You’re smart. You’re with it. You know the basics of being healthy. So you’ve probably heard that clean eating can help with weight loss. But when you’re just getting started, it can all be a bit confusing. After all, it’s not like there’s a definitive “clean eating for beginners” guide to walk you through the rules and regulations — everyone seems to have a different idea of what “clean eating” really means.
And that’s partially because there’s not really an official definition, says Andrea N. Giancoli, M.P.H., R.D., and nutrition manager at Openfit. “But the crux of it is: Eat more whole foods, and avoid more processed, refined foods.”
It seems pretty simple, but with so much room for interpretation, it’s easy to make mistakes or take “clean eating” to an extreme. Here are a few common slip-ups — and how to keep them from sabotaging your clean eating goals.
MISTAKE #1: Being too strict with your clean eating rules
If you want to see long-term results, it’s important to think of clean eating as a lifestyle rather than a diet. If you cut out everything you enjoy, you’re not going to stick with it.
Focus on eating healthy recipes you love, but also cut yourself some slack. As long as you’re eating clean around 80 percent of the time, it’s okay if you occasionally indulge in a sweet treat or a greasy appetizer.
“When people put too much pressure on themselves to have ‘perfect’ diets, they can become discouraged after slipping up,” says Haley Hughes, M.S., R.D. and owner of RDRx Nutrition in Colorado. “It’s not about perfection — allow for some flexibility.”
MISTAKE #2: Ignoring the calories in clean foods
Clean doesn’t mean calorie-free. Even if you’re eating healthy foods, you still need to pay attention to portion sizes. For example, almonds are a great, nutritionist-approved snack, but a mere 1-ounce serving (23 whole almonds) racks up 164 calories. If you don’t keep tabs on how many you’re eating, the calories can add up pretty quickly.
“We tend to think if something is healthy and nutrient-dense, we can eat as much of it as we want,” Giancoli says. “Calories still count. If you’re eating more calories than your body is able to burn off in a day, you’re going to gain weight.”
MISTAKE #3: Getting hung up on the “5 Ingredient Rule”
There might not be many clean eating rules, but this one seems to get around quite often: if a food has more than five ingredients on the label, don’t eat it.
While you may want to avoid eating processed foods with a long list of unpronounceable ingredients, there are plenty of healthy foods out there with more than five ingredients.
“It’s a good idea to look at labels and find out what’s in your food, but if you’re sticking to a five-ingredient rule, you’re going to miss out on some foods that are very healthful for your body,” Giancoli says. Superfood smoothies and creative salads are easy ways to sneak more fruits and veggies into your eating plan — so why make your life harder (and less nutrient-packed) by eliminating those?
MISTAKE #4: Banning foods for no reason
Many people believe “clean eating” means giving up some foods completely, like dairy or gluten. But unless you have a medical reason for cutting out those foods, it’s fine to make whole grains and dairy products a part of your clean eating plan. “If you like these foods, and you don’t have an allergy or intolerance, there’s no need to eliminate them from your diet,” Giancoli says.
And if you can’t eat dairy or gluten, keep in mind that substitutes like dairy-free “ice cream” or gluten-free brownies are often high in calories and loaded with sugar. For example, Ben & Jerry’s Non-Dairy PB & Cookies has 290 calories and 22 grams of sugar in just half a cup. So watch your portions just like you would with the original versions.
MISTAKE #5: Assuming all natural sugars are healthy
When you’re trying to cut back on sugar, it’s important to keep an eye out for all of its healthy-sounding aliases. “Refined sugar has been demonized, and so called “natural” sugars like date sugar and coconut sugar have this ‘health halo’ around them,” Giancoli says.
But that doesn’t mean you can use them with reckless abandon. Sugar by any name — honey, agave, organic tapioca syrup — is still sugar, and you should still be aware of how much you’re consuming.
According to the American Heart Association, women should have no more than 100 calories of added sugar per day, and men should have no more than 150 calories of added sugar per day. “Added sugars” include any sugar that’s added into food — natural or not.
MISTAKE #6: Getting misled by label buzzwords
Food labels like “organic,” “all natural,” and “vegan” may seem like a helpful way to spot the healthiest grub in the supermarket, but those words can be misleading. Processed foods can still be made with natural or organic ingredients, and just because something is vegan, doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
“Food companies have very clever marketing strategies that make it tricky for consumers to identify the less-processed foods,” Hughes says. Look beyond the healthy buzzwords on the front of the box, and always read the ingredient list and nutrition label on the back.
MISTAKE #7: Focusing too much on the “don’ts”
Many clean eating beginners make the mistake of focusing on what they’re not going to eat, and they can end up missing out on important nutrients. For example, if you’re cutting back on animal products, make sure you’re still getting plenty of healthful vegetarian sources of protein. If you decide to switch from dairy to plant-based milk, make sure it’s fortified with calcium and vitamin D, which most plant milks are.
And while many people think carbs are forbidden on a clean eating plan, they’re an essential part of any balanced diet. “You need carbs to fuel your brain and your muscles,” Giancoli says. Just swap out processed, refined carbs for healthier sources like whole grains, legumes, and starchy veggies.
Cleaning Up Your Act
If your clean eating plan feels too restrictive, chances are you’ll eventually get frustrated and give up. If you want to see long-term weight loss, you need to make clean eating a lifestyle — so focus on finding clean recipes you love rather than setting strict rules and restrictions, and always read labels to figure out what exactly is in the food you’re eating.