What is Clean Eating? Simple Cleaning Eating Guidelines for us Busy People!


Since the beginning of the year (maybe sooner) I talked here and there about clean eating. I even posted some clean eating recipes like my clean eating apple pie steel cut oats, clean eating peanut butter oatmeal cookies, and clean eating steak salad. However, after receiving an email from a reader asking me what clean eating is and how she can get started it got me thinking. I realized many of you might have the same questions and be getting confused by all this clean eating talk. So let me back up a bit and explain.

When I started on my weight loss journey back in 2010 I never heard of clean eating. In fact, at that time, I was more concerned with the amount of food I was eating not really the quality of the food. I was starting to make most of my meals at home but not thinking about the preservatives, food coloring, or artificial colors that were most likely in the ingredients I was using. It wasn’t until a few months later that I started to take notice of those things. My mindset about food began to change when I saw the documentary Food Matters and also read the book. Then I started following the blog 100 days of Real Food where I learned about the book In Defense of Food. Once I gained the knowledge from these resources I began to really think  about the food I was eating and feeding my family.

Since then I continue to read and research information on eating clean and how I can incorporate this lifestyle into my own. In addition to the research I have seen the rewards of a clean eating lifestyle. My body is satisfied and nourished when I eat, I look better, and overall just feel healthier. I don’t get the sugar highs and crashes that I would get from refined flour and sugar. I don’t feel sluggish or tired anymore. I feel great! And I know it is the food because as soon as I eat something not clean such as white pasta, candy, or something overly processed I immediately feel bloated and sluggish. Not a good feeling so I try to stick to my clean foods as much as I can.


Before I go into what clean eating is (to me) I feel it is important to note that with a lot of information comes a lot of different perceptions and opinions. There are also different levels of clean eating. Meaning some people go to the extreme and shun off anything processed while others are not as strict. It really depends on a person’s goals and habits. Nonetheless, this can make it very confusing especially for those that are just starting out or may not want to eliminate certain foods completely. I understand. My advice is to educate yourself as much as you can but then adapt the information to fit your lifestyle. Ultimately, you are the only one that knows what will and will not work for your family. Also, give yourself time. Changing your eating habits does not happen overnight.

With that said, the clean eating information I am going to share is how I choose to interpret it and incorporate into my lifestyle.

What is clean eating?

Clean eating basically means eating foods closest to their most natural whole form free of additives, preservatives, or anything artificial.

With clean eating you want to consume foods that are minimally processed, if processed at all. The basic concept is food should not come from a box, package, mix, or bag. Therefore, food should come from nature and not a company. If you do purchase prepackaged food then it should have minimal ingredients and you must be able to pronounce them all.

A good rule of thumb is the more ingredients a food has the less clean it is. For example, if you want applesauce the less clean option would be to purchase a general jar off the shelf. This most likely would have additives, preservatives, and of course sugar or high fructose corn syrup. The clean(er) option would be to purchase a jar of applesauce (organic or not) that only has 1 ingredient – apples. The 100% clean option would be to purchase organic apples and make the applesauce yourself. Make sense?

Other simple clean eating guidelines I follow

Eat smaller more frequent meals throughout the day. I eat 5 times a day and that really works for me because it keeps my appetite, portions, and calories under control.

Drink lots of water. Most of us do not get enough water and often times mistake our need for water for hunger. When that happens we can end up eating when we really are not hungry.

Reduce or eliminate low-fat, light, reduced fat, or any other “diet” type food. A lot of people ask me why I don’t use these ingredients in my cooking. I use them sometimes but more often than not I use the real stuff. When companies remove fat or calories from a food they need to fill it with chemicals, additives, or other fillers to keep the same taste and texture. Using real ingredients is better for you and always taste better.

Eat whole grains and stay away from or limit the amount of refined white flour you consume. If you are not sure if it is really whole grain just read the label. Bread that is whole grain will have whole grain as the first ingredient. Same with pasta. A lot of bread and pasta’s are disguised with “healthy packaging” but if you read the label you will find out they are no better then there refined counterparts. Don’t forget about brown rice, bulgur, quinoa, and other whole grains – they are nutritious, filling, and cheap!

Eat beans, nuts, and seeds. All of these are packed with nutrition and very affordable. Of course, be careful of added salt and sugar.

Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Try to purchase organic when you can but if you can’t then don’t worry because eating more fruits and vegetables is always better than not. Also, if you live in a colder part of the country (like me), and don’t have access to fresh local fruits and vegetables year round then head to the freezer section. You can find lots of organic reasonable priced fruits and vegetables hiding out there.

Eat wild caught fish and organic grass-fed humanly raised beef, chicken, and other meats. I know this can get expensive but, in my opinion, this is an area I do not mind spending the extra money. It taste better, is more nutritious and overall better for the environment. Also, I always try to incorporate meats into a dish instead of it being a stand-alone meal. This way I can stretch the meat (and my budget) a little bit farther.

Reduce or eliminate sugar. I could never give up sugar completely but I try to keep it under control and substitute healthy alternatives (sucunat, maple syrup, and honey) when I can. I don’t use artificial sweeteners of any kind. Again if is manmade and not nature made I typically don’t eat it.

Eliminate fast foods. I feel pretty strongly about not eating at fast food chains. I don’t believe they offer any nutritional value (even if they do have granola and salad on the menu) and I also do not want to support their questionable business and food supply practices.

These are the basic clean eating guidelines that I follow when choosing foods for myself and family. Again, this is how I interpret and choose to follow the clean eating lifestyle.

Now this might all sound a little intense and you might be thinking to yourself “Yeah Tammy that sounds great and all but HOW IN THE HECK DO I DO THIS WHEN I AM INSANELY BUSY!”

Believe me I am right there with you.

Personally, I think it is impossible to eat clean 100% of the time so I try to implement a 75/25 rule. 75% of the time I make clean choices and the other 25% leaves room for flexibility. Please note, by flexibility I don’t mean going hog wild on cheese curls everyday – only some days. Hey I am just being real. I mean giving my best effort to eat clean food but knowing I am human and life happens. Or maybe I just want cheez its. Anyways, you get my point. You can eat clean in any way that works for you. Feel better? Good!

I also want you to understand my clean eating lifestyle has evolved over the years. I did not wake up one day, say I am going to eat clean, and put into place all the guidelines. Nope! It took time and is still a work in progress. There are days that are easier than others and everyone is on board. Then there are days where my husband and kids are revolting and sneaking off to get donuts. That is just how it is and I work with it.

This is my take on clean eating and how I choose to implement this lifestyle. The next clean eating post will focus on the steps you can take to get started. If you have any clean eating questions please ask them below and I will answer them in future posts.

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  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. I have been working on this for years…This was a great reminder and some areas I have backslide I need to get working on! Thanks for the inspiration!

    Recently my teen son, 17 was saying there is nothing in the house to eat (ie nothing of the “junk” variety). He used to be so good about not eating junk food and over the last few years he has backslid so much. Any suggestions to help bring him back to the more clean side would be appreciated! TIA! ~God bless~

    • My 16yo is the same way. When he was little he was happy to eat fruit and cut-up raw veggies as a snack; as he got older he started wanting things like chips and junk food. Recently I’ve started making some healthier changes in our diet and while he was resistant at first, he quickly realized that he felt better when he ate healthier. His indigestion went away and his skin started to clear up. Now he chooses kombucha over soda and fruit over chips. (Most of the time, anyway!). I’m still trying to get my husband and younger two kids on board, it’s a work in progress…

  2. Thank you so much for posting this! I’m trying to eat cleaner and this gives me some great ideas!

  3. Great article! Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  4. Momnivore says:

    Great article – I like the tips one you posted today too. Any suggestions for eating out on a clean lifestyle? Other than just getting a salad every time? I cook at home for most meals but enjoy going out occasionally – what can I do that’s fun and yet close to clean?

    • Momnivore, I struggled with this for a long time too, and what I found helped me the most was to just watch my portions so that I didn’t have to be my own worst food Nazi. What I do is:
      1. I encourage whoever I’m eating with to order to share. This way, it’s highly unlikely that I will overeat (I find that I naturally slow down my eating when I do this, and nobody wants to be the one to grab the last spoonful of whatever’s on the plate).
      2. Skip the liquid calories like sweetened drinks and soups, so I can focus on the foods I really want to eat.
      3. Or, I’ll order whatever I want (but I try not to pick the fried, overly carb-heavy options) eat half of what’s on my plate and doggy bag the rest (tomorrow’s lunch sorted out!).

      Like you, I don’t eat out every day either (and I have plenty of salads at home, so the last thing I want to order when I go out is more salads!), so I make it a point to make sure that when I do, the meals that I order really hit the spot 🙂

      I hope that helps!

  5. Thank you. This was most helpful. I am on my way!

  6. Thanks I will continue to follow your post. I need lots of help getting on the right track

  7. Donna Blanchard says:

    Good article… Really put it in perspective. Good info. Thanks

  8. Thank you so much for the information. I have heard a lot about trying to stay away from fat free and low calorie stuff but am a little confused on milk, cheese and sour cream. The labels are really confusing. As a calorie counter it seems better to go with low calorie of these particular products and I am not seeing additional additives on the labels. Am I missing something on these?

  9. suzanne says:

    I started a clean eating, with a well known juice brand three weeks ago and I have done this to loose weight, but not lost even a pound 🙁 any advice you can give for someone wanting a lifestyle change that helps with loosing weight too?

    • Try the book The Blood Sugar Solution 10 Day Detox by Dr Hyman. It is a lot if work, but he really walks you through taking care of your body and eating clean!

  10. I really like your article. I agree with everything. It’s nice to hear it come from some one else. Good job

  11. I have been trying to incorporate clean eating into my lifestyle. I have just lost 21lbs by eating this way. It has helped me break old eating habits! This week I am going to start cooking with beans (not canned), which will be a new clean ingredient for me! Thanks for your posts!

  12. prchrs2 says:

    Thank you for the reminder. We all need to have our minds to be “jogged” a little bit from time-to-time. And, we do feel better the cleaner we eat. We’ve become such a “busy” people in our country, it’s easy to just fall into that mind set of, “let’s get the job of eating done and the faster the better.” Not healthy! God bless.

  13. Thank you for an informative post and I love your website. I’ve been wanting to do this for awhile and agree that when I have eaten good food for fuel rather than just to put something in my system, I feel better. The problem I have with initiating this is, I am a single mom of two picky eaters and I am positive my kids will revolt or starve. And, I am super busy and I don’t have a lot of money.

  14. I’m Icelandic but spent seven years of my childhood in Texas in addition to regular visits since then. Now, I love the US in many ways but I do feel that there is a lot more overly processed foods that you guys have over there. In Iceland and in the UK, where I’ve now lived for five years, there simply isn’t *as* much of this type of extremely processed food. This definitely doesn’t mean we don’t have food issues; in fact, I think that both Iceland and the UK are leaders in obesity in Europe. But I do think that you guys in the US have it a lot harder when it comes to avoiding these types of foods.

    For example, in Iceland, it’s true that we have fast food joints like kfc etc, but they aren’t really that cheap, so to be honest it can be better to buy healthier foods than to go to a fast food joint. This doesn’t mean that people don’t go to them, they do! But it does maybe slightly prohibit it…?

    Anyways, I don’t mean to sound preachy, just thought I’d share my two cents.

    • Cristen says:

      Going to Spain for four months, this was one of the things I noticed the most – the lack of fast food and the abundance of excellent restaurants with plenty of healthy food to choose from. My diet changed so much in that four months for the better that I was sick for nearly two weeks upon getting back to the US simply because of the terrible quality of our food (and because I was in a wedding two days after returning and apparently we only had time for fast food….).

      Anyways, as an x-fast food employee, I can’t stand eating at fast food restaurants because I know what goes on, where the food comes from, and just how terrible that food is for you.

      Great article!

  15. Katherine says:

    Thanks for this info. Enjoyed your article. I have been eating clean on and off for a year. Mostly on for the last 6 months. You said you list weight and I’m wondering if you have any tips for that. I eat clean, exercise, and drink plenty of water and I now off my blood pressure meds but not losing weight. Any tips are appreciated, thx!!

  16. Lee-Ann says:

    Do you ladies who eat clean and lost weight also eat less complex carbs? I lost 30 lbs but ate 1 carb a day and mostly clean but wonder if that’s necessary when losing the weight? Or kd you just eat reduced portions of the carbs?

  17. Cami Nogle says:

    Would love to get some clean eating freezer recipes and information on spices -which are a better choice . Thanks

  18. You need to do some research about wheat and whole grains (The wheat belly diet). Wheat is so genetically modified that the body takes so much more for the body to break it down…it’s pretty scary. The fda pushes whole grains but they are not in their natural form anymore and cause serious harm to the body.

  19. It helps if you start with one or two meals or snacks a day. For example, just change breakfast and 2nd snack to clean. The rest of the meals eat normal. Or just pick one guideline. For example, no more fast food. Or switching to whole grain breads and pastas. I know for me, I get over whelmed and flop if I take on everything. Try to add a rule or meal every couple days or a week at a time. Whatever you feel comfortable taking on.

  20. Thank you for this article..I’m new to clean eating and this helped clarifying some things for me! I couldn’t agree more that I feel better and less bloated! I feel so in control of what I am eating! I have battled my weight for years and diets just seemed to restrictive that I felt deprived all the time..for the first time ever I don’t feel guilty or deprived! It’s great!

  21. A book you might enjoy is The Foodist by Daryea Rose. She simplifies clean eating in a way that seems manageable.

  22. Great points and I love how realistic you are, Tammy. Trying to be 100% ‘clean’ has never worked for me either (didn’t stop me from trying once upon a time, though!), so I shoot for more or less what you do: 80% clean and 20% pretty much anything I want, but in reasonable portions (you can easily undo the effort you’ve put in just by going crazy with the cake, beer and pizza over the weekend). The goal is to eat in a way that keeps me sane, not drive me crazy!


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