If you are reading this, you’ve surely started eating clean or are planning to start, very soon. Congratulations! You’re off to a great start.
Clean eating is great. But with all the noise surrounding what maketh a balanced meal – with butter, without butter? Eggs every day? Only the whites? White rice or brown bread? – it can be challenging to create a healthy plate.
However, while the nutrition science community continues the battle on eggs and butter, there are two things they all agree with.
- Have more plant produce than meats and animal products.
- Get rid of trans fats, sugar, and refined (processed) foods.
Why should you have more plant produce?
While animal foods have more fat and protein, plant produce has it all, carbs (starch and fiber), proteins, healthy unsaturated fats, vitamins, minerals, and other plant nutrients (that often act as antioxidants).
Why should you get rid of trans fats, sugar, and refined foods?
These are involved in a number of health problems.
- Artificial trans fats are linked with heart disease risk, diabetes, and inflammation. Trans fats found in nature (some fatty cuts of beef and lamb) are not linked with such health risks.
- Added sugar is linked with obesity, diabetes, fatty liver, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, depression, and cancer.
- Refined or over-processed foods can cause obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and some types of cancer.
Now, we know it’s tough to stick to a diet that starts with eliminating foods that are such a big part of your daily meals because of convenience or because of taste.
So our suggestion is that you make a list of things you typically eat in a day and find natural or less harmful replacements, step by step. Don’t start replacing everything in a single day.
We’ll get you started.
Thankfully, you can stop worrying about the trans fats. The FDA banned the use of trans fats completely in 2018, which means most products on the US market today are trans-fat-free.
Unless, of course, you are traveling out of the country or are holding on to some old stock of packaged goodies.
In such cases, look up the labels on the packages for an ingredient called “partially hydrogenated (any) oil.” Even if the package says “zero trans fat,” it could contain 0.5 g/per serving trans fat (this was permitted before 2018, not anymore).
The usual suspects are any baked goods (pie crusts, cookies, biscuits, crackers, cakes), processed meats, coffee creamer, microwave popcorn, margarine and other spreads, and vegetable shortening.
Trans fats are not necessary, but fats are, even saturated fats, in small quantities. Have nuts, seeds, and fatty fish and go right ahead and drizzle that teaspoonful of butter and ghee on your food.
The writing on the wall is clear: sugar is public enemy no. 1. But when the enemy is so sweet, it’s tough to quit.
You don’t need to quit all sugars, certainly not the natural sugars found in fruits and veggies.
You don’t need to altogether quit the added sugar like in table sugar, honey, fruit juices, sodas, and syrups either. Granted, added sugar is just a taste enhancer, not a nutritional necessity, but taste is a biiig reason for us to stick to diets and for diets to work for us.
So within reason – which equals 6 teaspoons (25 g/100 cal) for women and 9 teaspoons (36 g/150 cal) for men – you can still have added sugar.
But with about 74% of the packaged foods you eat containing sugar, even foods that don’t taste sweet – bread, cereals, yogurt, pasta sauce – you are probably already eating more than you should.
What should you do?
If you are of a slow and steady metabolic type, you’ve probably already taken our diet recommendation seriously and have been cutting down on sweet foods (natural or otherwise). But if you are not, this is how you can control your sweet tooth.
Read labels on packaged foods. Always. Even if they say “healthy,” “wholesome,” or “organic,” track the “added sugar” amounts (thanks to a new rule by the FDA in 2018, you should be able to see this now) in the packaged food items you are likely to have in a day, say, cereals, fruit juice, yogurt, bread, granola bar, candies, sauces, salad dressing, canned soups, ice cream, etc. Choose whichever has the least sugar.
Less added sugar = more health.
Compare and Choose
Ideally, now the “added sugar” info should be enough to help you choose your food, but if you want to be extra-careful, look for the other names for sugar – there are a whopping 61! Some are easy to identify because they contain “sugar” in the name, while those like cane juice crystals, dextrin, and ethyl maltol, are trickier (you will find a ready list here).
Some high-fructose varieties, like agave nectar or syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, and fruit juice concentrates, though marketed as organic, natural, or diabetic-friendly are more harmful. So if you find these listed in a food item, keep the food back on the shelf.
Added sugar is made of glucose and fructose. Since glucose is thought to be the cause of diabetes, sugar manufacturers have been marketing low-glucose high-fructose sugars as healthy alternatives. But that’s far from the truth. Fructose is processed only in the liver, and anytime there’s an overload, the liver quickly stores it as fat, giving you a sugar belly and later liver failure. Fructose can also make you insensitive to insulin, leading to diabetes, and the satiety hormone (leptin), making you overeat and setting off a vicious cycle.
- Cereals: You need energy in the morning, but it’s best not to get it from sugar-laden cereals. Why not swap the fancy fruity breakfast cereals with whole grains like oats or quinoa? They have more fiber and protein, and unless you add it, no sugar. Add fresh sweet fruits to sweeten it up, and a drizzle of honey if you must. If you want to top it up with dried fruits, stick to a handful. They are concentrated sources of sugar.
- Jam, jelly, syrup: Who can deny the goodness that jam on warm bread and maple syrup on hot pancakes are? Maybe reserve them for special days? On other days, chop up seasonal fruits and serve on whole grain bread. You could even grind them coarsely, mix a teaspoon of honey, and add a pinch of cinnamon powder for flavor.
- Fruit juice: If you have access to it, have a whole fruit, not 100 percent fruit juice or even fresh prepared fruit juice. Fruits have fructose, but the fructose is bound to fiber, vitamins, and other helpful nutrients. Which means, the fructose itself reaches the liver slowly and can be processed without being stored up as fat. Juicing removes the helpful fiber. It goes without saying, of course, no matter how much you like mangoes, a mango diet is a no-no. At the end of the day, it’s still way too much fructose and your liver doesn’t know it’s coming from a natural source.
Sodas, energy drinks, and sports drinks: Hot days, bad days, sad days … there’s never a good reason to have sodas, not even diet sodas (sugar’s not the only harmful chemical on earth)! And no reason for energy drinks if you have a good diet. Sports drinks are rarely necessary for the average person, who is not involved in strenuous high-intensity or endurance sports. Water and a good meal afterward may be good enough.
Make It Yourself
If you can free up a few hours on a weekend, you can make granola bars, sauces, soups, and salad dressings at home in sufficient amount to last you a while. Not only are you going to use the best-quality stuff you can afford, you will also be able to control how much sugar or salt is going in them. It’s a matter of a few minutes to cook a salsa sauce or mix a vinaigrette dressing. Of course, you may not be able to make all the sauces at home. In such cases, again, check the label and find low-sugar and low-salt (sodium) alternatives.
When emotions run high, can sweet treats be far behind? But hey, candies, chocolate, cakes, and ice cream are treats meant to be enjoyed occasionally. They can’t be your chill pill for stressful days!
Craving a sweet food? Drink a big gulp of water. Wait around. Drink another. Still picturing that treat? Bring out your hidden stash of dates, raisins, berries, and nuts. Much better, isn’t it? At least you won’t beat yourself up with guilt anymore.
If you can, make cookies and cakes from scratch, using healthier alternatives (almond flour for refined flour, perhaps; keep reading for more options). Cooking involves your senses and increases satisfaction. It’s likely you’d feel satiated with a smaller portion. And it soles the pesky cravings that won’t be fooled by raisins or dates.
Limit Added Sugar
Whether it is table sugar, cane sugar, brown rice syrup, raw sugar, brown sugar, or even honey, limit to just 100 (for women) and 150 (men) calories. Organic honey does seem to be a healthier option because it supposedly contains antioxidants, but the benefit may be small. Still, you can replace the table sugar in some of your dishes with organic honey.
Look for Sugar Alternatives
You could use artificial sweeteners like acesulfame potassium (acesulfame K), aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, neotame, advantame, and stevia, all of which the FDA approves. The science community is on the fence about the benefits and risks of these sweeteners. While so far there’s no concrete evidence that these are more harmful than sugar, they may push you toward overeating because artificial sweeteners do not satisfy your brain (which wants the real sugar). Be on your guard.
Refined (Processed) Foods
As you try to fix your menu for the day, you will probably find that there’s no way to completely avoid processed foods.
One, because most people do not have access to fresh veggies, fruits, fish, and meat through the year, if at all. Two, because most foods are processed. Any food that has been altered, even slightly, is processed – for instance, veggies frozen to increase their shelf life or chickpeas ground into hummus – and it doesn’t necessarily mean unhealthy.
Tip: Look for the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check mark on the packaged food. It should help you choose the healthier processed foods you can fit into your diet.
But you should watch out for over-processed or refined food, which typically loses many of its nutrients like fiber, B vitamins, and essential minerals while being processed. Adding these nutrients later into the refined product does NOT make it as healthy as the natural or lightly processed version. Most refined foods are also too high in sugar, salt, and fat for comfort.
Tip: You can understand whether a packaged food is refined or over-processed by looking at the label. The more ingredients listed on the label, the higher its chance of being refined.
As you try to fill your plate, think of the staples you typically need. The best option is to replace them with whole food when you can and control portions when you can’t.
Veggies and Fruits
Even if you don’t have access to a farmer’s market, take it easy. Cut or frozen vegetables are the least processed items in the supermarket. In fact, frozen fruits and vegetables can sometimes be more nutritious than fresh varieties because they are frozen when their nutrient content is at its peak. If you buy canned fruits, choose those with the least salt (sodium) and sugar content.
Bread, Pasta, or Rice (Grains)
Look at the color. If it’s white, it’s refined. Choose whole wheat bread and pasta over white flour products and brown rice over white rice. White flour has much less fiber and vitamins than whole wheat flour. White rice mainly contains carbs, while brown rice (the whole grain version) contains the bran (fiber, vitamins, and plant nutrients), the germ (protein, vitamins, fats, and minerals), and the endosperm (carbs). Also explore other healthy options like antioxidant-rich black rice (turns purple when cooked), red rice, protein-rich wild rice (not really a rice, rather a grass seed), chickpea flour, almond flour, coconut flour, buckwheat flour, brown rice flour, oat flour, and spelt flour.
- Light and quick: coconut flour, brown rice flour, almond flour, and all types of rice
- Slow and steady: chickpea flour, buckwheat flour, oat flour, wild rice, quinoa, red rice, and basmati – in general choose long-grain rice over short grains because they are easy to digest, but keep the portion small
- Intense: spelt flour, coconut flour, brown rice flour, wild rice, and basmati
Meat and Fish
If you are looking at processed meat (smoked, cured, salted, or dried) for your protein staple, look elsewhere – maybe, the frozen section if you can’t find a local butcher for fresh cuts. Frozen meat isn’t as bad as cold cuts or deli meats. It doesn’t contain harmful additives. Yes, that means bidding goodbye to hot dogs, sausages, bacon, ham, pepperoni, salami, corned beef, and beef jerky, most days of the month. When it comes to fish, choose a low-salt canned variety and leave alone the breaded fish.
Tip: Animal produce doesn’t have to be the only source of protein in your diet. Beans and pulses are an excellent source too. Explore “meatalikes” like tofu and tempeh.
- Light and quick: You can eat more meat than the other two body types, just make sure, it’s well cooked and fresh. Instead of a deli sandwich, how about packing a whole wheat bread sandwich with a canned tuna filling? You can add a small amount of cheese.
- Slow and steady: You are supposed to have less meat. So make yourself a sandwich with Ezekiel bread (sprouted wheat), tomatoes, lettuce, boiled eggs, and homemade yogurt.
- Intense: Instead of a deli sandwich loaded with cheese and cured meat for lunch, try a whole wheat pita wrap with hummus and falafel. It’s best for you to stick to more veggies.
Almost all dairy products you have are processed. Even milk has to be pasteurized. Rather than looking for no-fat or low-fat varieties, go for full-fat milk, cheese, and yogurt, especially if the source is grass-fed dairy. Look for the organic label. It gives some guarantee that the cattle is at least 30% grass fed. Full-fat dairy is particularly good for a light and quick metabolic personality.
It’s better to get your cheese from a cheese counter rather than off the shelves. If that’s not possible, choose cheese blocks over slices and shredded cheese. You’ll have more control over the portion size (especially important if you are slow and steady because you should have very little). Choose soft, unsalted cheese if you have an intense or slow and steady metabolic personality.
Cheese is one of those things you should cut down on. It’s healthy only in moderate quantities, even if it is fresh and organic.
If you have the time, energy, and the will, instead of buying flavored and sweetened yogurt, you can make your own supply with the least effort. It will probably have more good bacteria than many store-bought ones promise.
Nuts and Seeds
You may think flavored nuts and seeds (paprika coated, wasabi dusted, or soy drenched) are a great snack to keep your nutrition quotient high, but you’re not getting the whole story. They also pack in quite a bit of salt and sugar. Favor good ol’ unflavored nuts and seeds. Soak them or roast them.
- Light and quick: all varieties of nuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds
- Slow and steady: charole nuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds
- Intense: charole nuts, raw and desiccated coconut, flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds
We know you know some foods like french fries, potato chips, cookies, candy bars, fruit juices, sodas, and sweetened coffees, and ready-to-eat packaged meals are non-negotiable because they have very little nutrition to offer. Even if they claim to be low-carb, even if you are running low on time.
But if one day, you are craving one of these, or you’re eating out at a restaurant, or you have no control over your meal, go ahead and enjoy it without any qualms.
We know, 9 days out of 10, you are vigilant!