What is Clean Eating?

What is Clean Eating?

By Jef L’Ecuyer, Registered Dietitian

Whether you’re scrolling through social media or window shopping down Main Street, you can’t miss it. Artfully posed smoothie bowls topped with piles of ripe, juicy berries and shaved almond flakes. Cookbooks lining window displays, their glossy pages filled with photographs of chopped salads in high definition. Images of farmers markets with dirt still clinging to the carrots, big emerald stalks of kale, and cartons of California figs. 

Fresh. Healthy. Clean eating.

The idea of clean eating conjures up images of a healthier body, mind, and soul. But how do you get there? What is clean eating? 

If you’re looking to adopt a cleaner, healthier lifestyle that works for you, let’s dive in.

Why Choose Clean Eating? 

After a long day, it’s tempting to reach for whatever’s quickest and easiest for dinner. Oftentimes, that means ready-to-eat meals you throw in the microwave. They may be convenient, but they’re also loaded with  additives and are ultra-processed. 

Clean eating is an approach to food and nutrition that combats the culture of highly processed “convenience foods” and promotes a return to simpler foods.  Lately, the term has become something of a buzzword, used by influencers and celebrity spokespeople to promote trendy diets, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Not all “trendy diets” are equal and more importantly, most of them are not that good for you! 

While clean eating has good roots in terms of original nutritional recommendations, the term has gained a bad reputation because of its association with all sorts of wacky diets. We now prefer using terms like varied, colorful, plant-based and back-to-basics to describe a healthy diet. 

From Garden to Plate: What Does Back-to-Basics Eating Mean?

At its core, healthy eating encourages eating food in its natural state as often as possible while limiting your intake of highly processed food. That may include:

  • Incorporating more fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and beans in your diet
  • Reducing the amount of overly processed packaged foods you eat
  • Cutting back on products with added salt, fat, and sugar
  • Cooking your own meals so you know exactly what goes into your food

Back-to-basic eating puts you in control of your nutritional intake—for many, this can be a source of empowerment. There’s no defined set of allowable foods or strict dos and don’ts. Instead, it comes down to a simple philosophy:

Knowledge of what you consume can enable you to make healthier choices. 

While highly processed foods may be convenient and satisfying—there’s a reason you can’t eat just one potato chip—there are potential downsides that outweigh the benefits. 

But that doesn’t mean you should embrace a restrictive diet—in fact, quite the opposite. A good-for-you diet involves reducing unhealthy foods while incorporating high-quality nutrient-rich options to arrive at a truly balanced diet. 

Reduce the Transformed: The Four Categories of Processed Foods 

One popular misconception  is that all processed foods are bad for you and need to be eliminated. The truth is, all foods have been processed in some way, even the “healthy” ones. The parameters of “processing” are so broad that nearly everything you might pick up could be labeled as such.

It would be almost impossible to eliminate every single processed item from your diet. But the good news is that you don’t need to.

No longer is the oversimplified  processed = bad, and unprocessed = good saying applicable.

The NOVA system, introduced in 2009, is a useful way to classify products into four groups based on how much processing they’ve undergone:

  • Group 1: Unprocessed or minimally processed foods
  • Group 2: Processed culinary ingredients
  • Group 3: Processed foods
  • Group 4: Highly processed foods

Understanding the four groups is a great start to making healthier, smarterfood choices.

Group 1: Unprocessed and Minimally Processed foods

Unprocessed foods include everything naturally edible from a plant or animal, like nuts, seeds, milk, eggs, or fruit straight from the vine. 

Minimally processed foods have been changed to either preserve the food longer or make them safer, more edible, or ready to sell, without dramatically changing their nutritional value. This includes food that’s been:

  • Washed, cut, chopped, mixed
  • Cooked, heated, pasteurized
  • Refrigerated, frozen, dehydrated, or dried

Group 2: Processed Culinary Ingredients

Processed culinary ingredients are ingredients used in cooking that aren’t meant to be eaten on their own. They usually start as Group 1 foods and are then processed in some way—grinding, pressing, refining, or milling them, for example—to form new ingredients such as:

  • Oils from vegetables, nuts, and seeds
  • Whole grain flour and pasta
  • Sugar
  • Butter
  • Salt

Group 3: Processed Foods

Processed foods are usually a combination of Group 1 and 2 foods—they typically take unprocessed Group 1 foods and add Group 2 ingredients, such as salt, oil, or sugar. This category includes bread, cheeses, and canned products.

Group 3 is generally made up of simple foods with a short ingredients list and a clear progression from the original source. For example, you can trace your mozzarella back to the dairy it came from and your sourdough back to flour, salt, and water. 

Group 4: Ultra-Processed Foods

The final category of the NOVA system is ultra processed foods. These products are very far removed from Group 1, containing almost no, if any, whole foods. 

Some of the ingredients in highly processed foods are recognizable. However, there are often  less familiar additions like preservatives or artificial flavors and dyes.

Here are some examples of ultra-processed foods:

  • Sugary drinks, such as sodas, sweetened teas, or pre-made protein shakes
  • Sugary breakfast cereals, chips, and cookies
  • Processed meats such as sausages or cold cuts
  • Ice cream, chocolate, candy, fries, burgers, and other similar fast foods

Some studies have shown a correlation between diets rich in highly processed foods and an increased  obesity rates and other diet-related health issues. Identifying what items fall into this group can help you make more informed decisions.

In fact, it’s all about making healthy choices based on an understanding of the ingredients and manufacturing methods.You can’t make good choices if you don’t have any idea as to how something was made. 

While you may not want or need to eliminate all processed goods, limiting your intake of ultra-processed foods can be a great first step.

Don’t Just Subtract from Your Diet—Add to It!

So, you’ve done some investigation and nixed the most highly processed goods from your daily diet. That’s a great start! It’s time to replenish your go-to list with healthier, simpleralternatives.

Smart Snacking

Keep your kitchen stocked with healthy alternatives to avoid the temptation of falling back into old habits. The next time you find yourself craving something salty or sugary, reach for quick, no-fuss snacks to munch on instead:

  • Apples with cheese
  • Bananas or grapes with nut butter
  • Walnuts or almonds
  • Carrot and celery sticks with hummus

Go in with a Plan

Meal plan or prep in advance so you don’t revert back to your standard “convenience foods” as soon as your schedule gets busy. 

You can also cook with the intention of having leftovers, which you can then freeze and reheat later. The next time you find yourself short on time, you’ll reach for that instead of the convenient, ready-to-eat alternatives you used to buy at the store.

Fill your meal plans with healthy and nutritious ingredients like:

  • Vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower, onions, mushrooms, avocados, and spinach
  • Proteins like fish, poultry, beans, legumes, tofu, tempeh, cheese, milk, yogurt and nuts
  • Grains, such as steel-cut oats, whole grains, and brown rice
  • Fruit, including berries, oranges, guavas, bananas, and peaches

A healthy diet doesn’t mean eliminating every food option except for Group 1 as though you were hunting and foraging for your own food. It’s good to include processed foods in a healthy diet occasionally. Try to stick to the first three NOVA categories and steer clear of the foods that have been ultra-processed.

For example, dried and canned goods, such as beans and tomatoes, can be great pantry staples. Frozen fruits or veggies are a fantastic way to have healthy options available without fear of spoiling. Frozen goods are just as  nutritious since they’ve been frozen during peak season.

If you need help making healthy choices, consult a dietitian. They will be able to help tailor healthy eating recommendations to your needs.

Add Probiotics to Your Lifestyle

Incorporating a variety of foods to supply your body with nutrients is a great step towards your healthiest self. But why not take it a step further and proactively support your gut as it digests your healthy food choices? 

All you have to do is add probiotics to your go-to list.

Probiotics can help maintain a balanced microflora by supporting your gut as it breaks down food into nutrients it can absorb. Gut health plays a key role in having  a healthy immune and digestive system. 

Supporting a Healthy Diet with Bio-K+

Clearly, you’re interested in and committed to making  nutritious choices. Incorporating Bio-K+ into your healthy lifestyle is just one more way to do that. The drinkable products and probiotic capsules are the perfect addition for you. 

Bio-K+ probiotic drinks come in a variety of tasty flavors, as well as capsules and other easy-to-consume probiotic products. Our Extra drinkable vegan probiotics contain functional active ingredients to help you go the extra mile. 

The Bio-K+ plus blog also answers questions to other common questions like, “what is self care?”, “what are the benefits of meditation?”, and the “what is the gut brain axis?”. 

Incorporate probiotics into your routine and set yourself up for success.


Brown, E. (2020, August 14). What does it mean to eat clean? https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/what-does-it-mean-to-eat-clean/art-20270125.

Dutter, E. (2019, September 12). Clean eating: What does that mean? Mayo Clinic Health System. https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/clean-eating-what-does-that-mean.

What is clean eating? Infographic. American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/what-is-clean-eating.

Nova groups for food processing. Open Food Facts. https://world.openfoodfacts.org/nova.

Monteiro, C. A., Cannon, G., Moubarac, J.-C., Levy, R. B., Louzada, M. L., & Jaime, P. C. (2017). The UN Decade of Nutrition, the NOVA food classification and the trouble with ultra-processing. Public Health Nutrition, 21(1), 5–17. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1368980017000234.

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Jef L’Ecuyer Registered Dietitian
About the author
After her nutrition training at McGill University, Jef specialized in gastrointestinal health with a special interest in the microbiota and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. With Bio-K+, she continues on this path by making the world of probiotics more accessible to all.
View all articles by Jef L’Ecuyer
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