The Beginner’s Guide to Clean Eating

by Trinh Le, MPH, RD
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The Beginner’s Guide to Clean Eating

We know what healthy food looks like (or at least have some idea), so why is it challenging to eat healthy on a regular basis? Between a busy career, school, a significant other and kids—life happens, and suddenly our good intention to be healthier falls to the wayside.

Deep down we still want to develop sustainable, clean eating habits because we know our diet, or the culmination of foods we consistently choose over time, impacts the duration and quality of our life. The leading causes of death—heart disease, cancer and stroke—in the U.S. are nutritionally related, and the rest of the developed world is not lagging far behind. Our health, weight, energy level, mood and even sleep are influenced by diet.

When it comes to food, nutrition and which diet really works best, there’s not much that all of us agree on. And with good reason! Nutrition is not one-size-fits-all, largely because our bodies all function a little bit differently. While a lower-carbohydrate diet may work exceptionally well for one individual trying to lose weight, it may not work for the next. On the other end of the spectrum, carb-loading may help one athlete more than others.

But when it comes to achieving good health, and yes, even weight loss, there’s one common ingredient among all diets that have stood the test of time (such as lower-carbohydrate, vegetarian, vegan, Mediterranean and the newer Paleo diets). They all borrow on some or all of these clean eating strategies:

  • Eat minimally processed foods, or foods made from minimally processed ingredients.
  • Eat mostly plants and plant-based foods.
  • Eat animals and animal products that eat mostly plants.

Or to sum it up: Clean eating means choosing real food.

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No standard definition for “healthy” food actually exists, just like there’s no cookie-cutter definition for what it means to be healthy, but it shouldn’t stop us from defining what that means to us. “Real food” has no official definition but embodies what a general healthy eating pattern could look like without using airy terms like “balanced,” “honest” and “genuine” to describe it (because who really knows what they mean?).

Real food is simple.

It hasn’t gone through a ton of processing to get from the ground to your plate. Here’s what that looks like: fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy, seafood, nuts, seeds, whole grains and beans are all real food. Natural sweeteners, coffee, chocolate and wine count, too—just enjoy them in moderation!


Real food is not processed food.

Another way to think of it is this: Real food is not processed food. According to Dr. Robert Lustig, MD, founder of the Institute for Responsible Nutrition, processed food meets these seven criteria:

  1. mass-produced
  2. consistent batch to batch
  3. consistent country to country
  4. specialized ingredients from specialized companies
  5. nearly all macronutrients are pre frozen (which means that the fiber is usually removed)
  6. emulsified (fat and water don’t separate)
  7. long shelf or freezer life

At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Wait a minute, processed foods don’t sound so bad!” True; processed foods can be one of the safest foods on the planet in terms of germs, and that’s great for the short-term. Eating processed foods now and then won’t kill you, but you should really focus on eating mostly real foods if you’re concerned about your long-term health.

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1. Eat “healthier” without thinking about it. It’s useful to think of food as nutrients (macro- and micronutrients) so we can better understand our body. When it comes to healthy eating, it’s more useful to think of food simply as food. Choosing “real” foods lets you eat healthier from a nutrient perspective without thinking too much about nutrients.

2. Redefine your relationship with food. Do you find yourself labeling food as “good” or “bad” based on a predefined notion of what healthy eating looks like? Nothing should always be that black and white, least of all a healthy relationship with food. Choosing real foods forces you to reevaluate the foods you think are healthy (aka processed foods labeled “low fat,” “sugar-free” and so forth). That being said, if you’re willing to buy real food ingredients to bake a cake, you should be able to enjoy a slice of dessert without a side of guilt.

3. Get the most nutrients out of the foods you’re eating. Processing foods usually removes or destroys valuable nutrients. The two exceptions are fortified foods (think: orange juice with added vitamin D) and preserved foods (think: canned and frozen). Choosing mostly real foods helps you maximize the nutrients you get from the foods you eat.

4. Cook, connect and celebrate with friends and family. Real food means real cooking! Since real foods come in the most natural form, it pushes you to be creative in preparing and cooking your meals. Cooking is an essential skill when it comes to living a healthy life. Since good food is a cause for celebration, get your friends and family members involved if you can.

5. Live a longer, healthier life. “You are what you eat” is a simple mantra capturing the impact that diet quality has on your quality of life. Eating mostly real foods will decrease your chances of getting a debilitating chronic disease like heart disease, stroke, diabetes or cancer. After all, the goal of being physically healthy is to live a long life whilst avoiding these pitfalls.

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Home-cooking is at the heart of healthy eating, especially if it involves real food. Here are a few tips to get you started:

Save and organize your favorite recipes. Gather recipes from your favorite cookbooks, food bloggers or the internet at large. Rotate through the recipes as you plan your weekly or monthly meal calendar. If you’re not the planning type, having these recipes on hand will help inspire your cooking adventures.

Choose recipes that use healthy cooking techniques. Delicious food doesn’t have to be complicated; if you’re a beginner cook, choose recipes with 10 ingredients or less. To make your home-cooking even healthier, be mindful about how much sugar, sodium and cooking oil you’re adding to your foods. Here’s a list of common additions you should use mindfully to keep your home-cooked meal healthy:

Added SugarAdded Sodium Added Fat
- Granulated sugar
- Brown sugar
- Maple syrup
- Agave syrup
- Salt
- Baking powder
- Baking soda
- Condiments (hot sauce, mustard, barbecue sauce)
- Canola oil
- Olive oil
- Vegetable oil
- Peanut oil

Keep honing your cooking skills! No one is born an amazing cook, so if you fail at your cooking ploys, remember to learn from them. If you’re a beginner, read these resources to learn more on how to plan and prep your meals: Beginner’s Guide to Meal Planning and Meal Prep.

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Stocking up on real foods is a good first step, especially if you plan to eat more of it. Check out these pointers to help you shop real at the grocery store:

Skim the perimeter of the grocery store. It’s where real food lives. We suggest you prioritize the following aisles: fresh produce, whole grains and breads, milk and dairy, meat and seafood. After you’ve loaded your cart, you can proceed to the center aisle for other necessities, just be sure to keep your eye on ingredient lists. Less is more!

Go to the store with a grocery list. Grocery-shopping with a list is your plan for success, because you’ll know exactly what to grab and be less inclined to buy processed convenience food. Ideally, your list should reflect the recipes you intend to prep for the week.

Pick up some handy, real food snacks that require minimal prepping and no recipes. Here are some ideas for you:

No Prep SnacksMinimal Prep Snacks
- Fresh fruit
- Unsweetened dried fruit
- Roasted nuts
- Dark chocolate
- Trail mix
- Popcorn
- Mozzarella sticks
- Baby carrots
- Cherry tomatoes
- Whole-grain crackers
- Yogurt
- Celery sticks
- Bell pepper sticks
- Hard-boiled eggs

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Think outside the grocery store! If you live near a local farmer’s market, go check it out! Farmer’s markets are a good place for you to buy and support local produce, sometimes at a fraction of what you’d pay in a brand-name grocery store. For more information, check out “Real Food Sources.”

Grabbing food on the go can be unavoidable, and we get that. Here are some strategies to choose healthier dishes and keep your food real:

Avoid fast-food and chain restaurants. The majority of meals made by these establishments contain processed foods (nuggets, patties), that use additives, preservatives, flavor enhancers and artificial coloring. If possible, choose restaurants whose main selling point is local, fresh ingredients.

Use the cooking technique as your tip-off. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but it works well when you’re trying to choose healthier fare. Choose dishes that are baked, steamed, sauteed, roasted or boiled. Try to avoid items that are fried, deep-fried or drenched in heavy, cream-based sauces.

Check out the menu before you go. If possible, browse through the restaurant’s menu online first. Choose two to three options that look good to you, making it more likely you’ll make the healthier choice.

What does “real” food look like to you? Share your opinions in the comments below.


  • Ladivertida

    You do realize that all you did here was replace “good” with “real” and “bad” with “processed,” right?

    • Exadyne

      I do not know who you are. I don’t know where you are. But I do have a certain set of skills, which I will use to find you, and up vote your comment.

  • Exadyne

    Oh MFP blog, never change. Nevermind that you’re an site dedicated to people following the principle of calories in versus calories out – the only way all weight loss happens, even if you use something like cleaning eating to make that happen – just publish any old blog post even if it goes against that concept.

    • Dawn

      Science has shown that other factors like stress, hormones and medication will disrupt the k in k out balance. It isn’t so simplistic.

      • Exadyne

        “Science” might have shown that. Actual science without quotes around it has not shown that hormones allow a violation of the laws of thermodynamics.
        You absolutely can change calories in versus calories out, all that can happen is one of those two changes. Someone hormones influence people eating ad libitium to eat more. Someone hormones like thyroid deficiencies can cause a person’s calories out to be a bit less – although most of it really has to do with lowering actual activity not even changing basal metabolic rate. They still follow calories in and calories out.

        • Lindsay

          Who are you?? What is your problem? Seems like ppl like you just come here to thrive on the negativity (by feeling like you’re proving someone else wrong and therefore you must be better than them) but that’s not what this blog is for. If you don’t agree with the articles then why are you using this app???

          • Exadyne

            Why do I need to “halt! identify” myself?
            I think my problem has already been stated.
            Presumption and tone argument. You’re assuming that disagreeing with what MFP’s blog does for content is negative. I’m sorry, I forgot where my opinion is only allowed if it meets what you want to hear and only states positives about the blog or other commenters’ statements. Apparently you’re ok with doing it to me.
            Why can’t I use MFP if I don’t agree with the content they’re putting on the blog? Why can’t I criticize them putting content on the blog that doesn’t gel with the use pattern of the MFP site / App (calorie counting)?
            I’m going to infer that you don’t have anything to counter the actual science and thus you have to make these kind of ad hominem tone arguments.

  • Exadyne

    “That being said, if you’re willing to buy real food ingredients to bake a cake, you should be able to enjoy a slice of dessert without a side of guilt.”
    I have a better idea. Eat cake. Let it be made out of anything that isn’t literally poisonous, or of any ingredients you have any real, legitimate, diagnosed condition that causes it be a problem (food allergy, real celiac disease, etc), and just eat an amount that fits your calorie goals. Then, just don’t feel guilty, and continue losing weight. They end.
    If you make a cake out of things only found on the outside aisle of the most orthorexic food co-op that looks down on Whole Foods as not clean enough, guess what? It will still cause weight gain if you eat too much of it.

    • piercedheart


  • “Eat animals and animal products that eat mostly plants.” Hmmm? I eat a lot of varieties of meat, including venison, squirrel, dove, and even swan. I can’t think of one animal that I have eaten that eats mostly meat. I have eaten black bear, and I know they eat some animals like crayfish, frogs and even an ocassional deer fawn. But they still mostly eat plants. Folks in western society don’t typically eat predators like coyotes, hawks, and snakes. Shark! Yes, I ate some shark once. They only eat meat.

    • Lola

      She’s talking about meat grass feed, in other words not feed with food prepared in huge companies that contained chemicals, antibiotics, etc

    • mary ferrara

      You have eaten a swan and a deer fawn . This made me feel sad

      • I didn’t eat a fawn. I said that bears will occasionally eat fawns, and I have eaten bear before.

  • MrM27

    More of the same blog advice and quoting of Lustig. *facepalm*

  • UltimateRBF


  • LQ

    You know, there’s nothing wrong with eating clean & healthy AND counting calories. If you want to get the majority of your daily calories from processed foods, then that’s your choice. Just don’t read articles like this one. They’re made for people who want to eat clean but still struggle with the concept – you writing a nasty comment isn’t gonna make any difference.

    • Exadyne

      If you want to eat clean, that’s your choice, just don’t read comments like mine. They’re made for people that want to discuss why an article is wrong and preaching a concept that has no real meaning which is why people often struggle with it. Calling people’s comments nasty isn’t gonna make any difference.
      Honestly, you’re the one calling comments nasty. That’s purely ad hominem.

      • Guest

        Go to a different forum please.

        • Exadyne

          Why don’t you go to a different forum?

          • Guest

            Oooo great counter 😉

  • AdkMtnGirl

    Did you all join in here out of boredom and have nothing better to do than bash the articles meant to encourage? Anyone with common sense can filter all these things you all are jabbing about out and glean the good in it without expressing your pious opinions. Just be grateful someone cares enough to take the time to encourage and it’s FREE!

    • Nicholas Copeland

      I don’t think it’s that simple. I like that I can read the article and take in her argument then read counterarguments in the comments section. This gives me both sides and allows me to make the final call about what’s good for me and what’s not.

      If anyone is “bashing” as you said, then by all means, they should take their negativity elsewhere. But discouraging constructive criticism is never a good idea.

      Lauren Kung above made some good points. a little condescending, sure, but I appreciated her point of view.

      TL;DR Constructive criticism > blind encouragement

  • Manuel Angulogomez

    Are we all dietitians now? I liked the article.

    • Lucinda Patrick

      So did I

  • PSC

    Hate to tell you this, but “Clean Eating” and “Real Food” are two different food movements. There are many items on the lists for “clean eating” that wouldn’t pass muster in the “real food” camp, and vice versa. The terms are not interchangeable. I’m a Real Food practitioner; much of what’s considered “Clean” would be considered highly processed by Real Food standards.

    • Miss G

      Sound interesting. Can Clean Eating be a step in the right direction towards eating Real Food? I am about to check into the Real Food Thing as well. Thanks

      • PSC

        Why not just go straight into Real Food? It’s not hard, just aim for minimally processed, organic and ethically raised. Ignore the low fat/ nonfat stuff that the Clean Eating folks push: if it’s low fat, it’s highly processed.

        The author here is using the terms interchangeably, but whether out of ignorance or just laziness, I couldn’t tell you. I have seen authors very cynically using both terms in their books and articles as bait for the inexperienced; generally what they’re pushing is neither. What she seems to be promoting here is closer to RF than CE.

  • Brittney Dries

    One area that alarmed me is that a dietitian recommended canola, vegetable, and peanut oil as a healthy fat, and those are not healthy fats folks. Olive oil (and extra virgin), grape seed, sunflower, and coconut oils are healthy oils to use. Peanut oil, vegetable oil, and canola oil are processed, and do not contain wholesome nutrients and healthy fats like olive oil does.
    The other details in this article is great to become encouraged to eating healthier, and maybe cleaner once you have adapted yourself in such a routine.
    **Also note that not all certified professionals are knowledgeable in the courses they studied in college. It makes them book smart with statistics, but someone who lives with (or maybe defeated) a health issue(s) will gain the most power, knowledge, and credibility. I am an uncertified professional with clean eating and living a healthy lifestyle, while helping SEVERAL women who suffer PCOS (Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome) like myself and also helping those who want to gain/maintain/lose weight by guiding them the right direction. Please, don’t be ignorant.**

    • Anastasia Appelt

      I suffer from PCOS just recently diagnosed. I am learning to deal and trying to loose weight the healthy way. Since PCOS I have put on weight really fast. It has effected my life drasticly. What are some tips on how to loose weight and just feel better. I feel like I’m fighting a loosing battle some days.

      • Brittney Dries

        Hey there!
        If you’d like to join my PCOS Facebook group, you are more than welcome to!
        It’s called PCOS Cysters with the rockstar hand symbol as the display picture.
        We have a great community of women all over the USA, and a few in Canada, and we all help each other with advice, recipes, and inspiration.
        I look forward to you being apart of the family!

        • Precious

          I tried to find your group on FB to join bc Im in the same dilemma but I couldn’t find it from the display you stated

          • Brittney Dries

            Unfortunately ladies, I am not able to post my PCOS FB group link as a comment. Go onto Facebook and Search “PCOS Cysters!”. It’s a private group.

          • Precious

            ok. what is the picture you have. I looked for rockstar hand but couldn’t find it

          • Brittney Dries

            You know how to make a rock on sign with your hand? Lol. That’s the best way I can describe it lol

          • Chaserville2009

            You’d be amazed at the number of FB groups called PCOS Cysters. Any other help?

          • Brittney Dries

            LOL! Oh trust me, I know! 🙂
            The best I can describe is the “you rock” hand sign. It shows the thumb, pointer finger, and pinky pointing up/outwards and the two fingers in the middle are laid down – hence making it like a “you rock!” or “rock on!” hand sign. PCOS Cysters. Private Group. 71 members, if it shows you that. Uhmm, that’s the best I can do ladies! I’m sorry that my link was not approved to post, but it was most likely for security purposes.

          • Chaserville2009

            I understand why you couldn’t post a link. I couldn’t get FB to show me any more than three pages with that name. It was as if there were more trying to load, but they never did. Oh, well.

          • Brittney Dries

            Ladies – message me on Facebook and I’ll copy you to the link to my PCOS Facebook group. Best option I’ve got for ya! 🙂

    • Tina

      The way I read the article, the oils were to be used sparingly – she did not state that they were a good food. I personally found the article very interesting and informative.

      • Brittney Dries

        Refer back to the title of this article – “The Beginner’s Guide to Clean Eating”. Also, be sure to read comments and posts thoroughly before you jump into conclusions because the oils that I listed were provided as healthy alternatives to the oils this author listed, which are NOT healthy for you and that is what the author did not omit. What my post based on this article was aiming for was to expand on this article with 100% true research and credibility, just as much as she did, except there is a little tweak that needs to be adjusted for an article that focuses on clean eating.
        And lastly, I never said this article was NOT interesting and NOT informative, but I did mention that this article is a great way to take that first baby step towards a healthy lifestyle and growing from there. Obviously you did not see that part of my post, which is why I mentioned you should read things thoroughly first, observe it, and then respond.
        I understand this all may look rude, but I would like to note that my response back to you means no more than just a simple reply. Unfortunately, social media and technology has barred us away from being able to truly express ourselves and our messages across to people. So I just want to make sure you are aware that I am not angry towards you, and I hope you are not towards me by this response back to you.

    • Pamela

      It stated to use mindfully to keep you eating healthy. This being said we need to know not to use every meal,everyday.

  • JNoire

    This is a great article. Very Helpful! Thank you for sharing!

  • Lauren Kung

    I love MyFitnessPal, but I’m also a graduate of food science. The list of 7 criteria for processed foods makes me incredibly sad coming from another person that has received education (that is paid for). Just read the list and think critically (or with common sense). Many healthy foods are mass-produced, consistent batch-to-batch and country-to-country. Please define what “specialized ingredients from specialized companies” even means. Freezing does nothing to fiber content in foods. Milk and butter are great examples of emulsified foods. Many foods have long shelf-life (wow, I added salt to meat and canned foods and it lasts longer).
    Folks, quit discriminating and labeling “processed foods,” because just giving something a water bath is considered processed. I came to this link because I was interested in eating healthy and maybe finding a great recipe, only to be pretty surprised about what I read.
    Love yourself, exercise, and eat what makes you feel great!

    • Joseph Dirt

      Odd, as a “graduate of food science”, you would figure you would already know how to eat healthy, looks like you are tolling sites to cause dissension.

      I have always “Loved myself, exercised, and ate what makes makes me feel great!” I am also 60 lbs overweight. Think I will pass on your advice, and take the articles wisdom.

      It may not work for everyone, as we are all different and have different medical needs along with different biological makeups; but the MyFitnessPal site and articles have helped me to lose 10 pounds so far. I am now learning how to substitute foods that “make me feel great” with foods that are healthy and make me feel “great about myself”.

      I’m just saying….

      • Lauren Kung

        I’m sorry to hear that you didn’t read my post completely. A common misconception is that food science and technology is similar to nutrition-which it is not. If you read my post you would know that I am not “toiling sites to cause dissension”– not sure how you came to this conclusion. Eating what makes you feel great is great advice. I love to eat donuts and hamburgers, but it obviously makes my feel guilty and bad since I know the fat, cholesterol, and salt content (so I know it won’t make me feel good about myself). I am psyched you have lost weight using MyFitnessPal! Great job so far on your efforts and like I said, I was seeking information more on the culinary side (maybe a cool low-carb recipe) and was just surprised about what I read. I had to sign up in order to share my opinion.

    • Damo

      I agree. This was a weak article and argument. There are definitely bad “real” foods and good “processed” foods. Even telling people to stay way from long ingredient lists is wrong. I aviod foods in a box–those made with lots of grains, few nutrients, and additives, but I am still out of shape. Meat can be bad, and that was definitely on the list of clean eating foods listed above.

  • Jake Mercer

    It was a great article, to teach novices. I am glad someone put this into words so I can send it to my friends who won’t listen to me. Thank you Trinh.

  • Debra Abbuhl

    “Whole” foods aka “real,” can have sustainable shelf life through fermentation. Fermenting also provides a good source of probiotics ( A MUST for most disease prevention. See research on gut microbial). Fermentation also breaks down the enzymes in the food so our bodies have a better chance of absorption, as well as lowers the presence of certain proteins (lectins) that cause disruption in the gut (what causes gas from beans, at the most benign level). Fermented foods are better than canned (even home canned) and can last up to a year to a year and a half depending upon the food.

  • Steve Rochford

    As a healthy eating newb, I’ve recently hit a plateau in weight loss, which has been largely driven by my exercise. I hope healthier eating will help me pass this obstacle.
    This article was good for me as it is not too complex, but still contained enough information to solidify some truths about food that I should focus on to take onboard less garbage and more actual food.

    • Joseph Dirt

      Very well said. Good luck on getting through the plateau, I have hit them myself on several occasions. They can be discouraging, but you have to drive on and keep motivated. Best of luck, let us know if you find something that works for you. My biggest obstacle is still consistency, but I have found that changing up the workout routines have helped me. I still have 60 pounds to go, but I know I will get there. Took years to get this way, and it won’t fall off over night. These articles help tremendously.

  • Noel Boudreaux

    Great article!

  • Penelope Wincett

    In 1900 people had no choice but to eat minimally processed food – processed foods didn’t exist. They ate high-plant, low meat diets of organically grown real foods. Food that wasn’t fresh was canned. Life expectancy was 41 in the US, 42.7 in Europe.

    • jj91709

      What’s your point? Medical treatment has significantly increased our lifespans over time and will likely continue to do so.

    • Betty Walsh

      And you could die from any infection or something as simple a appendicitis or an infected tooth. Daily existence was far harder then on the body, times have changed and eating healthy never hurt anyone.

    • James Bedford

      Life expectancy was low do to the premature nature of medical practice not nutrition

  • James Steelsmith

    I think the intent of the article is on target. I was injured in Afghanistan in 2006 and was on narcotic pain pills 5-7 days a week for over 7 years. My wife and I started eating clean and by the 3rd week I was off the narcotics. Since Feb of this year I’ve taken less than 6. I attribute this to “clean” eating. We’ve also lost over 30 pounds each, sleep better, and have more energy. Clean eating is not hard. Fresh foods regularly is really pretty easy. By processed foods, we stay as much away from the tons of preservatives that make foods have a long shelf life. Try your local dollar store for fresh flash frozen veggies, they still have all the nutrients from the peak of harvest and are only a dollar a pound–bonus! If you start eating clean and stick with it, you’ll be glad you did.

  • snowcloud

    Is there a vegan version of clean eating? I really don’t think you can really eat “clean” while eating any animal products.

    • cattail722

      It’s the same thing without the meat, isn’t it?

  • Lucy Hernandez

    Hi someone have a 1200 calorie meals for day send me pls

  • rhonda worthy

    I read the title and it said the “Beginner’s” Guide, so it needs to be as simple as possible to get people started. It wasn’t directed at Food Science graduates or those that are already savvy in the ways of healthy eating.

    • Kim

      Just be smart, and use what u read as a guide. Happy eating!

  • Layne Norton

    You have PhD and yet use the term ‘clean eating?’ Very disappointing. I would love to hear a scientifically OBJECTIVE definition of what makes a food ‘clean.’