What is “clean eating” anyway and why is everyone so focused on it? You hear and read about “cleaning up your diet” all the time nowadays, but with such a vague term combined with various ideas about what foods are healthy, it can be confusing to know how to effectively “clean up” your diet. Do you stop eating meat? Stop eating bread and pasta? Both? Do you buy everything at Whole Foods and trust it’s “clean”? Do you have to give up coffee? There were various times that, despite having a basic understanding of nutrition, I asked all of these (silly) questions.
When I started getting more serious about running I wanted to clean up my diet to improve performance while training to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I thought that eating clean meant lots of fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean protein and low fat (all this came from runners resources). I tried to eat this way to fuel my body for increasing mileage and general good health while pushing myself to the limits of my endurance. What did I actually experience from eating this way? Insatiable hunger, lots of digestive issues, and energy highs and lows. Yes I was running well (at first), but it didn’t last. I wound up injured, too thin, and sick with digestive problems. So what was wrong with my approach? Lets go through it and find the problems. *Remember, this is only my experience and should not be taken as medical advice.
For starters, the whole “low fat” thing was very wrong. Fat is a huge component of the whole “I think I’ll stop eating now” phenomenon and FAT. IS. NOT. FATTENING. OR. BAD. FOR. YOU! Seriously, chuck that mentality out with the snackwell cookies. I know, you’re thinking “but I already eat a half avocado in my salad and 2 tablespoons of nut butter so I’m good”. But I’m telling you I’ve been there and you are probably not eating enough fat. Now if you told me you are eating a whole avocado with every meal, pouring lots of olive oil on your salads and adding plenty of REAL butter or ghee to your veggies, potatoes, eggs, etc, then I might say it’s enough. When I started eating paleo the amount of fat that I quickly realized I needed to eat astounded me. It also contributed to making me feel better than I’ve ever felt in my life. Stop associating fat with nasty fried restaurant food and processed junk and dive mouth first into some really healthful and delicious sources. Avocados are great, and you don’t need to stop at half! Virgin coconut oil, grass fed butter or clarified butter (ghee), olive oil, grass fed meat (NOT just lean cuts!), raw coconut butter, raw nut butters without added sweeteners or salt, are all great “clean” sources of healthy fats. They are a vital part of “clean eating” and in my experience the best way to feel satiated quickly. You can almost feel the fat nourishing you on the inside!
Eat animal protein Animal protein from good sources, preferably pasture raised, grass fed, or organic, is essential for getting nutrient dense sources of protein in your diet. Meat, seafood and eggs from reputable sources. And no, the “grass fed” thing is not to be trendy, grass fed animals are healthier animals, and their meat contains more vitamins, minerals, higher ratio of healthy fats, and fewer toxins. Trendy or not how can you argue with that?
Whole grains are not as “clean” as you think. We all agree that refined grains do not have a part in a healthful diet. But we seem to worship “whole grains” like life begins and ends with them. If you were to only buy into the dietary advice that you’ve heard day in and day out for your lifetime you would believe whole grains should be the mainstay of your diet. I believed this and my beliefs did me wrong. What I believe now is that they are at best neutral and at worst harmful in many ways depending on the particular grains and how you personally tolerate them. Even if you don’t have an intolerance to substances in wheat and other grains (like I discovered I do), there are truths about whole grains that should be known.
Here’s what Whole9life has to say: “While whole grains leave the bran and germ portion intact (increasing the fiber and micronutrition content compared to refined grains), they are far from nutrient-dense when you compare them to vegetables and fruit.
A daily diet based on “healthy” whole grains provided more than three times the sugar and sodium as a diet featuring vegetables and fruit, but provides less fiber, potassium, and substantially less magnesium, iron, zinc, and vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, and K.
In addition, many of the minerals technically present in whole grains are not accessible to the body, thanks to anti-nutrients called “phytates” found in the bran. These phytates grab hold of minerals like calcium, iron, zinc, and magnesium found in the whole grain, creating an insoluble and undigestible complex. As these nutrients are no longer in a usable form, they are not absorbed into the body—and you don’t get the benefits. (If you can’t use the minerals, they may as well not even be there.)” Read more from Whole9life here
So pretty much the only place I had it right was fruits and veggies! To sum up, to “clean up” your diet, do the following things:
- Eat lots of vegetables, cooked and raw, and some fruit (veggies before fruit!)
Eat more fat than you ever thought you’d need (pour it on those veggies!)
Eat more animal protein than you think you need too, preferably from pasture raised sources.
Skip or drastically limit grains to make room for the more nutrient dense foods listed above.
It should go without saying, but anything that comes from a package is generally not a “clean” food. If you eat some packaged stuff for convenience, check the ingredients for the truth and not the nutrition label. The list of ingredients will show you what has actually been added rather than just the nutrient breakdown. Some Larabars only have nuts and fuit as ingredients and are a good choice, for example.
Similiarly, avoid or drastically limit anything with added sugar or artifical sweeteners. Check those ingredients!
So why do all of this anyway? Can it help you? Well, yes it can. But you won’t really know how it can affect YOU unless you try it for yourself. In general though, if you are used to eating a lot of grains and sugar your body will go through an adjustment period for 1-2 weeks, after which you will start to notice more consistent energy levels, better digestion, better mood (less irritable!), improved recovery from exercise, clearer skin, clearer mind, and less random aches and pains. If you already eat pretty clean, you’ll probably feel the benefits even sooner with just a few tweaks. Be a science geek and think of it as your own personal case study.
Have you tried to “clean up” your diet in the past and what did you notice? Have you found that cleaner eating affects your athletic performance in any way? Does it affect your general quality of life?