Fiftysomething Diet: Do You Need to Eat Clean?

What exactly does the buzzphrase mean, anyway?

Part of the The Fiftysomething Diet Special Report

Dozens of books, a monthly magazine and a new restaurant franchise (Honeygrow) illustrate that “clean eating” is definitely a growing food movement.
Unfortunately, this culinary buzzphrase seems more vague than concrete. Slate magazine points out the term is a loaded one, because it suggests if you don’t eat “clean,” you might be eating “dirty.”

Is clean eating about avoiding processed and “junk” foods? Making meals plant-based and downing them often? Eating raw foods only? It seems the definition varies widely.
So before you jump on the trendy bandwagon, it’s time to pin down some specifics and determine how they might benefit fiftysomething eaters. The best place to start is with defining “clean eating,” and then looking over its pros and cons.
What Does It Mean?
One pro body builder tells No Nonsense Magazine that eating clean “to me means always eating quality protein at least six times a day, watching closely what type and amount of carbohydrates and fats I am ingesting and only eating junk food or sweets on a scheduled basis.”

(MORE: The Best Way to Eat Your Fruits and Vegetables)
To Clean Eating magazine, the “soul of clean eating is consuming food in its most natural state, or as close to it as possible.” And the eating style the magazine outlines hinges on a handful of basic tenets including drinking plenty of water and eating five to six small meals a day.
Today’s Dietitian puts processed foods on the hit list.
“Off-limit ingredients include highly-processed high fructose corn syrup; man-made ingredients such as artificial sweeteners; margarines; trans fats; artificial colors and flavors; unnecessary food additives such as excess salt, sugar and corn syrup and chemical preservatives such as butylated hydroxyanisole and butylated hydroxytoluene (or BHA and BHT, respectively).” And its clean eating guidelines include, among other things, a nod to exercise and smaller, frequent meals.
The Big Picture
Although proponents of “clean eating” clearly disagree on some of the finer points (such as whether to eschew meats and how many meals to eat each day), nearly all definitions of the diet shine the focus on avoiding heavily processed foods. In fact, you could say it’s the main strategy of any style of clean eating plan. And it’s a good strategy, since making that one commitment helps open the door to a style of eating that focuses on plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains — all foods that benefit good health.

(MORE: 9 Foods That Keep You Feeling Full Longer)
In other words, vague as the definition of clean eating appears, it does seem to be steering people toward healthier eating habits.

A Closer Look At Claims
But let's also dig a little deeper into what many clean eating plans advise.

To start, there’s nothing magical about five or six small meals per day. Research studies that test the health benefits of this eating style have inconsistent results.
Sometimes eating more frequent meals is perceived to help control appetite and hunger, yet it doesn’t seem to significantly impact weight loss or health. In fact, one 2014 study finds that two larger meals per day were actually better for controlling blood sugar and weight in a small group of thirty- to seventysomething diabetics.
”Eating only breakfast and lunch reduced body weight, liver fat content, fasting plasma glucose, C-peptide and glucagon, and increased OGIS (oral glucose insulin sensitivity), more than the same caloric restriction split into six meals,” the researchers told Science Daily.
“These results suggest that, for type 2 diabetic patients on a calorie-restricted diet, eating larger breakfasts and lunches may be more beneficial than six smaller meals during the day,” the researchers said.

(MORE: Love Your Heart With These Healthy Dishes)
Secondly, while many highly processed foods are poor food choices, not every bag or box of food in the supermarket is a bad thing. Frozen vegetables sans salt are a healthy convenience item. So are packages of brown rice, whole grains and canned beans. The point is to choose the good-for-you items.
In the end, the definition of eating clean isn't perfectly clear. But if what you eat includes a healthy mix of foods, including fresh produce, grains, and legumes, not a nutritionist on the planet would object.

By Maureen Callahan
Maureen Callahan is a registered dietitian, recipe developer and lead author of the Health.com diet book review series. She is a two-time James Beard Award winner.

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