For anyone who wants to be their healthiest during the next two weeks, clean-eating is the way to go. This plan is simple: Eat whole, natural, minimally processed foods—mostly or entirely from plants. The recipes in our 2-Week Clean-Eating Plan will make eating clean both easy and delicious.

Clean eating is a plant-based way of approaching your food that embraces the wide variety of foods you can eat, not whole categories of food you have to eliminate. As Jackie Arnett Elnahar, RD, and founder of TelaDietitian explains, “Think about the parts of the globe where people have the longest, healthiest lives, like Okinawa and some Mediterranean countries. The people living there eat a wide range of foods across a wide range of cultural traditions, but they have one consistent thing in common. They eat whole foods that are minimally processed and simply cooked.”

Clean Eating is Basically  Choosing Clean Foods That are Plant-Based

With a good understanding of the basics, clean eating quickly and easily becomes a flexible and flavorful way of life. It’s easily adapted to meet your individual dietary needs and preferences. Clean eating doesn’t have to be gluten-free, low in calories, limited in food choices, or consist of only raw foods—unless you want or need it to be. And don’t confuse clean eating with doing a cleanse! (Your body has natural cleansing functions that work.)

Try clean eating for a couple of weeks and you’ll see how easy it can be. Once your taste buds get reacquainted with the full flavors and textures of real food, you won’t want to return to the ultra-processed foods that now make up nearly 60 percent of the typical American diet.

Clean eating starts with whole foods. Let’s go a little deeper. 

Whole foods are unprocessed or minimally processed foods with nothing added. So, for example, all fresh, frozen, and canned vegetables are whole foods. So far, so good. The prewashed salad mix and the trimmed green beans? Still good. That convenient bag of mixed frozen vegetables ready to stir fry? Also good, because it’s been minimally processed. But that pouch of microwaveable broccoli in creamy cheese-like sauce? Well, we think any vegetables are better than no vegetables, but the nutritional value of the broccoli has been largely stripped away, while lots of chemicals and industrialized dairy and fat have been added. It’s way beyond minimally processed—so skip it.

The basic clean eating food list is short and easy to remember:

  • Whole, unprocessed, or minimally processed vegetable and fruits
  • Fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut, kimchee, and pickles
  • Beans and legumes in their whole form, which need soaking, draining and cooking
  • Soy foods such as tofu, miso, and natto (but not heavily processed soy fake foods)
  • Nuts and seeds, especially without all the "roasted" and "salted" additives
  • Whole grains such as brown rice, barley, oats, quinoa, and farro
  • Bread, tortillas, pasta, and other foods made from real whole grains
  • Cold-pressed oils such as olive oil, avocado oil, and walnut oil
  • All herbs and spices, especially helpful when you're eating this way

If you eat animal foods, choose grass-fed, free-range products.

To be sure you’re getting a clean food when you buy a packaged or prepared product, read the nutritional label. If you can pronounce everything on it and know what it looks like, the food is probably a good choice. Watch out for the weasel words that disguise added sugar—evaporated cane syrup, for example.

Clean vs. Organic

Ideally, your clean eating menu would consist only of natural, healthy, organic foods. What does that really mean? Right now, natural and healthy don’t have formal USDA or FDA definitions. These terms are often misleadingly used on food packaging for their halo effect—they make you think the food is good for you.

Organic was formally defined by the USDA back in 2000.  A food can carry the official organic label only if it was produced without using conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, sewage sludge fertilizers, genetic engineering, or irradiation. For processed foods, the regulations say all the ingredients need to be organic; the product can’t contain artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors.

Unfortunately, the organic rules have some loopholes that let some highly processed foods slip through. Read the nutrition label and use your common sense before you choose these products and remember that organic junk food is still junk food.

Organic foods can be more expensive than conventional foods. They’re also often harder to find in the typical supermarket—you may have fewer choices or even no choice at all. When the choice comes down to nonorganic vegetables and no vegetables, or between organic vegetables and your budget, choose nonorganic. Clean eating doesn’t have to be perfect eating.

You can cut down on the cost of organic produce by supporting your local farmers. Their produce may not be officially certified organic (the cost is often too high for small farms to sustain), but you can talk to the farmers in person about their growing methods. By supporting local agriculture, you’re cutting down on the carbon footprint of your food and helping to preserve open space in your neighborhood.

Clean Eating and Your Health

Clean eating takes some thought. You need to keep track of what you eat to make sure you’re getting enough calories and good, balanced nutrition. Preparing and cooking your food when you eat clean takes longer—not a lot longer once you have some experience, but certainly longer than microwaving a frozen dinner.

Eating meals away from home means either bringing food with you or being limited in your food options. And it’s hard to avoid pizza Friday at the office or eating at a social event. Plan ahead, make the best choices you can and accept that not every day is going to a completely clean day.

Is the extra time and planning worth it? According to Jackie Arnett Elnahar, without a doubt. She says, “After just a couple of weeks of clean eating, you’ll probably notice that your energy level has zoomed! You’ll feel more focused and engaged. Many of my clients lose weight even though they don’t limit their calories—the high fiber content of whole foods is very satiating. I find that my clients also stop complaining about bloating and constipation.”

Study after study has shown that people who eat a plant-based diet rich in whole foods are healthier overall. They’re less likely to be overweight and have a lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and other chronic health problems as they grow older. Because clean eating with a plant-based diet means all your calories are packed with nutrients, you’re giving your body what it needs to help slow the aging process and have the energy to stay active and vibrant.

Want another great reason to eat clean? You’re helping the planet by cutting your consumption of environmentally harmful manufactured food, reducing the carbon footprint of food shipping, and supporting organic farming.

Try clean eating with an open mind and open heart for just a couple of weeks. You’ll discover a whole new world of great food and better health. Sign up for The Beet's 2 Week Clean Eating Plan today for 56 Recipes and lots of great motivation to keep on track.

Why Processed Food Makes You Fat

In a fascinating 2019 study from the National Institutes of Health, the role of ultra-processed food in weight gain was proven for the first time by a controlled study. The researchers recruited 20 healthy adults, ten male, and ten female, to spend a month at the NIH, eating only foods provided to them. The participants were randomly divided into two groups of ten. For the first two weeks, one group ate a diet of ultra-processed food while the other group ate a diet of minimally processed foods. Both diets were matched in their calories and macronutrients (protein, sugars, carbohydrates, fats, fiber). After two weeks, the groups swapped diets. For both diets, the participants could eat as much or as little as they wanted.

The results were amazing. While they were on the ultra-processed diet, the participants ate about 500 calories a day more than they did on the minimally processed diet. They also ate faster. And they each gained, on average, almost two pounds in just two weeks. When they switched over to the minimally processed diet, they ate fewer calories, ate slower, and on average lost two pounds in two weeks.

Remember, both diets were balanced to provide the same calories and macronutrients. (To get the ultra-processed diet up to the same fiber content as the minimally processed diet, the researchers had to give them a lemonade drink laced with soluble fiber.) What it all comes down to is that on the ultra-processed diet, the participants overate and gained weight; on the minimally processed diet, the participants ate less and lost weight. This is the first study to demonstrate through a controlled experiment that eating ultra-processed foods leads directly to weight gain.

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