What the Heck Is Clean Eating: Confessions of a "Dirty Eater"

What the heck is clean eating?

Yeah, I don’t know either… who even made up that silly phrase?!  The only dirty foods I know of are carrots and potatoes straight out of the ground! Wash the dirt off THEN eat!  In all seriousness, such an open-ended term is certain to have as many definitions as there are people who use it.  Since this is my blog, I am going to explain what it means to me.

When I think about ‘clean eating” I think about eating nutrient dense foods (micronutrients AND macronutrients) as fresh as possible, i.e. ditching processed foods.

After feeling great while eating healthy for a few months a year or so ago, I slowly started making bad food choices until eventually I was eating out several nights a week.  It was just easier, no messy dishes to clean up, no time thinking up what to make, grocery shopping, preparing.  Not that you can’t find healthy choices at restaurants, but let’s not kid ourselves-it’s not easy.  I am very guilty of ordering a huge salad and a side of fries to be dipped in ranch. (I bet you feel normal now!)  After a bit, I felt sluggish, didn’t like the look of my skin, had lost muscle and gained pudge (EW! fat). Vanity demanded that I lose weight, but my mind wanted to feel good about what I was putting into my body.

So now, I’m giving it another go. For lack of a better term, I call it a diet.  Mainly because most people don’t understand why I’m eating grilled chicken and vegetables, by choice, at a restaurant.  It’s much quicker to sum it up as, ‘I’m on a diet’.  Anyone who has taken on this journey probably knows what I’m talking about.

If you haven’t started on this journey, Where to begin?  

You first have to decide for yourself 1) what your goals are, 2) how quickly you want to get there, and 3) what extreme you are willing to go to (the last two are directly related).  For example, are you primarily concerned with the toxins in your food? Are you wanting to lose weight or build muscle mass? Are you wanting to make your training more effective? All of these things should be considered before you decide how you want to change your diet.  After you decide your goals, you can do some research to figure out the best way to accomplish them.

My personal goals are to eat enough of the right nutrients to make sure I retain as much muscle as possible so my workouts are not in vain.  When I’m done, I want to refuel my body and make sure I’m getting enough calories to stay healthy and fit.  I’m still trying to find the right balance as an endurance athlete.  So ultimately, my goal is to naturally eat what my body needs to be healthy, to stay moving around, and looking fabulous for as long as possible!

This time around, I have added processed meats, mayo and wraps to the “nope” list. I have also severely cut down my cheese. I never thought those words would come out of my mouth!  I haven’t switched to “organic” food, because I don’t really believe any organic labeling in grocery stores (but let’s not get started on that). Instead, I will probably try to start buying fresh from local farms when I get the chance. For now, I am fortunate to have wonderful, hard-working parents who let me to enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor.  They have a pretty large garden that has been successful enough to keep the whole family quite stocked in just about any kind of veggie you can imagine!

all fresh goodies from my parents' garden!
Dirty foods.  If there are clean foods, then there are dirty foods right? No, wrong. (If you didn’t know, now you know! ) In reality, some foods are denser in nutrients (remember those macronutrients and micronutrients I mentioned earlier?) than others.  And some foods are more loaded with preservatives and other potentially creepy non-food stuff than others.   If you are starting to feel anxiety about your next grocery shopping experience, don’t.  Just remember ‘perimeter shopping’.   Think about it-the middle aisles are where you find all of your food mixed with other “food-like” things in a box, can, or some other carefully advertised package.  On the edges of your grocery store is all your food that looks like, umm, FOOD!

If in doubt, how do you know you are eating food that isn’t highly processed? Check how many ingredients are on the label.  Do you recognize these ingredients as food? Or would it sound more appropriate on the side of your kids’ crayon box?  Do they sound like a chemical you saw on the label of your drain cleaner?  Ok, I’m being a bit dramatic, but you get the point.

Budget.  One excuse I’ve heard is that healthy eating is expensive.  And it can be.  You spend money on a gym membership as an investment in your health, so think about it that way.  I also find that it balances out.  I’m not eating out as much, and while my grocery bill is more, I’m not spending nearly as much on food at restaurants. If you’re worried about the expense, I’ve seen many blogs about how to grocery shop when eating healthy on a budget.  I think it mainly comes down to get what’s on sale that week and in season, then plan your meals around that, but Google some and I am sure you will find a lot of good info on this.

Speaking of planning meals, once you have all of this delicious food, how do you turn it into 7 healthy dinners, lunches, and breakfasts?  This is where the preparation and planning (commitment) come in.

Commit.  Planning and food prep.  When I plan and prep my meals ahead of time, I have the best results.  At first, I didn’t enjoy the idea that half my Sunday funday was spent cooking food, but now I look forward to trying at least one new recipe each week. I also use the buddy system. I'm not a great cook, but my wonderful boyfriend is, and we have more fun (and help keep each other accountable) by food prepping together. If you need a kick start for healthy recipes, I have found several of my staples on heandsheatclean.com.  Also, my friend has a web site that she offers a weekly meal plan FOR FREE! http://www.brandemcdonald.com/
This is golden for those who are just getting started, or just don’t have the time to think out recipes for the week. It also helps if you go ahead and buy a bunch of Tupperware (I use glassware so I don’t have to microwave my food in plastic) and divide out/measure the food you prep into ready-to-eat meals (this is called “meal prepping “ vs. “food prepping”, yes, I am aware we’re splitting hairs here, but there is an important difference).  This helps with portion control, and saves you time during the week.

The Tupperware here is an example of "meal-prepping."
Chicken, asparagus and quinoa salad.
Also, these egg cups with spinach and peppers are a great,
easy-to-make, high protein snack.

Track.  I have found food logging to be very helpful for accountability.  If I’m not writing it down, I get frustrated when I don’t see results quickly enough.  I think I’ve been eating healthy all week, but actually forget I had an unexpected dinner with a friend and chowed down on some pizza!  Nothing wrong with that, but track it so you can divulge your taste buds in moderation. Myfitnesspal is a great app that calculates your calories, and my favorite part-your macros, so you know exactly what type of nutrients you are getting from your food.  It may also be helpful if you buy a food scale. I found one for about $15.00 at Walmart. You will have to learn portions and serving sizes, and having a food scale will help immensely with that as you are getting started.

example of MyFitnessPal's macro/micro breakdown
Conversely, track so you make sure you are eating enough.  When you are eating nutrient dense foods, often they are lower calorie, and you may not be taking in enough calories to get you through the day without getting fatigued.  If you often feel like you’ve “crashed” before the end of the day or feel super hungry between meals, you may not be getting enough calories.  Plan to snack a lot more than you are used to, and be prepared by having some healthy snacks on hand!

This is a short and sweet article by Rachel Baker that explains even more reasons why tracking is important, especially for athletes:

Secrets. I put this at the bottom, because they are golden and this is like a reward ;)

 1) So Delicious Coconut Milk ice cream. I’ll say it again, So Delicious Coconut Milk ice cream. It’s pretty much the most delicious ice cream I have ever had. I like to keep a pint in my freezer and have a couple spoonfuls a night or two a week. It keeps me from coming off the rails, and it’s surprisingly half-way okay for you as far as “icecream” is concerned. 2) Another trick is buying a “Yonanas” machine.  It’s like $30 or $40 at Bed, Bath & Beyond, and it allows you to make ice cream out of frozen bananas and whatever other fruit you want. No sugar added, nothing but fresh fruit that you stick in your freezer. Finally a use for all the bananas that turned before you could eat them!  It’s the bomb.com ;) 3) Lastly, if you are a salad fan like me, and I’m not talking green salad, I’m talking chicken salad, tuna salad, etc, sub plain Greek yogurt for mayo.  It’s delicious and healthy and adds protein to your food! Now my favorite tuna salad is a staple in my weekly food prep!

If you MUST cheat, be smart and make it GOOD.

Not the most appetizing pic, but you get the idea-Yonanas! Only bananas, strawberries and blueberries were harmed in the making of this deliciousness!
Warning. If you haven’t even tried to eat completely healthy before, let me forewarn you before you jump cold turkey into this.  The first week or two you might feel TERRIBLE. Your body is kind of going into shock, if you will, and must readjust to how you’re eating.  Be sure to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and help flush toxins out (yes, your body does this naturally), especially during the beginning.  It will get better! After a couple of weeks of eating healthy, I also notice that when I do have a “cheat meal”, often I get horribly sick. It really makes that piece of pizza not really worth it.  It’s proof that your body is not designed to eat like that all the time!

I may expand this later with information specific to athletes, as I am still researching and learning more about that myself!  However, in the meantime, this article is pretty amazing and gives great examples of what kinds of foods have the best types of proteins, etc. It also talks about refueling. It’s also SCIENCE written by DOCTORS with footnotes and all that good stuff, so it’s not just some rando’s opinion ;)

P.S.  Since you stayed with me this long, I’ll give you my favorite tuna salad recipe. The easiest way I have found to make it for food prep is this (it last about two days at my house :D)

4 cans of tuna, drained
1 single serving cup of Chobani plain Greek yogurt
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp chili powder

I am by no means an expert on this, and would love for this blurb about my personal journey to start a dialogue.  Please comment with any healthy, favorite recipes or even tips that you find helpful in your weekly food prep.


  1. Great post, Ashley! I'm looking forward to see where your journey takes you. I went on a health kick about 6 weeks ago, but I still learned quite a bit from this blog. My only two cents I wanted to add was on the days where my *NET* calorie count is really low due to a nutrient rich (low calorie) set of meals and an intense, long duration bike ride, I like to add nutrient rich, HIGH calorie foods like nuts or my personal favorite, avocado. Toss an avocado on top of a salad and you can increase your caloric intake by a hundred or two.

    I agree completely with you about the food scale - best $15 I've ever spent on my health. I read somewhere an article on "proportion distortion" talking about how what you and I think a tablespoon, or cup, or ounce is often entirely wrong. In fact, just last night I went to have a cheat snack of 1 serving of "10 tortilla chips for 140 calories." Next to the 10 tortilla chips, the label says "28 grams". When I weighed out 10 tortilla chips, the food scale said "35 grams." While that may only be an extra 25-30 calories or so that goes unaccounted for, this misconception (or intentional marketing strategy by the processed food giants) can really add up over the course of the day.

    Great work! I'll be checking back frequently, so get back to writing!

    1. Matt, thanks for reading! I do the same thing-eat really healthy, then not so much. Each time it gets better and easier though, I think! Thanks for the avocado and nut idea! I like to add those in as my snacks, but I never thought about it as a way to bump up my caloric intake (which also is often low). So many people are afraid of fats (thank you fitness/weight loss industry) but good fats are so important! For your heart, joints, etc.

      Eeek. Good to know about the serving sizes. I'm kinda creeped out now. I mentioned it a little in my next post, but I had no idea! Honestly, if it's something with a bar code and something I can count and don't have to measure or weigh, I have always trusted the label. Never thought that that info can be wrong 0_o

      Glad to hear you are back to riding! Keep it up :)

  2. Interesting explanation of "dirty" foods, or lack thereof -- something I had never thought of before!

    I love my kitchen scale and MFP, too. They are both great tools.

    I'll have to try that coconut milk ice cream. I usually can't keep things around that I really love. Your ability to consume a few spoonfuls a week far surpasses mine!

    Way to go, girl!

    1. Thanks for your comment, girl! I need to have you do a guest post about your paleo and fitness adventures!!

      So maybe I lied a little about the spoonful or two ;) But I can usually make a pint last a week or so! It keeps me out of the Ben and Jerry's anyway. I'm getting hungry now....

  3. Such a great post. The concept of "clean eating" has always made me laugh a little. Just like your blog tag line - moderation in all things :) which can be really hard to learn when it comes to food. I know I struggle with it.

  4. Thank you for the kind words! haha, it is kind of strange, isn't it? I think the moderation is the most important part! That quote also hints at the fact that you should know when to indulge as well. I try to eat healthy most of the time so I can treat myself to a cupcake or dinner with friends or family ;) I think healthy relationships are just as integral to overall health as eating healthy all the time. As with your blog-find that healthy balance by listening to your body!


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