Clean eating explained

Close-up of pretty girl eating fresh vegetable salad

You've probably heard about clean eating in the media, on the internet or down the gym – but you may not be sure exactly what it is. Never fear, we've got the low-down on one of the biggest trends in health and fitness circles in recent years...

It's not a diet
At least not in the commonly used sense of the word for an eating plan designed to shed weight. Instead it's more of an approach to food and a decision to avoid most processed and refined foods in favour of natural ingredients.

This means no junk food - just food prepared from whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, grass-fed or free-range meats and low-fat dairy products. Not all processed foods are banned – wholewheat pasta is allowed for example – but the main aim is to cut out all the preservatives, added sugar and fat and flavour enhancers found in packaged meals and many processed foods.

It's not the same as the paleo diet - though there are overlapping points and individuals often combine the two approaches in their personal eating.

What are the benefits?
Clean eaters say they are pleased to be freed from sugar-dependency, from junk food cravings and that they get satisfaction from knowing exactly what's going into their food. Other claimed benefits include improved mood, better sleep, clearer skin and better brain function.

If you're eating healthy foods which are low in fat and sugar, you'll reap the same rewards as anyone following a generally healthy diet with regard to lower risk of heart disease, diabetes etc. Whole grains and fibre-rich foodstuffs are well-known to keep the digestive system in good shape. And of course there could be a financial benefit if you're used to paying out for ready meals and what retailers call "value-added" products.

Less but more often
Rather than the standard three square meals a day, many clean eating devotees choose to have a five or six smaller meals – to balance out their blood sugar level a bit and minimise the temptation to reach for those sugary snacks. Each meal should ideally be well balanced with protein, carbohydrate and fat to reduce hunger pangs.

How hard is it?
It's very easy to get the ingredients, and cooking from scratch is straightforward enough – with the option to batch-cook and reheat meals later if time is an issue.

The biggest challenge is dropping old eating habits and learning new ones, but like other lifestyle changes it can be done gradually – if going cold turkey from Mars bars is too intimidating a prospect.

So is chocolate completely out then?
Many clean eaters eschew it completely, but others still indulge in a bit of 70% dark chocolate now and again – citing the health benefits associated with the purer form of the substance.

Have you tried clean eating? Leave a comment below...
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