We all know that food has a certain power over our health. In the best of circumstances, it can be used to heal us, fuel us, and support our good mood, energy levels, and metabolism. In the worst case scenario, it can sabotage our health by causing gut issues, weight gain, and chronic inflammation.
That seems like motivation enough to clean up our diets, doesn’t it?
If you want to eat more healthfully, focusing on eating clean is the best place to start.
What does it mean to eat clean?
There’s a short answer and a long answer to this question. The short answer is that “clean” eating” means sticking to real, whole foods and avoiding processed foods with a list of ingredients that you cannot pronounce or recognize.
The long answer is that there are a lot of ways to eat clean. If fact, there are dozens of different eating plans, diets, and nutrition philosophies to choose from. This can get confusing, especially for those wanting to take the first step toward a cleaner lifestyle.
To narrow it down, we rounded up the eight best clean eating diets. Any one of the following would be a great place to start (or continue!) your clean eating journey.
Whole30 is a 30-day clean eating program developed by Melissa Hartwig, a certified sports nutritionist and a four-time New York Times best-selling author. For 30 days, you’ll eat real food, which includes meat and seafood, eggs, vegetables and fruit, healthy fats, and herbs and spices. According to the Whole30 website, you’ll only “eat foods with a simple or recognizable list of ingredients, or no ingredients at all because they’re whole and unprocessed.” At the same time, you’ll avoid all sugar — including artificial sugars — as well as grains, alcohol, legumes, dairy, and additives like careenegen, MSG, and sulfites.
At first glance, Whole30 might seem like an extreme weight loss plan. But taking body measurements or weighing yourself are also on the “avoid” list for the plan, which is why this diet made the list of Clean Plate’s best clean eating diets. As they write on their website, “The Whole30 is about so much more than weight loss, and to focus only on body composition means you’ll overlook all of the other dramatic, lifelong benefits this plan has to offer.”
Whole30 Approved Recipes to Try: 10 Quick & Filling Whole30 Dinner Recipes
The Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet always seems to make the list of the healthiest diets in the world. And for good reason. “It incorporates a lot of high-quality, real foods, including vegetables, herbs and spices, olive oil, and fish,” says Jared Koch, founder and CEO of Clean Plates. All these foods have massive anti-inflammatory benefits and the Mediterranean diet has been shown to greatly reduce the risk of heart disease. It also works for a wide range of people. “I think the Mediterranean diet works well because it is not overly restrictive,” says Koch. “Plus, it’s tasty and satisfying for most people,” he continues.
More on the Mediterranean Diet from Clean Plates
- The Best Products You Can Buy For a Mediterranean Diet
- 7 Easy Mediterranean-Inspired Vegetarian Recipes
- The Mediterranean-Inspired Dinner I Make at Least Once a Week
- 5 Mediterranean-Inspired Dinners You’ll Want to Bookmark
The Paleo Diet
On the paleo diet, you’ll eliminate grains, which can be inflammatory. In fact, many studies have linked whole and refined grain intake to increased levels of inflammation in the body. This is especially true if you have a gluten intolerance or another type of food sensitivity. The good news is that the paleo diet has become so popular, there are dozens of healthy paleo desserts and breads to enjoy. (Here’s how to bake like a paleo pro.)
FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols, which are a group of carbohydrates that can be difficult for our bodies to digest (because they are poorly absorbed in the small intestines), which can lead to symptoms like bloating, burping, and flatulence.
This diet is often used for those with irritable bowel syndrome, so it’s the perfect clean eating diet to try if you suffer from GI symptoms regularly. In fact, according to Harvard Health, “So far, studies have shown that a low FODMAP diet improves IBS symptoms. One study even found that 76% of IBS patients following the diet reported improvement with their symptoms.” Foods to avoid on the low-FODMAP diet include lactose, high-fructose fruits like apples and pears, legumes like chickpeas and lentils, and vegetables like cauliflower and mushrooms.
Meet the ketogenic diet — but with a twist! Developed by Dr. Will Cole, a functional medicine expert and author of the books Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum, the Ketotarian Diet “is the way to go keto the clean way. Instead of depending on lots of bacon and butter (and other foods high in saturated fat), you can tap into the benefits of nutritional ketosis in a way that makes sense for optimal health, sustainably, not just another fad crash diet,” says Dr. Cole. So what are the benefits of nutritional ketosis? They include burning fat, boosting brain health, calming inflammation, and crushing cravings.
The good news is that a ton of healthy and tasty foods are permitted on the keto diet. “It’s a mostly plant-based keto diet that focuses on healthy plant fats like avocados, olives, avocado oil, extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds, organic eggs, wild caught fish and lots of non-starchy vegetables like greens, asparagus and Brussels sprouts,” says Dr. Cole.
The Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Most clean eating diets have at least one thing in common: They’re designed to fend of inflammation. Why? Chronic inflammation has been linked to dozens of health issues, including diabetes, IBS, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease. That’s why the anti-inflammatory diet from Dr. Andrew Weil — one of the world’s leaning integrative medicine doctors and the founder of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine — makes this list with flying colors. It’s based on the anti-inflammatory food pyramid and as Dr. Weil explains in his website, “it’s a way of selecting and preparing anti-inflammatory foods based on scientific knowledge of how they can help your body maintain optimum health.” But it’s not just about inflammation, either. “Along with influencing inflammation, this natural anti-inflammatory diet will provide steady energy and ample vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids dietary fiber, and protective phytonutrients,” he continues.
The MIND Diet
The MIND diet is a combination of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet (which both have decades of research to back up their health benefits) that was developed by university researchers to reduce dementia and decline in the brain. At first, this might seem a little too niche for this list of clean eating diets. But the truth is that diseases like Alzheimer’s are one of the biggest health challenges we’re currently facing. In fact, 5.8 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s right now; and that number is expected to rise to 14 million by 2050. Alzheimer’s has also been nicknamed “type 3 diabetes” because it is so closely linked to diet and lifestyle .
So now the question on everyone’s mind: Does the MIND diet really work? According to Mayo Clinic, yes. In fact, “Eating certain foods (and avoiding others) has been shown to slow brain aging by 7.5 years, and lessen the chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease,” they wrote. “This isn’t some trendy diet of the moment,” they continued.
The Vegan Diet
Last on the list of the best clean eating diets is the vegan diet, which was once thought to be the healthiest, cleanest diet in the world. These days, we know that a vegan diet can be healthy, but it isn’t always healthy. As Koch explains it: “Most people think if you eat vegan you eat healthy. But this thinking is fundamentally flawed.” According to Koch, some people can thrive on a healthy vegan diet but others need some amount of animal protein to thrive.
It’s also important to watch out for vegan junk food. “Many vegans eat an excessive amount of sugar and/or processed foods loaded with chemicals,” says Koch. If you do decide to follow a vegan diet for health or ethical reasons, Koch says to make sure you focus on primarily whole, nutrient-dense foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains and legumes.
What does it mean to change your diet—versus your lifestyle?
If you want to improve your health, any one of these eight diets are a great place to start. Plus, at the end of the day they actually have a lot in common. They all focus on reducing or eliminating processed foods, added sugar, and refined grains. They also focus on healthy fats, plenty of colorful veggies, and opting for foods that are nutrient-dense, which means they provide a ton of nutrients in reference to how many calories they contain.
It’s nice to know that any of these diets would be a great choice for cleaning up your diet. That said, remember that reaching optimal health also requires focusing on non-food factors like how often you’re moving your body, how much you sleep, and how stressed you are.
Food is the foundation of good health, but the truth is that no matter how strictly you’re following that anti-inflammatory diet, if you’re skimping on sleep, self-care, or exercise you’re not going to feel your best.
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