I love food and cooking for friends and family. This began when I was a child and accelerated when my husband and I lived in San Francisco, then Los Angeles and NYC where food is as much social currency as it is nourishment. Those food-forward cities were totally palate-opening for me after growing up in the microwave age as a child in Detroit (not necessarily known as a major food destination at the time) where I had no idea food could even taste that good let alone be some Instagrammable art on a plate. To prove the obsession is real, I even created printed cookbooks of our favorite recipes as the table gifts at our wedding – I could think of no better representation of our shared-foundation as a couple.
But, I’ve found that with increasing age, stress, and undeniable gunk in our food thanks to pesticides, drugs and processing, not to mention an over-consumption of certain types of food products and fillers that our bodies aren’t made to effectively process, things had to change. As a result, I’ve had to make some critical choices in my food selection and their sources to correct the imbalance in my body that I learned through research was most likely a result of an unhappy gut. In doing so, and in combination with my other wellness practice pillars, I truly feel like a new person.
Now, the path of my clean eating pursuit has been a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure. I have a 2-foot tall pile of books, specific directions from a functional medicine doctor, and countless hours of watching documentaries and reading health blogs to help me determine what “eating clean” even means. The perspectives on what’s acceptable and what’s not is so incredibly diverse that I’ve wondered how can you make the “right” decision to ensure you’re nourishing your body properly and not continuing to sabotage your health and wellness? For me, it’s been trial-and-error with what’s felt good to my body, what’s helped me achieve my optimal weight, better sleep, less brain fog, better immunity, and a little bit of wiggle room in there to have the occasional food indulgence.
Here are some of the commonalities (though not ubiquitous), interesting, and helpful guidance I’ve found in all the professional advice out there:
- Eat Organic: Stay away from pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and GMO. Yuck.
- Eat Veggie-Forward: Choose vegetables as your main dish (though, not all vegetables are created equal – do your research here), limit animal protein and fish to more of a side dish size (while being sure it’s an organic, pasture raised, grass-fed meat and/or fresh, wild-caught fish – a further debate exists amongst the experts of which types of meat (ex/ turkey, etc.) are acceptable. Pork, all processed meats, certain fish and shellfish seem to generally be on the “no” list. Eggs are also debated…I personally still eat organic, pasture raised eggs (but, be sure you know the important differences between egg labels here too!)
- Cut or Seriously Limit Dairy: Dairy doesn’t work for most people and the manufacturing process of mass-produced milk (including cheese), even organic, can literally and figuratively turn your stomach when you look into the details. Opt for some nut-milk substitutes, read up on casein A-1 and A-2 milk, research other animal milk sources like goat, or just completely eliminate.
- Say “No” to Processed Food: Cut all the packaged and processed foods and drinks, condiments and sauces. Read all labels, if you must, and be sure you recognize the ingredients. Focus on shopping the perimeter of the store for fresh, whole food that don’t require a label.
- Cut Sugar and Watch Fruit: Remove refined and all other sugar sources from your diet including excess fresh fruit (as not all fruit are created equal in sugar content), and of course, any artificial sweeteners which are bad news.
- Cut Corn & Soy: These hormone disruptors, among other offenses, have overloaded the American diet and are wreaking havoc on our bodies in a variety of ways. Watch for derivatives of these ingredients (ex/ corn syrup) as unnecessary fillers in a lot of processed food.
- Limit or Eliminate Grains & Gluten: Most experts agree gluten is not friendly to your gut, but some books seem to disagree if all whole grains are forbidden or some non-gluten are acceptable like brown, red, black and wild rice, millet, amaranth, etc. I personally limit to 1 serving a day per my doctor’s suggestion. From what I’ve read, if you have autoimmune or other chronic issues, you may want to research more on this topic and be far more strict about not bending any rules.
- Skip Peanuts & Cashews: These guys aren’t actually nuts (cashews, interestingly, is in the same botanical family as poison ivy!), and most experts agree that they generally mess with your gut for a host of reasons.
- Watch Oils: There’s a long list of “no” oils out there, some that you should just have raw rather than cook with them, and others that are debated as “yes” or “no” by the experts depending on what ailment you are hoping to avoid. I personally stick with cold pressed organic extra virgin olive oil, unrefined organic coconut oil (debated), and organic avocado oil.
- Watch Beans: While they may be a plant-based source of protein, fiber and minerals, they are also loaded with starch, lectins and phytates. Some clean diets say “no” completely, while others suggest limiting to 1 cup. Lentils are debated between books – some specifying they’re fine, others say they’re only “ok” only if they’re cooked in a pressure cooker, thereby reducing their lectin content.
- Watch Lectins: Lectins are a toxic, plant-based protein that can be lurking in a number of fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and conventional dairy products that many people consider “healthy” – they are the plants’ way of protecting themselves. Read up on what you may want to avoid to reduce inflammation and overall ill-health. A book called, “The Plant Paradox” by Dr. Steven R. Gundry is the greatest source of information on this I have found.
- Stick to Filtered Water and Herbal Tea: Most clean diets say no to alcohol, caffeine, fruit juice and the obvious “no”s like soda, etc. Also, cut out drinking plastic bottled water and ensure your home water is filtered for drinking and cooking purposes (my personal preference is spring water in glass bottles).
- Don’t Store Food in Plastic Containers and Avoid Leftovers: Opt for glass containers for any food storage. That said, Ayurvedic diet teaches that leftover food is lifeless – its beneficial food energy has gone – in turn, opt for freshly prepared each time you eat for optimal nutrition.
- Eat on Time: Ayurveda recommends eating breakfast between 7-9am, lunch between 12-1:30pm (make this your largest meal), and dinner between 5-7pm. Other clean eating experts also suggest allowing a full 12 hours after your dinner for your body to digest and fast before the next meal – this allows for optimal digestion and absorption of nutrients.
- Avoid Foods that Strip you of Beauty & Proper Digestion: Just say “no” to very spicy or intense foods, very oily foods, fermented foods, overly heavy foods, non-fresh foods, excessively sour foods, very salty foods, and incompatible foods – read books on Ayurvedic Diet to get full detail and guidance, especially for incompatible foods (ex/ meat paired with sesame or honey). A couple books for more information are suggested below.
- Consider Relevant Vitamins, Probiotics and Supplements: With a doctor’s help, find out what vitamins and supplements you may need to balance your body properly. This is usually a blood test you need to specifically ask for from your doctor, but was regular protocol at my functional, integrative doctor which introduced me to the need and was revolutionary in my overall health and vitality. Most of the clean eating books also offer general guidance and suggestions on where to start.
If any of this very brief, high-level and “well-intended” clean eating guidance piques your interest, I suggest you pick up some of my favorite books written by various experts to get greater medical context as well as more comprehensive details about the do’s and don’ts to customize your clean eating approach to maximize wellness. I’ve also included a couple food-related, eye-opening documentaries below:
- “Food. What the heck should I eat? The no-nonsense guide to achieving optimal weight and lifelong health.” By Mark Hyman, MD
- “Clean. The Revolutionary Program to Restore the Body’s Natural Ability to Heal Itself.” By Alejandro Junger, MD with Amely Greeven
- “The Plant Paradox. The Hidden Dangers in ‘Healthy’ Foods that Case Disease and Weight Gain.” By Steven R. Gundry, MD
- “The Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs and Sugar – Your Brain’s Silent Killers.” By David Perlmutter, MD with Kristen Loberg
- “The Ayurveda Way. 108 Practices from the World’s Oldest Healing System for Better Sleep, Less Stress, Optimal Digestion, and More.” By Ananta Ripa Ajmera
- “Ayurveda Lifestyle Wisdom. A Complete Prescription to Optimize your Health, Prevent Disease, and Live with Vitality and Joy.” By Acharya Shunya
- Film Documentary: “Food, Inc.”
- Film Documentary: “What the Health?”
Disclaimer: I am not a health care professional. The information and statements above are simply directional, not comprehensive, and are my key-takeaways and interpretations gathered through the research sources named above for the purposes of my own personal wellness journey and practice. Please consult your own health care professional for advice and guidance.