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Clean eating is one of those terms that seems like it should be fairly cut-and-dry but often ends up ambiguous. Some people who eat clean are more strident than others (you’ll recognize them from the “NO” and “NEVER” language they use). I’m personally a fan of balance. I think a person can maintain a clean diet the majority of the time and still have indulgent treats now and then without feeling any guilt. I think there are some situations (like Date Night at a gourmet restaurant) when it makes more sense to aim for portion control than for clean foods. And I think that restriction leads to deprivation and deprivation leads to binging, so I’d rather avoid restriction altogether.

This is what clean eating means to me.

When possible, I choose whole, real foods. I am in an ongoing love affair with fresh fruits and vegetables. I’ve found joy in making my own versions of things I would have previously bought packaged, like granola bars and soups. In terms of satiation, I know that eating an apple will satisfy me in a way that eating a slice of apple pie never will. Real foods fill me up without making me feel weighed down.    

I avoid processed, fried, and fast foods as much as possible. I’ve found there’s a healthy alternative to any food I could possibly crave. Baked sweet potato or carrot fries do it for me in a way that fried white potato fries never did. Ice cream is as simple as blending a banana and adding in some mix-ins.

I aim for unrefined foods (brown rice, quinoa, honey, maple syrup) over refined (white rice, white bread, sugar). There are so many ways to sub in healthy ingredients when cooking or baking. I like to swap butter for avocado, sugar for unsweetened applesauce, and whole wheat flour for white.

I eat protein, carbohydrates and fat (preferably a little of all three at most meals). I won’t let anyone tell me I need to avoid X type of food in order to maintain a healthy weight. I don’t need to avoid ANY type of food. Balance is always my goal. 

I refuse to be afraid of food. If I’m hungry, I eat. I wasted too many years stuck in the cycle of believing it was normal to go for hours upon hours without eating. This was always followed by delirious hunger and a desire to eat way too much to compensate. It’s so much easier just to feed my body when it’s hungry and walk away satisfied. 

I eat several small meals throughout the day. This is especially important because I work out a lot. I need food for fuel. I need food for recovery. I need food throughout the day.  

I drink as much water as I can handle and sip on herbal tea when I want something beyond water but limit my alcohol and coffee intake (I haven’t had any alcohol or coffee in 2016).

I do not count calories or macros. I try to eat as much real food as possible and I also try to honor my hunger. If I’m craving a handful of walnuts, I’m going to eat a handful of walnuts. If I eat a regular portion of food and still feel hungry, I’ll add a piece of fruit. I refuse to obsess over how much I’m eating or burning. I’ve found that by eating a mostly clean, healthy, and normal-portioned diet, everything works itself out without me having to think about it too much.

I do not think of my way of eating as a diet because it’s not a diet. It is a lifestyle. This is the way I eat every day. Some days I have extra clean treats and some days I have treats that aren’t clean at all, but I always come back to clean eating as my mainstay.

I don’t believe in absolutes. I worry for people who say you should NEVER eat X. I have no intention of going the rest of my life without cupcakes, but I’m also not going to eat a cupcake every day or even every week. When I have a cupcake, I’m going to enjoy it for the treat that it is.

I don’t believe in the concept of cheating. I think food is food. My diet is 90-100% clean a lot of the time. Some days, I eat snacks and meals that aren’t so clean. I don’t view this as cheating. In order for it to be cheating, I would have to eat something I’m not allowed to eat. In my mind, I’m allowed to eat whatever the heck I want to eat. I simply choose to eat the foods that fuel me the best and make me feel the best — most of the time.

Being in control of my food empowers me. Knowing exactly what I’m putting into my body helps me to know I’m not absorbing toxic ingredients. If I were to go to a fast food restaurant right now and order a snack, I could not tell you what exact ingredients I’ll consume or how exactly my food will be prepared. When I make my own meals based on a handful of whole ingredients, I know I’m fueling my body to get through the demands of working out, running, and living my life.

Clean eating and clean living is a choice. I don’t choose to avoid bagels because I think it’s what I ought to do. I choose to go for whole wheat bread over a bagel because I know how my body feels when it eats a bagel: heavy, sluggish, and slow. As someone who runs 150 miles a month, I consider myself an athlete. As someone who works from home, I know the importance of feeling alert throughout the day. Making certain food choices enables me to power through my life efficiently. I’m not depriving myself. I do not need anyone’s “Still on that diet, huh?” pity.

I believe in the power of fresh vegetables and fruit, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats. The difference in how I feel when I eat clean is undeniable. I used to eat foods like boxed macaroni and cheese made with powdered cheese, processed fake meat products, artificially flavored chips and crackers, and store-bought cookies and cookie dough without batting an eye. I’d inevitably feel terrible after consuming these kinds of foods, but I’d just keep eating them. I lived in a near-constant state of feeling terrible. Antacids were part of my daily routine. I felt too tired to work out. Sometimes I felt like my entire body was coated in grease. Now I eat real, whole foods. I make healthier versions of the snacks and desserts I always loved. I’m able to run long distances. I’m able to sustain vigorous workouts. I’m able to live my life without feeling weighed down. That’s why I eat clean. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. And the pudding, of course, is made from avocado or silken tofu with unsweetened cocoa powder.