What is “Clean Eating”?

The internet is rife with buzzwords. Paleo, low carb, superfoods, organic…the list goes on and on. One of my biggest annoyances lately is the buzzword “Clean Eating.” Why is it annoying me? Because half the time when I click on a website talking about the topic, I roll my eyes at their definition of clean eating. Example: I found a website boasting the best “clean eating” recipe for a dip and then showed pictures of pre-made guacamole in a box! What’s wrong with fresh avocados?!

While the definition of clean eating can be different for everyone, I’m pretty sure that if it comes out of a box, it’s not clean.


What does clean eating mean to me?

It means I eat fresh fruits and veggies that I grow in my garden, buy at a farmer’s market, or the produce section of the grocery store. It’s not in a can, in a box, with added sugar or sodium. I try and limit the foods I eat that come out of a box. If HFCS is listed as an ingredient, I skip it.

There are a million websites out there on the topic and a lot of them say clean eating is vegan or vegetarian. That’s not MY definition (especially when it comes to processed faux meats and soy products!). As a reformed vegetarian, I do eat meat and lots of seafood and I try my best not to get the stuff that is corn-fed. I like the Trader Joe’s meat–it’s spendy but worth it because it tastes great, is organic and grass-fed and not pumped with hormones.

Clean eating to me means eating snacks that are natural. Am I perfect all the time? No but I do my best (90/10!). For example: if I want a snack I eat nuts, veggies with avocado, fresh seasonal fruit, things like that. I definitely eat some processed foods–I love plain Greek yogurt and cottage cheese as a healthy snack.

I try my best to buy foods that are in season. We’re coming up on cherry season–which I am ecstatic about! And it’s perfect timing because the apples I’ve gotten at the store have been terrible lately. Time to switch to summer fruits!

“Food that’s clean is food that’s for the most part real food and not encumbered with things that compromise health: artificial flavorings, artificial colorings, sugar substitutes,” said Katz. (source)

The clean eating rule of thumb: The shorter the ingredient list, the better. Michael and I eat a specific brand of corn tortilla chips because they are gluten free (for him), taste great, and are basically 2 ingredients. Check the back of a bag or box of food the next time you’re in the grocery store. How many ingredients are listed? Is it half the box? Is it a bunch of words you can’t pronounce? Probably a good idea to avoid it.

“I don’t think sugar makes food unclean.  Pure fruits are not unclean foods.  You can add sugar to foods, and it can be clean. … It’s not about banishing any particular type of ingredient,” said Katz. ” It needs to be a holistic concept.  There’s a real danger in placing it on just one ingredient.” (source)


I don’t think sugar is the Boogie-Man of healthy eating. Like I’ve said a million times before, everything in moderation. I’d rather eat real sugar than the chemically altered stuff like nutrisweet and splenda. There was definitely a time in my life when I did eat a lot of substitutes because they were low calorie options. While it worked for me to lose weight, I wouldn’t say I felt fantastic. Diet soda may have zero calories but the chemicals and weird sugar in it always make me feel gross.

I also don’t think you have to eliminate EVERY processed food in order to eat clean. Rice, whole grain pastas, quinoa, etc…all of those things can be part of a healthy diet. I eat sushi a lot and I definitely use soy sauce–which comes from a bottle obviously–but I’m not going to nitpick. There’s a difference between nitpicking and being smart.

What About Supplements?

So what about supplements and vitamins? Michael recently started trying a Whey product because he’s doing a good 100 miles a week on the bike. He wasn’t getting enough calories, even though he was eating a massive amount of food during the day. He’s still experimenting with what works and what doesn’t, but the whey seems to help him with feeling more satisfied.

I used to drink a lot of protein shakes. I tried the store bought kind and back in the day the only one I liked was the Atkins shake. It was low in calories and tasted great. Then I went through a phase where I made my own shakes with some protein, fresh fruit and yogurt. I eventually stopped doing that because I wasn’t feeling satisfied when I drank it.

I do take some vitamins. I take a multivitamin. I take Vitamin D because I live in the Northwest and I’m deficient (as are most people in Oregon and Washington according to my doctor). I’d really rather prefer to get my vitamins my body needs from food naturally but like Vitamin D, that’s sometimes not possible.

About a year ago I started taking B12 1000 complex (from Costco). It’s supposed to give you more energy and I did feel like it gave me a little boost. I can get Vitamin B from foods like beans, bananas, lentils, and potatoes. I like all of those things but I wouldn’t say that I eat them consistently enough to think I’m getting a good source of B from the food.

I also take Krill oil. This one I’m iffy on. Is it necessary? Especially since I eat so much seafood? I eat salmon at least once a week, shrimp once a week, and if I’m craving sushi I eat a ton of tuna and salmon rolls. Shouldn’t that be enough? Is the krill oil giving me anything extra or is just something else “unnatural” that I’m adding to my diet? I’m not sure what the answer is!


What freaks me out is that we’re hearing more and more about GMO’s and how foods we get at the stores are often genetically modified and WE DO NOT KNOW IT! How scary is that? I wish that they would pass a law that stuff like that needs to be label everywhere. It’s important information to have if you’re trying to eat clean but who has the advanced knowledge to figure that out in the middle of a grocery store? (Check out an old post: The End of Food and Nutrition: Who to Trust?.)

I know what clean eating means for me and I strive to attain that. It’s never 100% perfect and I still rely on processed foods (like canned soups and beans) for meals sometimes. I definitely get lazy once in awhile and eat a Lean Cuisine for lunch. But more often than not, I am taking homemade, leftovers and salads made from my garden for lunches at work. It takes more effort, for sure, but I feel so much better!

So what about you? What is clean eating for YOU?

Author: Lisa Eirene

About Lisa Eirene Lisa lost 110 pounds through calorie counting and exercise. She swims, bikes, runs, hikes and is enjoying life in Portland, Oregon. Her weight loss story has been featured in First Magazine, Yahoo Health, Woman's Day and Glamour.com.

12 thoughts on “What is “Clean Eating”?”

  1. I just recently started reading labels and half way understanding them.. With my health condition sugar is a bad thing and so I’ve been working really hard on lowering the amount I take in.. Including fake sweeteners. This means I spend a lot of time in the produce section and meat section and basically no time in the boxed food aisles of the store. I shop around the outer edges I guess lol! I think clean eatin to me is eating per what makes my health condition happy not vegetarian or vegan 🙂
    K @ Finding a skinnier me recently posted..Shhhh I am reading…

    1. The artificial sweeteners are the worst. I’m glad you are trying to eliminate those. It’s a hard one for me, too.

      I used to use a lot of coupons when grocery shopping but now that I’m limiting my processed foods, I usually buy the most groceries in the produce, meat and dairy sections. No coupons!

  2. I strive for a mostly clean diet as well and am miffed that we can’t take advantage of store coupons as often because they don’t cover the produce aisle! I find it very interesting to hear other people’s views on what constitutes “clean eating”, and how varied the answers are. I had to chuckle in line at the grocery store last week when I saw the woman in front of my buying organic bananas and two bags of Tater-Tots!

    1. I know, it’s disappointing they don’t have coupons for produce.

      I like to hear what other people define as clean eating because it’s always different. Where do you draw the line, you know?

  3. I like your definition of clean eating. I, too, try to buy local, seasonal veggies, fruits, eggs, meat, and bread as much as possible. But I’m also not 100% perfect. One thing I’m working on is cooking beans vs. buying cans. It’s really easy and not very much work at all, and I just need to plan better and make it part of my weekly meal prep time.
    Andrea@WellnessNotes recently posted..Food and Special Occasions

    1. I totally understand about the canned beans. I was just thinking that too. I’ve done the bags of dry beans (I get them at Bob’s Red Mill) and they worked great but it DID take a lot of prep and forethought. It’s harder to make spur of the moment recipes with things like that.

  4. I actually have totally steered away from the term clean eating, because it still puts food into good and bad categories, which I don’t do anymore. It cracks me up when people list a ‘clean’ muffin recipe that has no OMG refined sugar, but is sweetened with honey instead. Sugar is sugar.

    It can easily lead to disordered thinking about food as well, which worries me.

    I think it bothers me as well because the image I have of my weekly cupcake rolling around in the gutter getting dirty before I pick it up and eat it LOL!
    Lori recently posted..What I am reading!

    1. I think that’s a great perspective, I should have included that in the post. I do think, too, that it CAN lead to labeling food as bad or good. Which can lead to disordered thinking. But for me, I don’t think that’s an issue. I don’t look at the food as “Bad or good” but more as “is this processed? How badly do I want it if it is?” Like if I can make it myself and use more natural ingredients, I try to do that.

  5. I don’t eat 100% clean because I do love my baked goods (but only homemade!) but I like to think I do about an 80-90% good job of it It always frustrates me when people have definitions of clean eating that involve processed food…which is by definition not clean!
    Joanne recently posted..Pickled Nectarine Salad with Burrata

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