Clean eating – we have all heard it before, but what does it mean? Clean eating has to do with the quality and type of food that you put into your body. Yes, there are “good” carbs and “bad” carbs, “good” fat and “bad” fat, what about protein; can that be “bad” too? What does that all mean? What makes one source good or clean and another bad and how do we know the difference? In this article we will explore the different types of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins as well as what each of them do in our body and why some are labeled clean and others are not.
Simple and Complex Carbs
Let’s start with everybody’s favorite – those tasty carbs! Chances are if you have heard of carbohydrates you have heard that there are simple and complex versions of this macronutrient. What makes something simple or complex and how do you tell the difference? First let’s tackle simple carbs. All simple carbs are made up of one or two sugar molecules, so are simple in structure. They are the quickest source of energy and they are very rapidly digested. Simple carbohydrates include; table sugar, corn syrup, honey, fruit drinks and pop/soda, and candy.
Complex carbs on the other hand are more… well, complex. Complex carbs or as you may have heard them referred to before as starch, are made up of several sugar molecules strung together – think like a necklace! One of the important things about complex carbs is that they also contain a good amount of fiber (fiber travels through the body with little change to the digestive system, which means few or no calories but they are very satiating. Not to mention they help keep your digestive track clean and healthy.) Complex carbs are also found in whole plant foods which also make them high in vitamins and minerals. Complex carbohydrates include green vegetables, whole grain foods (oat meal, pasta, whole grain bread) starchy vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, pumpkin) bean, lentils and peas.
Which Is Clean?
Just comparing the examples of simple and complex carbs it is pretty clear to see which group will qualify as “clean.” The complex group is mainly comprised of foods people recognize as healthy – i.e. your vegetables and whole grains, while the simple carbohydrates are your sugary beverages, candy and sweets and processed foods. You can see that there are clearly good and bad choices when it comes to carbs, what can a bad carb ever be good? I should rephrase that a bit – can a bad carb ever be helpful? The answer is yes! There are certain times when consuming those simple, sugary carbs can be helpful to your body.
As I mentioned earlier simple carbs are the quickest source of energy for your body. When you workout your muscles fire and they burn glycogen (broken down carbohydrates), you may have heard people talking about glycogen stores- this isn’t a physical store you can go to to grab some muscle fuel. It refers to the buildup of glycogen inside your muscles to use as energy. After a grueling workout your muscles are depleted of glycogen, so simple carbs are the quickest way to refill those glycogen stores. Note: I am not say to stuff your face with sugary junk after your workout, however, if you are going to have it, that’s the time to do it.
Good Fats and Bad Fats
What about fats? What makes a fat clean or not? If you have ever looked at a food label, which I know you have, you have seen words like trans-fat, saturated fat, unsaturated fat, monounsaturated fat, and polyunsaturated fat. Fats seem to me even more complicated than the carbohydrates but let’s break them down a bit more and see what we find.
Saturated fats are carbon chains that are fully covered/bonded (saturated!) with hydrogen. They are easy to spot because they are solid at room temperature. For example, lard is a solid at room temperature so you can tell it is a saturated fat. On the other hand vegetable oils are liquid at room temperature so they contain less saturated. Saturated fats can be found in large amounts in animal products – beef, chicken, fish – most dairy products, and eggs, which can be a reason some people choose to avoid them. There are also a few vegetable oils called tropical oils that are high in saturated fat such as; palm, palm kernel, and coconut oil.
Trans fats (and hydrogenated oils) are liquid oils that have been chemically changed to make them more solid than they would otherwise be. These types of fats have a particularly long shelf-life and are commonly used in many snack foods. These are the very unhealthy fats that raise your LDL levels (the bad cholesterol).
Unsaturated fats are carbon chains that are not fully bonded/covered by hydrogen atoms (hence, UNsaturated or not saturated.) There are two different types of unsaturated fats- polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. The prefix mono means one so monounsaturated fats are carbon chains missing only one hydrogen atom. The prefix poly on the other hand means more than one… you get the idea. Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature (olive or canola oil) but solid in your refrigerator, while polyunsaturated fats are (corn, safflower, soybean, sunflower oil) are liquid both at room temperature and in the refrigerator.
Which Is Clean?
Now that we have all that out of the way let’s get in to the good guys vs. the bad guys in the fat game. The Good Guys: unsaturated fats, both poly and mono. When they are used to replace other fat sources in your diet they have been shown to help reduce bad cholesterol levels (LDL) and reduce your risk for heart disease. One type of polyunsaturated fat we are all familiar with is omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s have gotten a lot of attention for their potential heart hearth benefits and are commonly found in fish such as; salmon, trout, catfish, and mackerel. Polyunsaturated fats which you will find in foods such as vegetable oil help lower your cholesterol and triglyceride levels (triglycerides are the end product of fat digestion, when you think of fat being stored in your body you are thinking of triglycerides). Monounsaturated fats are another good guy and are thought to help reduce heart.
Now for The Bad Guys: trans and saturated fatty acid. If you have been watching the news over the past few years you have likely heard about some of the health risks of consuming too many of these types of fat. Both types have been shown to raise cholesterol levels as well as clog arteries and increase the risk of heart disease. Saturated fats, like I mentioned before are found in animal products- meat, poultry skin, eggs, and high-fat dairy products. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines on saturated fat is to limit it to 10% or less of your total calorie intake. The American Heart Association, however, recommends keeping them to only 7% of your total calorie intake. This means if you are eating a 2,000 calorie diet you should be getting only about 22g of saturated fats at most. Trans fat occur naturally and artificial- the naturally occurring type is of less concern, especially when you choose low-fat dairy products and lean meats. Artificial trans fats are the type of concern for most Americans because they are used commonly in frying, baked goods, cookies, crackers and many other packaged snacks. These foods are often chosen by Americans because of their convenience. However, trans fats have been shown to increase bad cholesterol (LDL) and decrease good cholesterol (HDL.) The American Heart Association has recommended limiting your daily intake to only 2g!
How About Protein?
Now for your protein – these guys are the simplest as far keeping it clean goes. As I mentioned about when talking about fats we know that animal products- meat, poultry, fish, and daily all contain saturated fats, which we now know now are a less desired fat but all of those products are also good protein sources, so what do you do? Thankfully there are ways around this, as well as many other great protein sources. When choosing a good protein source it is important to make smart decisions. When getting chicken, don’t get fried and go with skinless. If you are getting steak, choose a lean cut such as; sirloin tips, top and bottom round, eye of the round, or top sirloin. Dairy products always have a low fat or fat free option.
These options will help you choose clean protein choices and help keep your saturated fats under control but the options don’t end there! Lentils are a great source of protein at 18 grams of protein/cup – it is also a great clean, complex carbohydrate. 1 cup of beans contains 15g of protein as well as a good carbohydrate and fiber source. Nuts are also a good fat source as well as containing 7-9g of protein per ¼ cup, just don’t overdo it on nuts or you’ll end up having more fat than you would like. Tofu and mock meats can also help you meet your protein needs if you are trying to stay away from real meat sources.
Clean eating may sound a little overwhelming at first, but when you really break it down it is not too complicated. The more you learn about the food you put into your body the better able you will be predict what you can get out (as far as results). Another key to clean eating is moderation – you learned that a “bad” carb can be a “good” carb at the right time just like saturated fat is fine when you keep it to about 10% of your calories.
Going overboard on anything, clean or not, will result in a calorie surplus, which if they are not used your body is going to store. Keeping your diet relatively clean gives your body a great chance to put the calories to use.