How to Eat Clean (and Love It)

Clean is the way we were meant to feed ourselves: with choices that nourish, energize, and control weight naturally. Dr. Oz's plan makes it easy — real food makes it delicious.

Dr Oz

You know how you feel after a meal made with whole foods, like a lean cut of grilled steak or a piece of salmon and veggies that burst with flavor? Your body is grateful and primed to power you through the day — the very opposite of a food coma.

That's the payoff of clean eating, an approach to food and life that has taken the health world by storm. Some proponents make it seem complicated (every bite must be organic! homegrown! gluten-free!), but there's a simpler way, say Dr. Oz and other experts. All clean eating really requires is reaching for foods that are close to their natural form when they hit your plate.

Your food just has to be food — legitimate, wholesome food — instead of the stuff that's heavily processed, says David Katz, MD, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. So you try to avoid anything loaded with refined sugar, trans fats, additives, preservatives, pesticides, and hormones.

We'll outline how this basic idea applies to all the major food groups, giving "Real-World Clean" guidelines you can follow without driving yourself crazy. You'll also learn a bit about the much more restrictive "Extreme Clean" approach. But you don't need to go that far to get a huge payoff.

The health benefits of a cleaner diet? It can help reduce your risk for disease, give you more energy, and move you closer to your ideal weight without starvation or stalling your metabolism. Ready to love every clean bite? Let's go!

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Clean Protein

Real-World Clean: Make an effort to eat more vegetarian sources of protein, but burgers can still be on your clean-eating menu. Whenever possible, go for antibiotic- and hormone-free meat, and try to eat more fish than meat and poultry. Stick to fish and shellfish that are low in mercury, such as fresh or canned salmon, scallops, shrimp, sole, crab, and clams. Meanwhile, cut back on highly processed cold cuts, bacon, and sausage. Our experts favor organic eggs; traditional feed given to hens can contain toxins and pesticides. Clean feed equals clean eggs.

Extreme Clean: Up for a challenge? Because purists want you to eat only organic grass-fed meat, pasture-raised poultry, and wild-caught fish. Eggs would require the organic and pasture-raised stamp. And you'd buy organic beans and soak them overnight before prepping. (The idea: Once they sprout, they become more nutrient dense.)

Try These Clean Protein Picks:

  • Nut Butters: They're clean approved and easy to find on store shelves. Look for ones made with just nuts, and salt if you'd like.
  • Salmon: Salmon meets two important clean-eating criteria: It's high in omega-3s and low in mercury. (The point is to avoid eating foods with too many toxins.)
  • Sardines: To eat clean, it pays to make friends with small fish; they tend to carry less mercury.
  • Beans: "Veggie sources of protein are good for you and the planet," says Dr. Oz.
  • Steak: It's fine in moderation. Just shop for lean, hormone-free cuts.
  • Poultry: Here's the thing: Eating clean means chicken should look like chicken — not a nugget. Skip the processed stuff, and also scope out a bird without antibiotics or hormones.

Grab our recipe for Steak and Baked Fries here.

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Clean Produce

Real-World Clean: It's a party in the produce aisle, people! Fruits and veggies are the foundation of this healthy lifestyle. And choosing right is easier than you think. "Quite often people tell me they avoid fruits and vegetables because they're worried about pesticides and herbicides," says Katz. The truth? "Produce is really good for you, even if it's not organic. The nutritional benefits outweigh the toxins you may get by eating them."

That said, Katz and our other experts do recommend going organic with some products, if you can afford to. Their list includes the so-called Dirty Dozen, which contain the highest levels of pesticides and other toxins when grown conventionally, according to research by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group.

Here's what's on their list: strawberries, apples, nectarines, peaches, celery, grapes, cherries, spinach, tomatoes, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, and cucumbers. It's fine to buy conventional versions of everything else.

Extreme Clean: For members of the überclean club, all produce has to be locally grown, in season, and organic. Depending on where you live, that could mean winters with nothing to eat but root vegetables and squash. (Yes, you might get extremely hungry.)

Try These Clean Produce Picks:

  • Avocados: You toss the skin, so organic isn't necessary.
  • Berries: Clean eating means limiting processed sugar and reaching for fruit to satisfy a sweet tooth. So low-sugar, high-fiber berries make perfect sense.
  • Watermelon: All fruit is good, but watermelon may be the world's most refreshing, thanks to its high water content. You also get a good dose of vitamins A and C.
  • Salad Dressing: You'll find some of the cleanest options in the refrigerator case at the supermarket. Look for ones without added sugar.

Grab our recipe for Cleaned-Up Chicken Milanese here.

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Clean Dairy

Real-World Clean: You needn't bypass the dairy aisle to eat cleaner. In fact — happy taste buds alert — you may be better off with full-fat milk and yogurt. The processing that makes then non- and reduced-fat involves stripping away potentially beneficial fatty acids, like conjugated linoleic acid. Our experts recommend organic milk, yogurt, butter, and cheese to avoid hormones and/or antibiotics that may be found in conventional options as a result of animal feed.

Extreme Clean: Now from the Land of Hard to Do: The only dairy that makes the cut is grass-fed, pasture-raised, organic products that fit all of the guidelines above. Some clean-eating purists say no dairy at all.

Try These Clean Dairy Picks:

  • Cheese: Love burrata? Cheeses that are basically just milk, sea salt, and enzymes — no other additives — are clean approved. Other good bets in an eat-clean world: organic cheddar, mozzarella, and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
  • Yogurt: Choose organic varieties without artificial or added sweeteners. Some have nearly as much sugar as soda!

Grab our recipe for Dark Chocolate Banana Pops here.

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Clean Grains

Real-World Clean: Instead of refined carbs, go for whole grains like brown rice, bulgur wheat, wheat berries, barley, millet, wild rice, and steel-cut oats. But let's get something straight: You don't have to give up bread — or a heavenly spaghetti Bolognese. The benchmark for doing it clean is to choose minimally processed starches such as pastas, breads, crackers, and cereals that are made from 100 percent whole grains.

Scope out the nutrition facts panel; the first ingredient on the list should include the word whole. And aim for three grams or more of fiber per serving, says natural medicine expert Kulreet Chaudhary, MD, author of The Prime: Prepare and Repair Your Body for Spontaneous Weight Loss. The good stuff is easy to find without a trip to the health store.

Extreme Clean: Many proponents of the strictest definition of clean won't touch any grain that's been processed from its native, unadulterated form. This means no bread, pasta, or baked goods of any sort. Some back off gluten entirely (it's found in foods containing wheat, barley, and rye), and eat only gluten-free grains like amaranth, buckwheat, and millet.

Try These Clean Grain Picks:

  • Whole-Grain Snacks: Crunchy treats are fine when whole grain tops the ingredients list. A few to try: Wasa, Dr. Kracker, and Mary's Gone Crackers.
  • Smart Carbs: Why whole is better: Refined carbs (like white flour) are highly processed and act like pure sugar in the body.
  • Tomato Sauce: You don't need to make your own, but if you're going for the store-bought kind, read the label carefully. Many are loaded with sugar — put those back on the shelf!

Eating out? So many restaurants are picking up on the clean-eating trend and offering things like whole wheat bread and pasta. Just ask.

Grab our recipe for Half-Noodle, Half-Zoodle Pasta with Roasted Tomatoes here.

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Surprise! It's Clean

Bet you didn't see these clean eats (and drinks!) coming.

  • Alcohol: We're talking a glass of wine (some experts suggest organic) as opposed to a syrupy margarita or White Russian. (Boom — that's the sound of sugar bombs going off.)
  • Popcorn: Homemade gets top rating, but store-bought, bagged air-popped popcorn is also clean approved.
  • Coffee: Again, bonus points for going organic, but with your coffee, it's not necessary. Just don't go dumping refined sugar or one of those flavored nondairy creamers into your cup. If you need to sweeten it up, try raw honey or coconut palm sugar, which are far less processed.
  • Chips: Potato chips that are made with canola oil and a little salt? Just fine. They're minimally processed and made with real ingredients. (Keep moderation in mind!)

This story originally appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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