A Dietician Explains “Clean” Eating

by Emily Phares

“Clean eating” is a trendy term, but not everyone knows what it means. So we talked to Jessica Cording, a registered dietitian and integrative nutrition health coach, about clean foods, detox diets, and the merits of lemon water. Plus we got a hot tip about frozen foods.

These are edited excerpts from our conversation.

What does “clean eating” mean?

What comes to mind for me is a diet of primarily whole, minimally processed foods and thoughtfully sourced ingredients. I try to be very mindful when using that term, because I think sometimes the danger with clean eating is that it perpetuates this clean/dirty dichotomy mindset. I emphasize what it includes, and what you should be putting on your plate, and am careful not to shame anybody if they want to indulge in cake on their birthday. An overall clean diet can still have room for those occasional indulgences.

What are some “clean” foods, and what’s off-limits when eating “clean?”
The most basic, approachable clean foods are fruits and vegetables, especially the really nutrient-dense stuff like leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, berries, and citrus, all that really colorful nourishing produce. And healthy fats like olive oil, avocado, and nuts and seeds. If you’re choosing to include animal proteins, emphasize wild fish, organic poultry, pastured eggs, grass-fed beef, and dairy products made from grass-fed cows.

Generally speaking, some of the things that you’ll see most commonly recommended to avoid are processed foods, refined sugar, grains, meat, dairy, coffee, and alcohol, but it depends on what someone’s goals are and what approach is going to feel like the right fit for them.

You do have to be careful with plant-based alternatives. Just because it’s plant-based doesn’t mean it’s automatically clean. Sometimes these plant-based alternatives are super-processed to make them palatable.

Are some fats “cleaner” than others?
The short answer is yes, because there are some oils that aren’t necessarily inherent in nature. Whenever possible I try to shift my clients towards extra virgin olive oil, avocado and avocado oil, and nuts and seeds.

Do juice cleanses and detox diets actually help a person somehow cleanse their body?
I’m not a fan. Our liver and our kidneys do a really good job, we just have to give them the support that they need. An overall healthy diet can provide that support on an ongoing basis. Juice cleanses are at best expensive and ineffective, but at worst they can be very dangerous because it can really mess up your electrolytes and make you really sick.

I find that “detox” diets tend to be very restrictive, have a lot of rules, and there’s often not an educational component. It’s this very restrictive plan that someone just kind of white-knuckles it through, and then they finish the plan without really having been given much of an understanding about how to maintain an overall healthy diet that supports that natural detoxification process.

What about lemon water—does that have a cleansing effect?
I think that lemon water can be a really nice morning ritual. It hydrates, it provides vitamin C—which is its own kind of natural detoxifier—and it also stimulates digestion, which is part of that detoxification process. Those are all really beneficial to overall health. I think that’s really where the benefits from lemon water come in. And the citrus is a natural diuretic, which again, helps with detoxification.

What are your top tips for people wanting to eat “clean?”
Meet yourself where you are. I’d say start with one or two things to swap out. Like if you want to eat more cleanly, one thing you could try is starting with smaller portions of animal protein and more plant protein or more plants on your plate.

Another tip I’ve found really useful over the years is to shop in the frozen foods section. Frozen produce is your best friend when you’re trying to eat clean. I know that sounds weird to some people, but the nutrients in frozen produce, especially antioxidants, are preserved as part of that flash freezing process, so that locks in all that nutrition. When you go to eat that food later, you’re going to get all that nutritious goodness.