processed food (anything with a packaging, really) is the norm, it’s what we grew up on and it’s the only food that’s (seemingly) available in the shops.
So do you start eating clean? Do you go T-total, or try a more gradual approach? It will depend on you and your circumstances, and I believe there are ways to go clean to suit everybody. I have listed few tried and tested methods below, from the most radical to more moderate approaches.
Option 1 – The Great Purge
This is the most radical approach to quickly purge your kitchen, pantry, fridge, and freezer and start from scratch. Not really suited to families though.
Some folks out there go for a radical, uncompromising approach: they throw away all their foodstuff that isn’t considered clean and start with a clean slate. The idea is to purge your pantry and your fridge of all food that would detract you from eating clean, so you are not tempted to eat something processed or refined from there on.
The pros – it allows you to start from scratch and stick with your new clean diet quickly, simply by removing the temptation at home. This might work well for people that need to radically and suddenly change their diet, for serious health reasons, for example.
The cons – while the temptation might not be at home unless you know exactly what to eat and how to eat it, you will likely fall back on old habits the next time you shop or go out. So a fair amount of research must go in hand with the purge.
You might also get the dreaded detox flu as your body has to get rid of vast amounts of toxins in a short period of time.
The risk is also to end up removing a lot of junk food, but without knowing what clean food to add back into your diet, and not eating enough. Eating clean is not a restricting, short-term diet, it’s a lifestyle. Deprivation and calorie-counting do not belong in a clean eating diet.
It takes a good few weeks (some say 3, but evidence shows that even 21 days is not enough for massive changes like this) to set up habits, and unless you have a major reason to do this, this method is more likely to fail as you battle through your new way of eating.
Good for – the Adventurers, the Radicals and the Highly Motivated
Option 2 – The Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner approach
“Clean” one meal at a time, breakfast, then lunch, then dinner is a gentler approach. This is the one I personally followed, without realizing it.
How I did it
I started with the breakfast, which was giving me a lot of grief. Being French, I grew up on “tartines”, French bread smothered with butter and jam, or sugar-laden breakfast cereals, with a cup of hot chocolate as a child, then coffee or chicory as an adult.
And at 10 am, I would crash. I would get brain-fog and cranky at school. In my teens, the sugar crash would actually cause me to feel faint if I didn’t eat anything by 12. I actually passed out a couple time during my student years, because I had forgotten or hadn’t had the time to eat anything by lunch. Did I learn from my mistakes? Nope, I just carried on glucose tablets in my bag all the time!
I later alleviated the problem somewhat by switching to good old porridge oats in the morning, but I would still need a snack at 10. I only switched to a protein-based breakfast after the birth of my second daughter, when I was diagnosed with gluten intolerance and had to forgo oats. The relief was immediate and immense. I could just have 2 eggs and a tomato and carry on with the same level of energy until 12. I stopped feeling faint, I didn’t need to permanently carry glucose tablets or snacks with me. and I lost the sugar-induced brain fog. My hunger signs became, well, normal “empty stomach” hunger signs, rather than crankiness and faintness.
Apologies for the long personal digression, but this was truly my turning point. And given that most people’s breakfast is sugar-laden, I’m guessing it might be the same for a lot of people out there.
Why start with changing your breakfast?
Breakfast is also an easy meal to turn clean first, because it usually happens at home, is quickly prepared and is by far a personal affair. So, you don’t have to find recipes to please a whole family. It’s just you, your taste buds and your appetite.
But being the first meal of the day, if you find the clean breakfast that works for you, it will make a huge difference in how comfortable and productive your mornings are. Basically, that’s half of your day sorted. There and then.
…will naturally be next, again because it mainly involves you. It typically requires a little more prep at home, if you’re bringing your own lunch, or being savvier with your choice of bought-out lunch. But you only have to cater for yourself, and you, therefore, have a lot more options.
If you haven’t done so naturally by then, snacks should probably be your next target, to make sure you don’t ruin your clean day by snacking on the wrong kind of food after work or when in need of a pick-me-up.
…will probably be the most challenging meal to swap to clean food. Not through lack of delicious options, but simply because it usually involves other people, their taste buds, and their culinary expectations. Serving a whole plateful of healthy, natural greens to your kids every evening is not likely to earn you any brownie points.
But by then, you are likely to have a good idea of what foods are allowed in a clean eating kitchen and how to prep them. My honest advice here is to involve the rest of your household. There are plenty of recipes that allow you to replace the family favorites with cleaner versions. Your children are also more likely to try your new meals if they have chosen the recipe and some of the ingredients. Or, even better, if they have helped prepare it.
How long should it take you to change every single meal? As long as you need. Everybody is different. This is not a short-term fad diet, but a new way of eating. Set yourself realistic targets and stick to them. Remember the 80/20 rule. It might be that clean eating works for you during the working week, but that you need to relax it a bit at the weekend. Or all the time, apart from lunches with clients. My kids know that they’re allowed a “naughty” in their lunchboxes on Fridays.
Good for – the Inadvertent Clean Eaters, the Morning Slumpers
Option 3 – One food category at a time
Or how to swap one food category for a cleaner version at a time, starting with the worst offenders.
This is another stepped approach that can work well to change from a drastically processed diet. It consists of identifying the industrial food that needs to be removed from your diet. Then the clean food that needs to make its way into your diet. Then decide to make one change per week or per month.
For example, the first change could be gradually cutting out sugary drinks and drinking more water. The second one, replacing refined starches with whole grain ones. The third one, adding an extra portion of vegetables per meal. Then replacing biscuits, cakes and sugary treats with fruits or clean snacks. Switching to cleaner protein sources. Cutting down/out shop-bought prepared meals and takeaways. Etc.
The key here is to seriously take stock of what you are currently eating, and making a plan to stick to, with realistic timeframes for you and your family.
Good for – the Organised, the Reluctant Families
Option 4 – The Meal by Meal approach
Change one meal at a time: take each of your meals and try and go cleaner every time. In small baby steps.
This is a very gradual option: you consider each meal and replace it with its cleaner equivalent.
For example, replacing your breakfast cereals with organic granola, or your morning toasts and jam by rye bread and plain peanut butter.
For lunch, you can just switch to wholegrain bread for your sandwiches, and choose chicken over salami. Or pick a quinoa salad, rather than your usual pasta salad. You could replace your usual chips with vegetable chips or plain corn or potato chips.
And instead of cheese macaroni at dinner time, try whole wheat pasta Bolognese for a healthier option. Soft drinks can be replaced by 100% fruit juices, then diluted juices, then water.
The idea is to constantly try and go cleaner and more natural. Until you reach a point where the vast majority of your food is untampered with and free of added sugar or additives. Hint – to get to that stage, you will have to buy whole products and prepare them from scratch.
The good thing about this technique is that the changes will be very gradual. You keep your favorite meals, just tweaking the recipe a bit. Sor it’s great if the rest of the family is initially not so keen on changing their eating habits. But it will take you much longer to arrive at a stage where you only feed your body whole natural ingredients.
Good for – the Hesitants, the Reluctant Families
Option 5 – The Cleaner Shopping option
Basically, you replace the content of fridge and pantry with cleaner ingredients as you go along.
This probably goes along the previous method. Every time you run out of something in the pantry or in the fridge, replace it with a cleaner version. Again, the changes are gradual and will allow you to eat the same food, to a certain extent, just cleaner.
On the plus side, there’s no wastage, as you get a chance to finish what you have at home before buying new cleaner groceries.
This approach will still get you to look at cleaner options out there and checking out ingredients list, which is a good start.
But the risk is to only clean up your diet so far, as shop-bought options can only be that clean. Ultimately, you want to get rid of all processing, and this involves buying raw, unadulterated ingredients and cooking from scratch.
To avoid this, this approach is best combined with Option 6 below.
Good for – the No-Wasters, the Careful Shoppers
Option 6 – Change your Favorite Shop
Swap you main shopping haunt for another one offering more natural, whole products.
Make a point of buying food in shops or places that offer cleaner products. You’ll automatically end up discovering new ways of eating and trying more wholesome food.
Whole Foods Market seems an obvious choice. Trader’s Joe comes up time and time again in clean eating food blogs. But there are other supermarkets out there that are just better stocked with fruits and vegetables, offer lesser processed foodstuff and more geared towards natural and organic products. Look out for them and try them.
Don’t forget to shop online too. Thrive Market allows you to buy clean, organic products at a fraction of their retail price.
If you are lucky to live near a farmer’s market, this could become your favorite place to stock up on fresh local food. We belong to those lucky ones. Since we have to cook everything from scratch, it makes sense for us to source the best and cheapest fresh products out there.
Farm-to-door services are also a great solution to make you get fresh organic fruits and vegetables delivered regularly. Some cover an extensive area in the US, but I would favor local ones, simply to reduce the transport and storage.
Good for – the Undecisives, the Marketing Junkies
Whichever the option you decide to go for…
…education is key
Unless you know who the Bad Guys are and who the Good Guys are out there, there’s a high risk you will just end up piling up on junk food labeled “natural” or “healthy”, because their packaging (and their clever Marketing Managers) says so.
You can educate yourself about clean eating before starting, or as you go along, there isn’t any right or wrong method here. But read, read, read. Know what constitutes processing. How it affects the food and your environment. Know what your motivation for eating clean is. Learn how to read labels. Become addicted to shopping lists. Master your way around the different aisles of your supermarket.
Oh, and keep reading Simply Go Clean.
I have tried to cover various methods to embark on a clean eating journey, but please feel free to tell us how you have started and how it worked for you in the comments below.
And if you believe these tidbits could be useful to others, don’t forget to share! Oh, and follow me on Pinterest for more tips and hacks!