It’s hard to believe, but twenty years have passed since I started my clean eating lifestyle. I have been eating clean for almost half of my life now. I wanted to write this blog post because at 42-years old, I feel I have had enough life experience to weigh in on the factors that I believe are most important when it comes to sticking to a diet. I have also been around the block enough to know that no one single diet can work for everyone. And after writing four books on nutrition (with a fifth underway!) I definitely know people have very different opinions on clean eating too. What works for one person does not always work for another.
So I am going to just tell you about the diet that has worked for me. When I say a diet has “worked” I mean two things: 1) I got the results I was after, which was reduced whole body inflammation and 2) I am still doing it.
First of all, I really hate the word “diet”, but the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of the word “diet” is the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats. In other words, diet is really just the best word to describe what I eat. Anyway, let’s just say that for the first half of my life I ate a very different diet than the one I eat today.
For those of you who do not know my story, I adopted a clean eating diet at 22-years old after my diagnosis with multiple sclerosis in 1998 (you can read my full story here). My neurologist was way ahead of his time when he encouraged me to start an anti-inflammatory diet in hopes of slowing the progression of my disease. But….
Clean Eating Was NOT Exciting in 1998
Nobody I knew was into clean eating in 1998 and I didn’t have very many resources. I didn’t even know how to use the internet! And the whole idea of learning a completely new way of eating—and then actually implementing it, especially at an age when all of your friends were still eating pizza and French fries —was overwhelming.
I didn’t know what to eat anymore. I didn’t know how to cook. My meals didn’t taste good. And I felt extremely limited in the foods I could eat. I knew I needed to find a way to eat that I could stick to for life….
“Clean Cuisine” Is Not Like Any Other Popular Diet
I won’t go into all of the science behind it, but basically “Clean Cuisine” is my own way of eating that I developed with my husband, Andy. It was created as a way of eating that would not only keep me healthy, but also be enjoyable and doable in the real world. For life. (FYI: I attribute my clean eating diet to keeping my MS in remission for over 20 years without the need to take any of the disease-modifying medications.)
As a surgeon, admittedly Andy was not trained in nutrition, but what he was trained to do is have a basic understanding of interpreting scientific studies. I soon learned not all studies are created equal. Some are more credible than others. Because of his medical training, Andy played a major role in helping me understand which studies were better than others (studies on rats for example are not equivalent in quality to studies on humans) and helping me determine what diet habits really made the most difference. For example, I didn’t want to give up coffee if there was not concrete evidence that doing so would improve my health in any meaningful way (after much research we concluded giving up coffee wouldn’t be necessary, as we discuss in detail in our book as well as below.)
Anyway, the way I eat with Clean Cuisine is designed to do 3 things:
- Reduce Inflammation
- Boost Nutrition
- Taste Great
Clean Cuisine does not fit into any of the popular diets but it does borrow key principles from many of them. We explain the science and give plenty of references to nutrition studies in our books, the most recent one being Clean Cuisine: An 8-Week Anti-Inflammatory Nutrition Program(Penguin, 2013), but the food pyramid below should give you a good snapshot of how we eat:
Chocolate, Wine, Coffee, Bread, Cheese, Meat & Dessert
First of all, I don’t try to be a “perfect” eater. My mornings start with coffee, not green matcha tea like you may expect. I have my green matcha tea later in the day though (wink). But in all seriousness, I am not nearly as strict as you may think.
I have wine with dinner every single night and have done so for the entire 18 years of my marriage. I also have something sweet to eat daily, usually chocolate of some sort. While my sweet treat is made with unrefined sweetener, it’s still sweet. I haven’t given up red meat either, but I do make sure the meat I buy is the absolute highest quality grass-fed and I don’t eat a lot of it. I’m not vegan, raw food or (gasp), even gluten free. I still eat sprouted whole grain bread that includes wheat along with other whole grains, but I don’t eat more than 1 or 2 servings of whole grains a day. I’m also not even 100% dairy free, because I still eat a bit of high quality real cheese here and there. I do however recognize that dairy is not a health food so I no longer use cows milk or cream (by the way, these are my favorite plant based milk alternatives.)
If you didn’t know me personally and you were to read that I consider myself a clean eater even though I still eat foods like chocolate, wine, coffee, bread, cheese, meat and dessert you might consider calling me a phony. And yet, some of the seemingly unhealthy foods I still consume, such as coffee, actually have solid evidence for being health-promoting. For example, did you know research shows people who drink coffee have a reduced risk of dying from all causes? (read more about the research showing surprising benefits of coffee HERE.) However, I won’t try to convince you that cheese is a superfood or that you need to consume red meat for the sake of health. The truth is you don’t need to eat bread or drink wine in order to enjoy good health either. And, you certainly don’t need to eat dessert! However, just knowing that you would never be able to enjoy chocolate, wine, coffee, bread, cheese, meat or dessert ever again might make even the idea of clean eating a very unpleasant one.
The point is, I don’t try to be a “perfect” clean eater because I think aiming for perfection sets the stage for failure. I also believe a preoccupation with clean eating can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food. Instead of perfection, I aim for balance. The anti-inflammatory “Clean Cuisine” way I eat does not fit into any of the popular diet categories: we are not vegan, vegetarian, macrobiotic, grain-free, paleo, raw, low carb, keto, Atkins or anything else. Not a single one of the popular diets allows for chocolate, wine, coffee, bread, cheese, meat AND dessert. You might be able to eat sweets on a vegan diet but you can’t have steak. Or you could have steak on the paleo diet but no bread or cheese. So, in many ways, Clean Cuisine is incredibly lenient. However, it is important to look at the pyramid closely and look at the foods I am consuming in greatest quantity (and look at how many fruits and vegetables!) I certainly am NOT over here eating chocolate by the bar, drinking a bottle of wine a night or drinking 6 cups of coffee a day. The vast majority of the foods I eat are highly anti-inflammatory and super nutrient dense.
Our definition of clean eating is below in red…
Clean Cuisine Defined: a plant-rich diet based on a wide variety of anti-inflammatory whole foods packaged in their most natural and nutrient-rich state.
Every “cheat food” I eat (chocolate, wine, coffee, bread, cheese, meat and dessert made with unrefined sweeteners) is still an unrefined whole food. The part that is not so easy to explain in a simple sentence is that every single food is not necessarily anti-inflammatory, but because I specifically go out of my way to include so many anti-inflammatory foods (such as omega-3 rich fish and chia seeds and large quantities of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables) it helps push my body into a very anti-inflammatory state and therefore allows just a little bit of wiggle room for some not-so-anti-inflammatory foods.
So, while I might eat red meat as part of dish like Shepherd’s Pie, it is never a large serving and it is always ALWAYS accompanied by boatloads of extra vegetables along with all of the other anti-inflammatory and high-fiber plant foods I have eaten all day. Just like with the Shepherd’s Pie recipe, I also sneak vegetables, fruits and / or superfoods into just about every single one of my recipes. And I don’t eat red meat more than once a week. The chocolate I have is usually my homemade chocolate bark sweetened with a bit of pure maple syrup or a bit of Hu Chocolate bar sweetened with coconut palm sugar.
When you look closely at the food pyramid that appears on page 11 of our Clean Cuisine book, you realize my “cheat foods” make up less than 10% of what I eat in a day. And yet I believe that it is because I allow myself those “cheat foods” that I am still eating clean (or my definition of it anyway!) after all these years. Let me explain…
Compliance has to be one of the most important factors for making any lifestyle modification effective. I feel strongly that a diet or lifestyle program cannot be overly strict or people just won’t do it and it won’t work. The more restrictive your diet is the higher the risk for noncompliance.
The idea of eating a plant-rich diet based on a wide variety of anti-inflammatory whole foods packaged in their most natural and nutrient-rich state might initially be a little more difficult to grasp than a diet that focuses on eliminating one thing (such as grain free, low-fat, low carb, etc.), but once you grasp the concept, eating “Clean Cuisine” is much more doable in the real world. The more doable something is the more likely you are to stick to it.
And besides, the strictest diets don’t have very good science to back them up…
What is the Best Diet?
It is important to understand a few concepts before comparing dietary protocols.
First, very few specific diets have been proven to be better than others. Probably the best diet study ever done showed very strong evidence that the Mediterranean diet is better for good health than the traditional low fat diet previously recommended by the American Heart Association for example, but studies of this quality are rare in the literature. In developing how we eat with Clean Cuisine, my husband and I took studies such as this and used his medical background and my love of cooking to determine if there might be any way to improve upon the Mediterranean diet or to identify which parts of the Mediterranean diet were most beneficial. Among our many conclusions would be that using extra virgin olive oil for dressings and for cooking is indeed very healthful and likely a key component of the Mediterranean diet’s success. We also concluded the Mediterranean diet might be even better if more “whole food” olives were eaten instead of oil (as we discuss in our book, all oil is a refined food to some degree) and less bread and less pasta was consumed but certainly eating whole grain pasta is better than eating a bag of snack chips. In other words no diet is perfect and no diet has been proven perfect. We have also concluded that adding certain superfoods such as turmeric, chia seeds and hemp seeds would improve upon the already healthy Mediterranean diet. And keep in mind, the Mediterranean diet also allows for chocolate, wine, coffee, bread, cheese, meat and dessert 😉
Unlike is the case with the Mediterranean diet there is NO adequately strong study that proves the Paleo diet or the autoimmune protocol diet is better than any other particular diet.
The Paleo diet includes animal protein but excludes grains and legumes, while a vegan diet includes grains and legumes but excludes animal protein. Despite these striking differences, the healthiest versions of these two diets have much more in common than you might think: they are both based on unrefined “whole” foods. They also both encourage lots of vegetables as well as fruit, nuts, and seeds. Both diets also exclude dairy products.
What we have done with the “Clean Cuisine” way we eat is taken all of the available research on nutrition and put together the most lenient—but still effective—way of eating and cooking, that will still allow us to enjoy the widest range of delicious foods and still keep my inflammation low enough to prevent an MS flare-up. Like the Paleo diet, refined sugars and processed carbohydrates are not part of the plan, and like the vegan diet, Clean Cuisine is plant-strong.
Could I adopt a more extreme or “cleaner” way of living? Absolutely! Will doing so substantially improve my health? Based on all the available science, I think that is highly doubtful. In fact, even though studies do show that “whole food” vegetarians have fewer heart attacks, less incidence of cancer, less obesity, lower weight, less high blood pressure, and longer life spans in general, if you dig deep into the research you’ll see even those who are not super strict at avoiding animal foods enjoyed equally impressive health benefits across the board, as long as the bulk of their calories came from unrefined whole plant foods with plenty of fruits and vegetables (which is how I eat). Also, when we look closely at the research we cannot find scientific evidence to support health reasons for anybody eliminating fish from their diets.
If you have been with us since the release of our first book back in 2005, you know my primary goal has always been life-enhancement; I want to enjoy life—and my food!—as much as possible. So my way of eating is strict when and where I believe it counts most, and lenient where I believe it doesn’t matter so much. This approach has worked for me. After two decades, I am still eating clean…and my multiple sclerosis is still in remission.
There are MANY Good Foods
Although opinions vary greatly on what the best diet is, we are still lucky to live in a time when nutritionists and chefs now fully agree on the value of eating and enjoying real whole foods from ancient grains to healthful fats and even the occasional glass of wine. Today, clean eating and delicious (even gourmet!) food are one and the same. No “whole” foods are eliminated unless there is a very good reason for it (two good reasons that come to mind are allergies or food intolerance.)
Our motto dating back to the publication of our first book in 2005 has always been: “Don’t count your food make your food count!” We always encourage people to eat more of the good foods as they will then naturally eat less of the bad foods. The good news is, if you look at the anti-inflammatory food pyramid (in the photo above) there are SO so many good foods to choose from.
If you are strictly talking about eating the “cleanest” foods then it’s important to remember that every step you climb up the food chain ladder, there is a greater chance of accumulating and concentrating toxins found in the environment; toxic overload can tip the body’s balance toward inflammation, illness, weight gain and accelerated aging. While it would be great if I could always eat 100 percent organic foods, this just isn’t compatible with also having a normal life. But I know I will always get far fewer toxins choosing nonorganic “whole” plant foods over the cleanest certified organic animal foods.
In general, the Clean Cuisine way I eat favors plant foods over animal foods.
That having been said I do still eat a wide variety of properly raised animal foods—I just keep my portions small and I always, always fill my plate with substantially more plant food (especially vegetables!) than animal food.
What I Have Changed Over the Years
And finally, I think it is also important to emphasize my clean eating diet has most definitely evolved over the last 20 years. Last year I wrote a blog post about my 19-year clean food diet journey HERE that highlights what changes I have made over the years. The biggest change I have made is to not only emphasize eating more plant foods, but specifically emphasize adding more fruits and vegetables. I believe the number one diet mistake people make is not eating anywhere near enough fruits and vegetables.
If you do nothing else but just find a way to consistently eat more fruits and vegetables (7 to 13 servings a day!) for LIFE then you will most likely be healthier than if you just focused on subtracting foods like chocolate, wine, coffee, bread, cheese, meat, and dessert from your diet. Of course this is assuming you don’t eat a pint of ice cream and wash it down with a bottle of wine each night 😉 But in all seriousness, one of the biggest secrets is that by the time you add 7 to 13 servings of fruits and vegetables to your diet each day you will not have a whole lot of room left over for “cheat foods”! Fruits and vegetables work in many, many overlapping ways to keep you healthy and in addition to taking up bulk and space in your stomach, believe it or not, they can even help neutralize not-so-healthy habits.
And so, in the end, I think it is probably my focus on adding more of the good foods rather than subtracting the bad foods that has enabled me to stick with my own clean eating diet for all these years. I have a feeling had I eliminated chocolate, wine, coffee, bread, cheese, meat, and dessert from my diet twenty years ago that I wouldn’t be any healthier. In fact, I might be less healthy. I might have just given up on the whole clean eating thing altogether!
Of course 42 years old is not exactly the end of my life either lol–so I suppose I will have to check back in after I go another 42 years and see if I am still sticking with it at 84 years old. I have a feeling I will be 😉
In the meantime my next book –a cookbook!–, Clean Cuisine Cookbook (see below) will be released in January 2019 and will include not just recipes but over 100 pages of nutrition too. Stay tuned!
P.S. If YOU have a clean eating diet that has worked for you please leave a comment below and tell me all about it!
Friday 29th of June 2018
As a RD, I found myself nodding and smiling at this whole post. I 100% agree. I eat similar to you, including a glass of wine every night and coffee every morning. I have a couple autoimmune conditions, yet at 48 years old, I am feeling great and in better shape than ever (not to mention, women half my age can’t keep up with the workouts I do at the gym.). I love to make healthy clean cuisine taste good and cook this way daily for my family.
Cheers to many more years of clean cuisine,
Saturday 30th of June 2018
Awww, thank you SO much for taking the time to comment Mo (I am happy you mentioned you were a nurse too!) I am so glad this (less-extreme) way of eating has also worked for you. I do feel I am a very motivated person, but I just don't think I could have stuck to my overall clean eating lifestyle if it were as strict as what some people do today. Funny how times change though because in 2005 when our first book came out everyone thought the idea of just eating "whole foods" was extreme =)