I’ve always experienced an almost visceral reaction to diet and food trends. Despite my desire to eat healthfully and intelligently, I don’t believe that restricting myself or limiting the scope of my life (I’m Italian—the food is the life!) is worth it in the end. So, my food rules are simple: Eat healthy as often as I can, enjoy all foods in moderation, and have waffles after midnight every once in a while just because.
When I first heard about the “clean eating” trend, I was a little put off. Not only can it come off elitist (not everyone can shop at a farmers market or afford healthy foods all the time), there are also links between healthy eating trends and orthorexia, a kind of disordered eating that hinges on an obsession with eating healthy foods, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Still, I couldn’t help but be intrigued: Clean-eating advocates (they’re all over Instagram, where the #CleanEating and #EatClean hashtags reign) do have a point. Clean eating is all about mindfully eating and eliminating the stuff we already know is bad for us: processed, packaged, nutritionally-lacking foods. The goal is to eat whole foods, lean proteins, legumes, whole grains, greens, and fruit. (You can learn more about which foods count here.)
Other clean-eating tenets include eating locally, eating more plant-based foods, and adopting a cleaner lifestyle in general.
The gains? Plenty! You nourish your body by eliminating extra sodium, totally unnecessary extra sugars, unhealthy fats, and empty carbs. After all, so many of our favorite foods contain so much crap. A trip through the grocery store is legitimately like a gut health horror movie: packaged pizza loaded with saturated fats and processed dough, juices jam-packed with added sugars and syrups you can’t pronounce, and bleached pastas.
As someone with an autoimmune condition that comes with its side of gastrointestinal issues, becoming more aware of my food intake—as I’d begun to do lately by reading labels and balancing my macros—was like winning the gut lottery. I spent a lot more time eating well and a lot less time worrying if I’d end up feeling bloated all day.
So, after a friend of mine did a month of clean eating and loved it, I decided to try it myself, for one week, to expand my healthy-eating habits…and to see if the trend would really interfere with my attitude about living life to the fullest. Here’s the list I used when shopping.
I found myself googling things like, “Can I drink wine?” (YES, thank god, but only a little.) Another one: “What kind of snacks can I have?” (There are definitely some—but that heavily depends on your definition of “snack.”)
All in all, nothing else surprised me. I was supposed to eat whole foods and loads of fruits, veggies, and legumes. Easy! Right?
Breakfast was a veggie scramble (with a little olive oil) and lunch was a tuna salad with arugula, chickpeas, and tomatoes. Dinner was from an organic food chain called Sweet Green. It was a warm Portobello bowl with veggies and lean chicken. I went to bed itching for a snack (I was hungry all day)—but ended up popping some (well, like, 50) grapes.
I’d cut out a few things: cereal, the candy I sometimes eat, healthy snack bars (like Clif Bars), sardines and most canned foods (apparently canned foods are off-limits because they contain aluminum). Many fresh “clean” foods also contain aluminum.
Days 2 & 3:
I was invested by now—so I went ahead and started bringing my own breakfast to work: yogurt with fruit. I REALLY wanted to add Muesli for a little kick, but it’s boxed and I decided against it. I remembered how hungry I was the day before, so I made about a thousand pounds of boiled eggs and ate 2-3 throughout the day. Lunch and dinner were salads—with chicken, sliced avocado, and lots and lots of cannellini beans (beans are great because they promote heart health and are loaded with antioxidants and other goodies, according to Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism).
Days 4 & 5:
I woke up and made myself a smoothie with almond milk, bananas, cinnamon and a half teaspoon of peanut butter (apparently, the jury is out on whether some peanut butters are clean eats or not; I decided to live on the edge).
As the day went on, I would want something hot and delicious, like mashed potatoes and fried chicken, and I also wanted peanut butter cups. The desire was REAL. But I stuck it out and ate salads for lunch (I added a bunch of tofu to bulk them up).
I made myself a huge, clean meal for dinner: a warm spicy (olive oil and jalapeno) quinoa bowl with chicken breast, lentils, peas, carrots. It was amazing.
Days 6 & 7:
These days got a lot easier, and I had food left over from the days before. Lots of places cater to clean eating, I realized, but they can get pricy. You really need to get creative and make lots of food at home so you can feel full and have options all day long.
The Bottom Line
I felt really good eating clean. I was rarely bloated, I was energetic and not deprived nutritionally (my taste buds would beg to differ), and I felt confident in my food choices. It’s not the sort of diet you can’t get the hang of, especially if you already eat well, but I imagine those whose lives are filled with fast food or packaged meals might have a harder time.
What’s not so fun? Standing in the grocery store aisle manically googling “clean eating” foods. (You’d be surprised what’s not allowed: Goodbye, smoked salmon!). It’s also really hard to eliminate canned foods.
And I won’t lie to you, dear reader: I definitely had a slip-up. I ate a dish of gnocchi (from a bag) and I attacked a bag of fruity wafers (also from a bag). These two things were so beautiful I feel no regret.
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However, it does underscore the idea that, to me, clean eating is a goal one should work toward most of the time. It can function well as a sort of quick nutrition detox, but it seems unsustainable as a long-term habit for most people. For me, enjoying a few processed things here and there is what makes life delicious—and doing so every once in a while allows us to be mindful about our indulgences without feeling restricted or self-punishing. Also, some processed foods, like whole grain breads, can still be ok for you in moderation.
I won’t hop on the clean-eating lifestyle any time soon, but I will adopt some of its tenets, say, 80 percent of my time. 80/20 rule! Eat healthy 80 percent of the time and enjoy anything 20 percent of the time. Because I will never give up my late-night waffles.