What exactly is clean eating? In simple terms, it means eating a diet that is loaded with vegetables, supplemented with fruits, nuts, and seeds, and second, devoid of anything artificial or potentially damaging to your body. That’s it. Do that starting today and you’ll change your health forever.

It’s almost a daily occurrence that Kelli and I get asked what we are, in food terms. Vegetarian? Vegan? Raw? Paleo?  A label would make it so much easier for them to understand, so we try. But whenever we say we’re “clean foodies,” we’re batting a thousand on getting a blank stare in return. Sometimes I’m tempted to say “clean foodists,” but that just sounds too much like nudists, and I just don’t want to even allow for any confusion there. [Hey, did you know know Brad and Kelli eat dinner naked? They say it’s the way to great health and a long life.]

Also, over the last two months we’ve had two sister-in-laws email us with food questions, stating that health issues had finally reached a breaking point. Both knew about our food philosophy in general, but both had a lot of confusion surrounding the whole concept.

After a conversation about high fructose corn syrup with one of them, she told us that she already knew all about it and knew where to look for it. We pushed her to do some more looking around her fridge and cupboards, and she was shocked by how many things HFCS comes in…yes, even the ketchup, cheap brands of spice mixes, and salad dressings.  Even Kelli was shocked to find hydrogenated oil (aka trans fats) in our garlic powder when we cleaned out our kitchen a couple years ago.

It’s pretty obvious we have some work to do in getting the word out about clean eating. I promise we’re trying. It’s definitely possible we make it too complicated with our ambitions to continue trying new, unfamiliar foods and to dig deeper to learn more. The principles, however, are really straightforward and easy to understand, but powerful enough to literally have the most significant impact on your health than anything else you could ever try.

So what exactly is clean eating? In simple terms, it means eating a diet that is loaded with vegetables, supplemented with fruits, nuts, and seeds, and second, devoid of anything artificial or potentially damaging to your body. That’s it. Do that starting today and you’ll change your health forever.

How then does that translate into practical terms? What are the foods to avoid – and why? Let’s get into the application side for a bit.

To start with, eat your veggies!!! This can’t be stressed enough. Most Americans eat far too little fresh produce and our health is paying the price. This is where the majority of the clean diet is found. Vegetables are without a doubt the most nutritious foods on earth. If you say you don’t like them, you haven’t tried enough, or enough ways to prepare them. Or, possibly, your tastes buds have literally been corrupted by years of sugar and processed food consumption.

Give it a few weeks, experiment, and you’ll start finding yourself looking forward to finishing off the broccoli. One sister-in-law just reported back that sweet potatoes have become her new favorite food, and that’s after years of only liking them covered in sugar and marshmallows. Taste buds will reset if you give them a chance.

With vegetables as the foundation of your eating habits, throw in some fruit, nuts, and seeds for variety. A million and one snack ideas can be generated just from those three ingredients (check out the snack aisle at your natural foods store and you’ll see what I mean). You can mix them up so you’ll always have something new to try.

Add a serving of whole grains, like brown rice or quinoa, to your meals. You’ll get long-lasting energy from these guys and more fiber and protein as well.

Stuff your stomach full of veggies, fruits and grains, and you’ll hardly have to worry about what to avoid! Seriously, you can just focus on that, stop right here, and you’ll do wonders for your health.

If you’re curious and want more details, then let’s talk about some of the scary stuff for a minute.

First step to cleaning up your diet is going through your kitchen and throwing out anything that has the words Diet, Low-Calorie or Low-Fat on the front. Those words alone are enough to let you know you’re holding a chemical blood bath in your hands. You immediately know that there is very little natural substance to that product. Then turn the packages around and look at the ingredient list. The most common artificial ingredient today is high fructose corn syrup. It’s bad in itself, but it is always an indicator of other bad things to follow. As soon as you see it, you can toss that bottle in the garbage. It’s bad enough that it’s not worth keeping and using what you’ve already bought. Throw it out.

If you find anything that starts with ‘hydrogenated,’ or has words you can’t pronounce, it’s garbage. Check your oils and look for the word ‘refined,’ which means ‘refused!’ Don’t poison your neighbors or food bank customers. Just toss it. Refined also goes for the grains and sugars. White rice, white flour, white sugar aren’t the scariest of the bunch, but over consumption of these refined products can lead to a number of major health issues, diabetes being one of the most common.

If it has ingredients you’re just unsure about, or ones you don’t keep in your cupboard to use in your own recipes, take that as a signal that you should do a little homework.  Some additives aren’t so scary. If you’re buying packaged goods at a store, there almost always has to be a preservative. Citric acid is one commonly found in healthy food options. It’s not ideal, but unless you can spend every day in your kitchen cooking every meal, you’re going to have to tolerate a couple additives. You just want to be sure they’re safe.

Another example of neutral food additives is vitamin fortification. A lot of natural products still have confusing words on the back (take a look at the back of a carton of almond milk), but the majority of them are simply vitamin additives. As a rule, we’re strong proponents of getting your vitamins naturally through their original sources as much as possible (bread isn’t supposed to have fish oil!), and we follow the advice of most alternative health care professionals who recommend taking a high-quality daily multivitamin. But in the current marketplace, putting the words “High in Vitamin X” on the front of the package is a strong seller. The fortification of vitamins and minerals will read like a tongue twister on the ingredient list, and though we’re not fans of fortification in general, it doesn’t hurt you.

The irony is that a lot of vitamin additives are rendered ineffective when added to the new base product (such as Vitamin D in reduced fat milk – without the fat to bind with, the vitamin D passes right through you), so there’s no real point to it. Whether it’s ignorance or succumbing to marketing pressure on the part of the food manufacturers, they’re going to keep putting artificial vitamins in their products for a long time. Just do a little research to understand what those unfamiliar terms are and which ones you’re willing to accept.

So that’s our spiel on ingredient labels. Notice that we mentioned looking at ingredient lists and not nutrition panels. Exactly our point. It’s the ingredients that rule. There is no need ever again to count calories or fat grams. It’s just pointless. Whenever we’re buying food we will ALWAYS read the ingredients list, then maybe take a look at the sugar grams to get an idea of how much is in there, and that’s it. Tell me that doesn’t take a huge burden off your brain. Eat clean, learn to listen to what your body wants and stop when you’re full, and you’ll never have to count calories or fat grams again!!!

Two common questions: Do I have to change where I shop? Does it have to be organic?

Remember, our goal is to eat food that is as natural as possible and chemical free. Most major grocery chains are starting to carry natural products, but it’s still going to be difficult to fill up your grocery cart with what they offer. Most packaged products in the regular grocery store are going to be heavily processed and contain gobs of preservatives and artificial colors and flavors. The stores will catch on as more and more people demand those toxins be removed from our foods, but until then, you may need to investigate a few other shopping options.

In addition, most conventional packaged foods contain some form of corn and soy, the two most common genetically altered food crops in America. Because our government doesn’t require food companies to tell us when they use GMO products, the only way to know for sure that the food you’re buying doesn’t have any is to buy organic.

What are GMOS’s and what’s wrong with them? Picture the offspring of a cow mating with an oak tree. Hard to imagine isn’t it? That’s genetic engineering in the food world; taking a gene from one species and splicing it into the DNA of another. It’s not like traditional intra-species breeding for desired traits that farmers have been doing for centuries (as many scientists and especially those supporting GMOs will say). It is mixing genes from species that would never, ever get together in the natural world.

Why do they do it? The first commercial application of genetically engineered crops was to allow the farmer to spray pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides as heavily as he wanted, killing every insect and weed in site, but leaving the desired crop intact. So think of that: buying a GMO product almost guarantees that it has been doused in a flood of chemicals while it was growing. That’s not something you can wash off. It is in the plant.  The same company that engineers, owns and sells the seeds also engineers, owns and sells the chemicals (a convenient twist on their original product agent orange).  How does that sound for a little salad dressing?

BT Corn was created so that the corn would automatically produce it’s own insecticide. Got that? Inside the corn cells is poison that kills bugs. So then the corn seed grows, yields a crop, and it’s for sale at the store. Is it corn? Not if you ask me. If it’s not corn what is it? Beats me. Will it kill me? Not today. Is it safe? Who knows. Am I willing to be the guinea pig? Not a chance. Hella scary.

What applies to the packaged goods also applies to the produce at regular stores. More and more commercial crops include GMO elements. The only way currently to avoid GMO’s at a regular grocery store is to buy organic.  If you need to pick and choose, the foods (and anything that contain them) that are pretty much guaranteed GMO if they’re not organic are corn, soy, sugar, canola, and wheat.  So do your best to buy those organic.

If you happen to shop at the farmer’s market and the guy says his stuff isn’t certified organic (it’s an expensive and arduous process), but he says he raises his crops naturally and doesn’t use any chemical spray, I’d probably feel alright about buying his stuff.

Typically organic is more expensive, though not always the case. For budget concerns, read our Dirty Dozen article to know which items you can get away with buying conventional and which ones you should avoid.

Ok now, what about meat? Whether your personal beliefs say its ok to eat meat or not, how the animal was raised and killed does play into how it will impact your body. Kelli and I are not vegetarians, though we eat so many vegetables and skip the meat so frequently that we’re often thought to be. In thinking about it while writing this, it dawned on me that we are more picky about the meat we eat than practically anything else. Why? Because one, there is an enormous nutritional difference between conventionally raised animal meat and the free-range organic options. Second, conventional meat is almost guaranteed to have chemicals and toxins in it. And third, and strongest reason for us, is that there is a moral aspect directly related to meat consumption.

When it comes to nutrition levels, there is just no comparison between free roaming grass fed/finished organic meat and the modern conventional alternative. Free roaming animal meat has more vitamins and minerals, more good fat, and less bad fat. Period. Study after study has confirmed this. The same is true for wild-caught fish versus farm raised.

Then, in conventional farming, where massive amounts of animals are crammed together in merciless conditions, they have to be pumped full of drugs to keep them alive. Here’s a tidbit for you: the vast majority of America’s antibiotics supply is used in our animal supply.  (And we all thought it was the MD’s handing out too much of the stuff and creating drug resistance.)

On top of this, animals are commonly given growth hormones to make them put on meat faster, thus allowing the farmer to sell them at market more quickly. If the cow was pumped full of hormones, the meat and milk it produces that sit in the store freezer are in turn full of it. These hormones have been linked to the rise of early puberty onset in girls. So in simple clean eating terms, none of these additives are acceptable.

Then there’s the moral aspect to it all. I grew up around chickens, horses, goats, turkeys, and rabbits. Our animals roamed all over the yard, with plenty of opportunity to forage for their natural foods. We treated them well. We fed them well. And then one day, except for the horses (I’m pretty sure anyway…there was that one winter where money was a little tight 🙂 ), we ate them. Like Joel Salatin of Omnivore’s Dilema fame says, his animals have a great life and just one bad day. That’s how we did it.

Sadly, the meat you see in the regular grocery store has not been raised like this at all. For chickens and turkeys, it’s life in torturous battery cages in spaces so small they can’t spread their wings. Their beaks are riipped off as chicks, and male chicks are discarded in garbage sacks, slowly suffocating as more bodies get tossed on top of them.

Cows spend their last months of life on feed lots, standing in their own feces, eating a diet of things their bodies aren’t designed to handle – like corn – and being pumped full of hormones to make them put on meat faster and antibiotics to keep them alive. Their living conditions are so bad that they have to receive the heavy doses of antibiotics just to keep them alive.

Same goes for the pigs (tails clipped, crammed in tight cages), the ducks and geese (tight cages, force fed ungodly amounts of food to enlarge their livers), and the ever potentially explosive topic of baby cows [veal] (penned so they’re never allowed to use their muscles from birth to slaughter, lest they make their meat too tough).

Most of us would never treat animals the way they’re treated in commercial operations. We respect life and would never knowingly participate in the torture of animals. Unfortunately, these practices are so widespread that for Kelli and me, consuming conventional meat is just not an option. We simply don’t want to support the people and companies that are willing to operate this way. We’ve read many books that talk about this issue, but seeing it filmed in Food Inc should be enough scare anyone off it. Go rent that one if you haven’t seen it yet.

That being said, protein is critically important for your body and brain to function well, so it’s important to eat enough. If you choose not to eat meat, be very careful that you eat a very well balanced diet to consume adequate protein and nutrients, take a multivitamin, and be very mindful of your B12 intake.

So there it is. The clean eating mystery solved. Should we summarize it a bit? Put it in the shell of one of those healthy almonds we’ve all been snacking on?

1 – When putting together a meal, cover 75% of the plate with veggies. Balance the remaining 25% between a whole grain (brown rice, quinoa, etc) and a clean protein (meat if you eat it, beans and lentils, tofu, etc).

2 – Snack on fruits, nuts, and seeds.

3 – Nothing artificial of any sort (colors, preservatives, flavors, GMO’s, chemicals, or hormones). If God didn’t plant it or create it, don’t eat it.

4 – No refined grains, oils, and sugars.

5 – Buy organic as much as possible

There it is. What is clean eating? It’s eating real food. Food your great-grandmother would recognize as food. Food that tastes good and is nutritious.

That’s the beauty of eating clean. It’s by no means a restrictive diet, it’s not even a diet. It’s a lifestyle change you can make and keep up with for the rest of your days. There are always clean alternatives to the foods you love if the standard varieties don’t necessarily fit the bill. I’m talking about everything, including dessert (you should see what Kelli can whip up…and don’t worry, we post the recipes!). Your taste buds will reset and you’ll start enjoying food in ways you didn’t expect, experiencing and recognizing flavors you never knew existed.

Just making these few changes to the way you eat will make an incredible impact on your health, and your wasteline. You’ll feel better, sleep better, have more energy, and you may find that some long-term nagging ailments simply go away. Your body is amazing and it knows exactly what to do, as long as you give it the right fuel.

We’re passionate about healthy food and healthy eating. As always, we’d love to hear from you with any questions you may have or your own personal experiences with changing the way you eat.

Making these changes is important and the great news is it’s not as hard as you may think. Make the commitment for your health and your families. We’re always here to help.

14 thoughts on “The Clean Eating Mystery…Solved

  1. What a wonderful all encompassing post. I recently started my journey towards better health. I’m only a week and a half in, but I’ve found that buying my groceries from a local farm to be a healthier alternative to walking into the large supermarket.

    The fun part is figuring out how to prepare all of these newly “discovered” vegetables and whole grains.

    1. Hi Felicia, thanks for sharing, and congrats on the first week and a half! Yes, buying from a local farm is definitely a great way to go, and much healthier than shopping at the supermarket for many reasons. I’d say even healthier than a natural foods grocery store. And it’s gotta be fun right? Heading out to the farm, strolling around outside, meeting and talking with the farmer. Can’t beat that.

      Keep us posted on your new journey!

  2. I love high fructose corn syrup! It is delicious! Oh by the way I’m totally in shape because I do all things in moderation. If you sit on your rear all day and stuff your face with “HFCS” then yes you are going to be out of shape and overweight. But if you are willing to burn a few calories and eat all things in moderation both good and bad, you will be healthier that someone who eats only as a “clean foodies”.

    1. Hey Bob, thanks for your comment. Really appreciate you sharing your point of view.

      I’m not sure I could really say whether high fructose corn syrup itself is delicious or not. Yeah, I guess most the stuff it’s in tastes pretty good, though. But I’ve never seen it on a store shelf by itself and I don’t have the chemicals at home to make it! (Check out the move King Corn to get a basic idea of what it takes to make it.)

      Of course physical activity is a requirement to being healthy. And of course it’s possible to be at a normal weight and have strong muscles while eating the “bad” stuff in moderation. But the piece that’s worrisome is what’s going on inside that we can’t see. A healthy inner-ecology is essential to life-long health and artificial ingredients make that really hard to accomplish. Some people have the genes to eat whatever they want and live to a hundred, just like some smokers do. Maybe I’m one of them. Maybe not. I’m just not willing to gamble then find out at 70, when it’s too late to do anything about it, that I’m losing my memory or my organs are starting to give out.

      For most of us, even with exercise, and even in moderation, those harmful ingredients will catch up to us sooner or later. And sadly now we’re seeing it more sooner than later.

  3. Brad,
    Thanks for the insightful write-up. I’ve been working toward a better diet and healthier habits and so has Kelly – you should see him, he looks so good!! 😉 We’ve really seen great results but it’s honestly been difficult to keep up. But I’m not totally discouraged yet. I think the bumps and set backs have only made me realize even more why it’s important not to let my diet be so casual. It’s good to read your comments – I appreciate the encouragement!!
    I’m only confused by one thing though – I thought Vitamin D was essential in the absorption of Calcium. I’ll have to do some research on that one.

    1. Well I gotta see this. You telling me that Kelly’s all skinny and buff now? Man we miss you guys. Really happy to hear that you guys are making changes and that it’s paying off. Setbacks are to be expected. Remember, the goal is not perfection, but it’s always smart to be vigilant with what people and companies are trying to feed you.
      As for the Vitamin D…thanks for keeping me on my toes! I was thinking of something else when I wrote that. Yes, calcium and Vitamin D go hand in hand. But D, being fat soluble, needs to be with fat in order to be absorbed. So it’s the reduced fat milks, where the milk has been heated and ultraprocessed, destroying virtually all nutrients, where companies add in D in an attempt to replace what they killed. But in that synthetic state, with not fat to work with, it just doesn’t have a chance to do anything beneficial for your body.

      Are you familiar with the functional medicine doctors? Mercola, Hyman, Fuhrman, McDougall? Those are the guys we go to for our research. Here’s an article by Mercola on this subject of milk: http://www.mercola.com/article/milk/no-milk.htm.

      Here’s another one about fortification in general, if you’re interested:

  4. Brad and Kelli,
    First off, my husband and I love your website! We have always considered ourselves fairly healthy eaters, but have been making strides toward a more veggie-heavy and meat-light diet over the last few months. In the week since I discovered your site, it has turned us into avid label-readers! Keep on posting!

    We do have a question for you that’s been nagging us, that has to do with reconciling clean eating (avoiding processed anything) with Kelli’s detox guide which requires protein powders and name-brand fiber supplements. I admit I haven’t gone to read the labels of these products you mention, but these things sound like highly processed products to me, and so I just wonder about how you got comfortable with allowing that as part of your diet.


    1. Thanks for the compliments and the great question! Hopefully you saw the email we sent you to go into more detail.

      There is certainly a place for additional protein powder and supplements in a clean eating lifestyle. In an ideal world, we could get all the nutrition we need from whole foods, but in today’s modern environment and lifestyle it’s rarely possible, if ever.

      That being said, one definitely has to exercise caution when it comes to these supplements. There are good ones and bad ones. Clean ones and filthy ones. This is definitely an area where you don’t want to skimp on quality. Reading labels to verify ingredients, and research processing methods as well, will help you make the best decisions to maintain your clean eating awesomeness!


  5. I love your clean eating in a “nutshell” article because it is exactly what I’ve been doing for several months now. I have always been a fairly healthy eater, but have taken it to the next level and feel even better. Every week I get brave and try new vegetables from local farmers, whatever is in season! I’m having to be more experimental in the kitchen which was scary at first, but I’m getting better.
    Your section on meat was spot on. I had said for years that if I ever really thought about where my meat came from I’d be a vegetarian…so I just didn’t think about it. Now that I have confronted the issue, I can feel good about buying free range meats and eggs, local when I can. And because we don’t eat much meat, I don’t mind paying the higher price.
    So glad I found you guys – this will be a great article to share!

    1. Thanks Sarah! So glad you liked it, and thrilled to hear you’ve been making good strides yourself. Way to step it up. And we understand. The first we got a daikon raddish in our CSA delivery we were stumped. 🙂 You’re exactly right though. It’s just a matter of experimenting and learning, and having a great time while you’re doing it!

      It’s so important to be mindful of not only what we eat, but where our food comes from and the impact it had on its way to our plate (workers, animals, environment). Paying more for better tasting, more nutritious, higher quality food that’s actually benefited a farmer, enriched the soil, and treated animals correctly is definitely worth it.

      Thanks for joining us!

  6. Hi Brad, I have been eating this way for … well, I guess it is now several years. Of course, for someone my age (75) that hasn’t been such a big change as I grew up eating ‘clean food.’ We simply didn’t have anything else. We had a garden during the big war and that is what we ate. But of course, by the time I married the big food companies were beginning to produce all kinds of interesting things.. and I tried them all. These days, my non-clean eating is reduced to eating Tex-Mex out once a month (I make my own frequently, but there are things I have to leave to others). i am blessed to live in Texas also and have very close to me Sprouts, Trader Joe’s, Central Market, and Jason’s. I was thrilled to find that TJ had graham crackers, along with many other products, with all natural ingredients. (Isn’t it strange the foods you miss?) Good thing I learned to cook many years ago and grew up eating good things. When I began clean eating, I didn’t have quite so many bad habits to break. thank you for what I believe is a great site filled with good information which I can share with others. (I lead a Wellness Group of seniors and we are all eating better and better as we learn nutrition and a little alternative medicine!)

    1. Linda, thanks so much for your kinds words. It’s encouraging and very appreciated. Sounds like you’re doing fantastic. The Wellness Group of seniors is so fun to hear about. Great job leading that team.
      Yep, I know all about missing certain foods and being overjoyed when you find a natural alternative the artificial food of the past. Isn’t it fun? It goes to show that making commercial products without the harmful ingredients is more than possible. And the great news is every year our food culture, and the number of people aware of what they’re eating and the associated consequences, continues to progress.
      Thanks for saying hi!

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