If you google "eat clean" you will find all sorts of "experts" explaining why you should avoid practically everything. Dairy, red meat, chicken, fish, shellfish, grains, conventionally grown veggies, fruit, eggs, saturated fat, unsaturated fat: you name it, someone will tell you it's bad, polluted, cruel, unusual, gives you cancer, gives you heart disease, makes you fat, makes you weak, makes you age, ruins all your chances for health and happiness.
So what on earth can you safely put in your mouth? If you were to believe every "study" done by "experts in the field" you might choose to throw in the towel.
I can tell you that I have experimented with most every mainstream diet over the course of my adult life. I've tried low fat, low calorie, Atkins, the Zone, South Beach, the Fat Flush, Cabbage Soup, and intermittent fasting, just to name a handful. If you want to lose weight, all of these work as long as you stick with the plan for long enough. (I do not recommend low fat or extremely low calorie diets as these are likely to cause nutritional deficiencies. And cabbage soup is a delicious dish to eat, but not an intelligent diet plan.)
Each of us is a unique individual. While gluten might be bad for some people, for others it causes no issues whatsoever. Some cannot tolerate dairy while others thrive on milk, cheese, yogurt, and butter. You might believe that eating meat or dairy or fish or honey is cruel. Others might believe agriculture is ruining our planet. Although organic, local, grassfed, home grown, and homemade might be best, not all of us have the money, land, or time to make this happen. The fact is: we all need to eat something in order to survive. And I believe it is important to do better than just survive. I want to optimize my nutrition.
Here are some of the steps I have taken to attempt to eat "clean," while deriving the most nutrients from my food choices:
1) I avoid refined sugars and flours. This includes white bread, pasta, all baked products, candies, ice cream, store-bought desserts, etc. I choose dark chocolate when I want a sweet treat. Dark chocolate is full of minerals, including magnesium, as well as antioxidants, and is about as nutritious as a treat can possibly be!
2) I avoid alcohol, soda, juices, and any caloric beverages. I drink plain water (gasp!) as well as homemade kombucha (fermented tea! full of probiotics!) green tea, coffee, and the occasional glass of red wine. Red wine has antioxidants, like dark chocolate and coffee, so this makes it a slightly more nutritious choice.
3) I try to get enough protein to sustain muscle growth. There is quite a bit of controversy over how much protein we actually need. I tend to go with a moderately high estimate (77 grams per day) because I work out 6 days per week. Protein breaks down into amino acids which are used by the body to repair and build muscle. Protein that comes from animals is the highest quality protein. This is not my opinion; this is based on the essential amino acids only available from animal foods like meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. I eat a very wide range of meats (venison, buffalo, beef, turkey, chicken) as well as salmon, tuna, and sardines, eggs, cottage cheese, and Greek yogurt. Bone broth is another great source of protein in the form of gelatin.
4) I seek out a variety of different kinds of fats. In the past, fats were blamed for everything from obesity and heart disease to the failing of the stock market. More recently, those old studies have been shown to be flawed or completely bogus. Fat is an essential nutrient. Our hormones are made from fat. Without fat, your attempts to diet will surely fail. I eat nuts and seeds, olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, grassfed butter, homemade tallow, and bacon to encompass all the different types of fat. I do not fear the fat!
5) I eat the rainbow! (And I'm not talking about Skittles!) As with all aspects of the diet, the greater the variety of fruits and veggies the better. If you are a picky eater, try to get all the colors of the rainbow without too much bitterness. Spinach and romaine lettuce are much milder than kale and mustard greens. Carrots, beets, yams, onions, and parsnips are all quite sweet, especially when cooked. Try substituting some veggies or fruit for some of your refined grains and/or sugary choices. You will get more vitamins, minerals, fiber, and maybe even drop a few pounds!
This spring, if it ever stops snowing, I plan to plant some veggies in my garden. There is nothing more delicious and nutritious than home-grown, freshly picked food. Gardening is also a wonderful way to soak up the sunshine and de-stress. Get your hands dirty in order to eat clean! And if gardening is not a possibility, you can still find locally grown produce at your farmers' market or fruit stand.
Eating "clean" is in the eyes of the beholder. You decide for yourself how to clean up your diet this spring. Small changes can build, one upon the next, so baby steps are just fine. Pay less attention to the latest headlines and more attention to your gut. Make the changes that work for you, that make you feel more energized, happier, and healthier!