We’ve all had it drummed into our heads for as long as we can remember: Processed foods are bad for you and whole, natural ones are good. Yet for some reason, “clean eating”—it’s really as simple as that—has recently become a trend. Frankly, calling it a “trend,” a word that implies temporary interest, is probably doing more harm than good, because if there’s one eating philosophy you’ll want to stick with for the rest of your life, clean eating is it. And the benefits extend far beyond mere weight loss.
Nonetheless, we’ll consider it a good thing that clean eating is finally getting the attention it deserves. So with the help of some new encouraging research, let’s review how eating clean can help you become a leaner, stronger, and even happier person in 2015 and beyond.
As with most nutrition trends, a key reason clean eating is gaining steam right now is because of its potential to help you lose weight. Fortunately, research supports this. A study from the Harvard School of Public Health reported that subjects who increased their consumption of whole grains and whole fruits and vegetables over a 20-year span gained significantly less weight than a control group.
And even though clean eating puts no restrictions on how much you eat—and doesn’t enforce quotas for macronutrients like protein, carbs, and fat—anecdotal evidence consistently sees clean eaters taking in fewer calories.
“I’ve had male clients struggle to hit the 2,000-calorie mark when they’ve cut out all refined foods and eaten only real foods,” says Nate Miyaki, C.S.S.N., a nutrition consultant and author of Feast Your Fat Away.
But that’s just one example of what clean eating can do for you. More than merely helping you lose weight, cleaning up your diet can help you put on muscle more efficiently, boost your immune system, improve your health, and add to your happiness.
“Eating clean means eating natural foods—foods that don’t have added sugars, chemicals, or unhealthy fats,” says Douglas S. Kalman, Ph.D., R.D., director of clinical nutrition at Miami Research Associates. Processed foods, on the other hand, are very regularly stripped of valuable nutrients as they’re manufactured into convenience foods.
“That complex of nutrients [in the original whole food] actually affords maximal digestibility and usability, metabolically in the body,” says Jonathan Wright, M.D., nutrition expert and co-author of Eating Clean for Dummies. Grains, for example, typically go through an intensive procedure to make them into bread or pasta—the milling removes layers that contain the majority of their beneficial fiber, antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins.
Similarly, the heat involved in canning foods can destroy vitamins, and chemicals are often added to “low-fat” products to compensate for the loss of flavor and texture.
“‘Fake’ foods like this are just empty calories with no functional nutrients,” Miyaki says. “They have no effect on satiety or on the hormones that regulate appetite and energy intake. They leave you feeling hungry, deprived, and miserable.”
FEEL BETTER, NATURALLY
Transitioning away from nutrient-deficient foods that contain additives and chemicals can quickly translate to ramped-up brain function, more-productive workouts, and improved mood and better sleep. A study from the University of Wisconsin found that certain genes responsible for deep slow-wave sleep are also linked to potassium regulation. Take advantage of that connection by eating more foods that are rich in this powerful nutrient, like leafy greens, fish, and beans.
Additionally, a 2012 study of 80,000 adults published in the journal Social Indicators Research found that eating up to seven three-ounce portions of fruit and vegetables a day boosted brain health, life satisfaction, and happiness.
GET BIG, NOT FAT
“The body has no idea how to metabolize some of the ingredients in processed foods,” says Wright. “For example, many of them act like estrogens and reduce the production of testosterone.”
When you cut out the fake foods that are filled with, literally, fillers—corn syrup, sugar, sodium, trans fats, chemical preservatives, artificial sweeteners, coloring agents—and replace them with whole foods that fuel your body, you’ll notice it in the gym and, consequently, in the mirror. Eggs are, calorie for calorie, one of nature’s best sources of protein, the building block for muscle; the omega-3s in cold-water fatty fish like salmon can help slow muscle breakdown; and the minerals and naturally occurring creatine in lean cuts of beef (supplements directly from nature—who knew!) will speed you toward a trim, fit physique. If you value the sweat and tears you put in while under the iron, clean eating will bring home the (free-range) bacon.
Of course, not everything you eat has to be 100% clean for you to reap the benefits. If you regularly use protein powder, for instance, switching to an unsweetened plant-based version with fewer ingredients can give you more energy with fewer calories. And you don’t have to eat clean all the time.
“I like to balance what’s ideal with what’s practical, functional, and sustainable”, says Miyaki. “I recommend eating clean 85–90% of the time, with some flexibility for favorite foods.” Clean and simple.