When Sarah Celino embarked on a 30-day experiment in clean eating, her motive was simple: "I felt like crap all the time," says Celino, who owns clothing boutique Bella and Harlow in New Orleans.
"I wondered, 'Is it what I'm eating?' I was like, 'What if I just try and do a whole month of giving up the things I think are making me feel bad?'"
For Celino, that meant no caffeine, alcohol, milk, cheese, red meat, refined sugar or processed food. But for somebody else, clean eating might look different. Some people consider their meals "clean" when they're following the Paleo diet. Others might eschew all meat, but drink red wine. It turns out the concept of clean eating is as flexible as it is ubiquitous.
"There is not one standardized definition of clean eating," says Molly Kimball, a registered dietitian with Ochsner Health System's Elmwood Fitness Center. "Clean eating is a concept or lifestyle, and the definition varies person by person."
However, there are a few guidelines. Clean eating emphasizes unprocessed foods that are close to their natural state (e.g., fruits, vegetables, eggs, nut butters, fish, grass-fed beef, brown rice and green tea).
For processed foods, the fewer the ingredients, and the more they sound like food and not chemical compounds, the better. People who eat clean learn to read nutrition labels, and, perhaps most importantly, listen to their bodies: If you feel bad after eating certain foods, maybe it's time to give them up.
"Clean eating means eliminating any food or calories that are not beneficial to you," says Julie Fortenberry, a registered dietitian and lifestyle nutritionist with Touro Infirmary in New Orleans. "And that is different for every person. Some people eliminate processed food or sugar or cut back on gluten. It's eliminating something that causes a problem area for yourself."
Celino noticed her latte habit was causing her problems. "I had fallen into this belief that you need a latte to be awake and productive, (even) when it ends up giving you this sugar crash three hours later," she says.
Brad Daschbach, an educator with Whole Foods Markets' Healthy Eating program, says there are multiple viewpoints in the nutritional community about coffee. Because it is minimally processed, coffee can be part of clean eating, Kimball says.
"Coffee or tea is not the problem," Kimball says. "It's what we put in it."
"If you add sugar or milk, that's where the clean eating gets a little blurred," Daschbach says.
Kimball recommends minimizing your soft drink intake. Instead, drink water, sparkling water, green tea or coffee. As far as alcohol intake, Daschbach says whether to drink it or not is a matter of personal preference.
"Everything in moderation is key," he says. In keeping with the keep-it-natural tenant of clean eating, wine would be a better choice than a sugar- and artificial-flavor laden Four Loko, he says.
Celino drank juice or water when she went to bars. The first 10 days of clean eating were the hardest. "You're going to get headaches," she says. "Your digestion is messed up because your body is trying to get used to something new."
After 10 days, Celino had more energy. "It was easier to get up in the morning, and I was more productive throughout the day," she says.
Fortenberry says this is a common benefit of clean eating. "When people eat better, they tend to sleep better," she says. "When you get quality sleep, your body (in) gets more of a fat-burning mode, which ultimately helps with weight loss."
Kimball says a clean diet also provides more consistent energy during the day.
"There's a lot of energy swings with prepackaged and processed foods," she says. "You get these rushes and rapid release of blood sugar, followed by a rapid release of insulin, and then we look for more food as a pick-me-up. A whole, clean diet has the healthy fat and protein we need to keep our energy stable."
Those are the short-term benefits of clean eating. In the long term, a clean diet can prevent high cholesterol, heart disease, cancer and diabetes. That's because fruits and vegetables have natural bioactive compounds that can't be reproduced in processed foods. Kimball recounts a story about her mother, who was tube-fed for a year because of an illness. "She got all the nutrients, protein and fat she needed, but everything was breaking down," Kimball says. "Her hair fell out. Her skin didn't heal."
When Kimball's mother resumed eating real food, her body healed. "Real food has compounds we can't package up," Kimball says. "The more we can keep our body healthy from the inside out, the better we can reduce our long-term risk of disease."
Eating clean isn't always easy, especially at first. It takes willpower to make the transition, Fortenberry says, because sugar and other additives are addictive. More prep work is usually involved, which can be inconvenient.
"It's easier to carry around a sandwich as opposed to eating a salad," Fortenberry says.
Daschbach recommends incorporating vegetable and fruit prep into your shopping routine. "If you go shopping on Sunday, come home and spend 30 to 40 minutes cleaning and cutting your vegetables into manageable, bite-size pieces," he says. "Then you can portion them out each day of the week."
Fresh produce can be pricey, Kimball says. Frozen produce is a cost-effective, convenient alternative. "Frozen vegetables are chopped and take some of the work right out of it for you," Kimball says. "It's a lot better than not eating those foods at all."
Fortenberry urges people to read nutrition labels. "Look for less than five ingredients (in processed foods)," she says.
"If you don't know how to pronounce it, don't eat it," Daschbach says. "Look at the calories, and the calories from fat. That will give you a good indication of how fattening the product is. The two most common things added to processed foods are fat and sugar to make them taste good. Look at the vitamin breakdowns. If it's 0 percent, you're not getting any nutrition there. Fiber and protein are important as well."
During Celino's clean-eating trial, she had fruit smoothies or eggs for breakfast. Lunch was salad. For dinner, she and her husband grilled fish or chicken and ate it with more salad. "I lost a little over 10 pounds, but I didn't join a gym or start some crazy workout routine," Celino says. "It was just cutting out a bunch of empty calories."
Now that her 30-day experiment has ended, Celino enjoys the occasional cheeseburger or cappuccino, but her eating choices have permanently changed. "It has made a lasting effect on how we eat at home," she says. "We are still buying the whole fruits and veggies. We're not buying anything processed."
Though Celino made many changes to her diet all at once, Fortenberry says baby steps can be just as effective. "Start wherever you can," she says. That can mean trading chips and dip for celery and nut butter, or starting the day with a fruit smoothie instead of sugary cereal.
"You can start with little changes and improve from there until you can live comfortably, convenience-wise, and commit yourself to doing that. Any step toward your health is going to be helpful."
This piece first appeared in Gambit in New Orleans.