How to Eat Clean(er): 9 Food Categories from Bad to Better to BEST)
I've written about food before, in this article about 10 Foods You Think are Healthy but are Really Killing You, and Don’t Eat That Meat! among others. That's because I am very passionate about people getting the knowledge they need to be able to feed their family (especially children) the best and most healthy foods they can. Clean eating is a buzzword these days, but what does it really mean?
If you have ever wondered what is the best kind of egg to buy, or which fats are healthy, or which kinds of fruits/veggies should be avoided...well, here is a great list of food choices for you!
I know that sometimes it feels like more healthy choices are expensive, and I totally get that not everyone can afford grass-fed organic beef from the closest grocery store (as an example). However, I am all about helping people do the best they can with what they have available---and that all starts with knowledge.
I've organized a list of nine food categories that people commonly eat. This food list has sub-headings from the WORST kinds of foods in each category to the BEST kinds of foods. Knowledge about your food choices is power. My goal is to help others make the best food choices they can within the confines of their budget----and to perhaps provide some ideas for how to get around high food costs.
You can start eating clean today. All you need is a bit of knowledge about all the choices out there for you!
FTC Disclosure: There are affiliate links scattered throughout this article. If you click through and make any kind of purchase, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.
The Bad, Better, Best Food Eating Principles for Health
Here you go!
1) Foods for the Pantry:
I'm starting with this category because it's next to impossible NOT to buy any processed or pre-made foods. It seems like everyone has chips, crackers, and snack foods in their homes. Well, if you must keep these on hand, here are the characteristics of the best kinds and the worst kinds to buy:
Bad Pantry/Fridge Foods:
These include foods (including soda drinks, condiments, etc.) that contain words you can't pronounce or don't have a clue what they are. Monosodium glutamate, hydrogenated anything, generic "flavorings," any word that ends with "-ose", such as dextrose....these are going to be super bad for your health.
Better Pantry/Fridge Foods:
Chips, snacks, condiments, and crackers (etc.) that are organic, have a non-GMO label, OR are homemade by you so you know exactly what is in them are BETTER snacks and drinks.
BEST Pantry/Fridge Foods:
The best snacks/condiments/drinks you can eat in this category are made without grains and/or are fermented. Some examples include kombucha or water kefir (instead of soda), and any lacto-fermented condiment.
You can make your own sour-dough crackers and breads. How about making organic fresh popped popcorn using natural sweeteners or spices instead of the toxic packaged microwave type that leaches tons of BPA into your body?
Or better yet---cut back on the snack foods and soda-type drinks and go for more "whole" foods instead? **If you have to have snack foods, then one of my favorite choices are healthy snack bars such as Lara-Bars, Rx Bars, or Ona Bars. There is nothing weird in any of these.
We all love to add a bit of the sweet stuff to our foods sometimes. Sugar on cereal or in coffee, extra sweetener to your sweet tea, you know what I mean. Well, some sweeteners are better than others. Sugar, in and of itself, is terrible for your system...BUT if you must indulge in added sweeteners, then there are BETTER options out there----Know what they are!
OMGosh: High fructose corn syrup tops this list of horrible sweeteners to put in your body. In fact any kind of corn sweetener is probably going to be genetically modified these days, so you should JUST stay away! Also, any kind of sugar substitute, such as nutri-sweet, saccharin, etc., is going to be toxic to your system.
***OH: And that Agave syrup being touted as "healthy?" NOT. It's as processed as the sky is blue.
If you HAVE to eat sugars, then 100% organic, unrefined cane sugar would be what I would choose. REAL maple syrup is great too!
Local, raw honey (key word being raw), organic real maple syrup, molasses, coconut sugar, pure stevia....Just LOOK at all these great choices you have over toxic garbage our modern food industry tries to feed us!
Now let's move on to fats:
You know what? There's been a lot of eye-opening research done on fats these past few years. Turns out, the old "fat-free" diets of the late 80's and 90's were extremely harmful for our bodies. We NEED fat. But we don't need too much. And we don't need the wrong kind.
Any chemically-created science experiment such as margarine, soybean oil, corn oil, canola oil, vegetable oil, or hydrogenated oils of any kind are horrible for your body. Did you know the toxic chemicals used to create these plastic foods generally can't be processed by your body? Instead they end up being stored in your fat cells or in your organs.
You may be interested in reading about Cellulite here.
Store-bought butter is one jump up from the BAD list of fats. But it's definitely a better option.
Fat choices that are even better than store-bought butter include ORGANIC grass-fed butter or coconut or olive oil. The fat released from grass-fed organic unsweetened bacon drippings are delicious and actually good for you!
Raw butter (which I know is not available to most people because local laws---I am in a county like this), grass-fed lard, grass-fed tallow, organic and extra virgin coconut and olive oils. I would also add pastured duck fat is pretty amazing too.
There been a lot of talk about MCT Oil these days. It's made from coconut oil, and contains only medium chain triglycerides, which help your metabolism and give you energy, according to the literature out there. I've been using it in my coffee, and I have felt a difference. I have to admit: Since it is processed, I don't know that I would put it in the BEST category, but I do like how I feel when I drink my coffee with it.
Another healthy option to processed, chemical fats is Ghee. Ghee is butter that has been clarified. In that regard, you could say it's processed, but it's the kind of fat you can actually make yourself from grass-fed butter. So, I'm putting Ghee in the BEST category too.
I've lumped grains, seeds, beans, and nuts in one category because they are all similar in that they are generally a kind of seed, and they are used as the foundation for many other foods, such as breads, protein bars, and other snacks.
Also, seeds and nuts can be eaten alone as their own special kind of snack, and actually some kinds of beans (like peanuts) can too. Grains are in so many things, and it's very hard to get away from them. For the sake of simplicity, they are all in one category here.
Can you say processed and packaged?
The very worst way to eat this category of food is in any kind of processed, packaged box or bag. Enough said.
I just want to talk about nuts for a moment. Nuts such as almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, etc. are often made into butters---and these are delicious. Legumes (beans) like peanuts are also made into butters. I will caution that if you are going to eat processed butters, be sure they are purely made with just the nut. You'll see separation in these more healthy butters--the oil will move to the top of the jar, and you'll have to mix it in. But that's a great sign that they are minimally processed. Also, find butters that are sugar-free.
Otherwise, a general rule for the "better" category is cooking and creating homemade items like cookies, breads, etc. Using whole grain flours is another healthier option. Essentially----cooking from scratch is WAY better than processed junk.
The best way to eat this category of foods would be to properly soak or sprout them first. That means you need to start with raw, unroasted, unsalted nuts/seeds/grains/beans. Fermenting them first is also helpful.
These ways of preparing this category of foods are pretty hard-core, traditional food preparation methods. You can find out more in Sally Fallon's book, Nourishing Traditions. I love this book because she provides well-researched facts about our current food industry along with the histories of traditional cooking methods from all over the world. I highly recommend this book!
5) Fruits and Vegetables:
Eating lots of whole fruits and especially vegetables every day is vital to your health. I know I'm not saying anything new here, and I also need to work on taking my own advice....but it's true. With that said, here are ways to eat fruits & vegetables from bad to better to best.
Bad Fruits & Vegetables:
Eating fruits & vegetables that have been dehydrated or dried using chemical processing methods. You can buy snack bars (Kind now has bars that are made with dried fruits that are pretty good), but this is not the optimal way to eat your fruits and vegetables.
Also, not eating any fruits or vegetables at all is very bad for your health.
Finally, eating fried or processed fruits/vegetables is not that great either. Potato chips, vegetable chips, french fries, etc. all fall into this category.
Better Fruits & Vegetables:
There are actually better and a "better-better" ways of eating fruits and veggies. Buying conventional vegetables to eat is a better way to eat this category of foods.
But a "better-better" way is to use the Dirty Dozen Rule and the Clean Fifteen, along with buying organic when available and affordable.
What is the Dirty Dozen?
Well, these are fruits/vegetables that you want to try to avoid unless they are organic because the pesticides and chemical fertilizers leach into the fruit...and therefore into your body. They include:
These are the fruits & vegetables to definitely try to buy organic if you can.
What are the "Clean Fifteen?":
These are the least sprayed fruits & vegetables. You don't need to worry as much about buying these organic. Here they are:
Sweet Corn (**Important: most corn is GMO these days, and they are genetically modified so they do not have to be sprayed. "Roundup Ready" anyone? So, personally, I do not buy any corn on the cob unless I am absolutely sure it non-GMO.
BEST Fruits & Vegetables:
Buying local, organic, and seasonal fruits and vegetables. Supporting your local farmer, going to Farmer's Markets, or joining a CSA are all ways to get local and seasonal fruits & vegetables.
But the ABSOLUTELY BEST way to get your fruits and vegetables is to grow your own. Yep. I know it's hard. But you'll know exactly what went into those little plants, and therefore the food you eat.
I left eggs separate from meat because I feel they are in their own special little category. Eggs contain the environment and nutrients to feed an embryo chick, and therefore have health benefits different than a typical meat source.
Only eating the egg whites, eating powdered processed eggs, products that are supposed to be "egg-like."
Also, I am putting buying conventional, store-bought eggs in the BAD category, too. The industrialized system of treating chickens like a little machine is inhumane. In many cases, their beaks are cut so they won't harm each other by pecking from the stress of being in a tiny, confined area for their entire egg-laying life.
Many times these chickens never even see the light of day, and the cages they live in are simple a screen bottom so the feces drops through. Horrible, people, horrible. I have REFUSED to buy eggs from these kinds of places for many years.
As Michael Pollan famously says in his book, In Defense of Food, and Joel Salatin reiterates exceptionally well in his book, Folks, This Ain't Normal....vote with your fork. I know a lot of people aren't readers, but these are available on Audible too. Be educated! Then be encouraged.
Organic, free-range eggs from the store is a better option than the above. Just be aware that the chickens who laid these eggs are also not treated well. "Free range" simply means they have a bit of access to the outdoors, but they are probably not really "free-ranging," which means being able to peck at the ground for insects, etc. in a normal fashion. They are also often still kept in very small spaces.
If you must buy your eggs, the best eggs to buy are going to be pasture-raised and organic. The hens that lay pasture-raised eggs have actually been raised on a pasture---able to forage at least somewhat a little more normally for their food.
Best of all: Raise your own chickens for the eggs. Chickens are awesome birds to have around, and the eggs are delicious! Just watch what you are feeding them if you can't pasture them entirely on grass.
7) Dairy Foods:
Bad Dairy Foods:
Any dairy product labeled as "low" or "non" fat is terrible for your body. Often there are fillers, chemicals and sugars that make up for the fat being removed, because you have to get your taste from someplace, right?
Also, any dairy that comes from a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) is probably going to contain antibiotics, hormones, and other unnatural additives, not to mention the remaining adrenalin from the inhumane treatment of these animals. They live in their own feces, and therefore need to be given huge amounts of antibiotics to keep them well enough to produce milk.
Just....PLEASE read about these industrialized food factories. They. Are. ALL. WRONG.
The saddest thing of all, is that people do not know about them. More and more folks are educating themselves, but I think it's really slow going. Sadly, many highly educated people think they are just fine because they have bought into the "big-business" mindset that we are "feeding the world."
What a cocka-mamy load of....well, you know.
Also---any HIGH heat pasteurization is going to yield a product that is not as good for you. Why? Because it's completely dead.
Whole milk, cheeses, yogurts, etc. will be much better for you than the kind that's been processed to have the fat removed.
Also, grass-fed dairy is going to be much better for you than from an animal that is grain-fed.
Raw milk or low-temperature pasteurized is also going to be better for you than high temp pasteurization.
Whole dairy, pasture-raised, organic, and raw is the best.
Pasture-raised means the animal has actually been raised on an actual grass pasture and although it may have needed some feed supplementation via hay or even a bit of grain, it has still lived a fairly natural life in terms of its feed, at least.
Raw is best of all because the natural bacteria and yeasts that are good for us are still alive and well. However, in many places (such as where I live), you are not allowed to buy or sell raw milk for personal consumption. The best I can do is buy "pet" grade raw milk or buy the lowest temperature pasteurized dairy I can find.
I just want to say: Isn't it something else again that the government has grown so large in our sue-happy society that now they can tell us what we are and are not allowed to feed ourselves? And some of what is allowed is DEADLY for us? I don't get it.
Again, please read Joel Salatin's book, Folks, This Ain't Normal. He has a likable, common-sense style of writing that will really make you consider your food sources.
I was going to go right into the "Meat" section, but I'll be honest: Talking about CAFO's makes me feel rather ill. Not that the way we raise seafood is any better, but....WHEW. Just take a breath, here. OK--Here goes on the Seafood:
Have you ever eaten fake crab? That plastic, rubbery stuff that is flavored to taste like crab using flavorings? THAT's bad stuff, my friends.
Also, any seafood that has been genetically modified (YEP! They are now changing the DNA of certain kinds of seafood) should be completely avoided. The only problem? LABELS ARE NOT REQUIRED. Therefore....how is a person to know if they are eating genetically modified seafood or not?
So, for those of us who really care about the kinds of food we eat, how these animals are treated, and want to provide the best source of nutrition for ourselves and our families....I hate to say this: We're kind of out of luck. You'll need to source your seafood from places who can state they are non-GMO.
Some farm-raised seafood is ok. The biggest problem with this type of seafood is what they are fed, as well as the living conditions.
Other "better seafood" options are choosing canned seafood that is wild-caught in BPA-free cans or frozen wild-caught seafood.
The best kind of seafood may be hard for you to find. It sure is for us, here in the desert. But the BEST seafood is fresh caught and local.
Time to go fishing!
OKAY. We are finally to meat. You know what? I love meat. I love eating a juicy burger, just like the next guy. The only problem? Well, there are lots of problems, and we'll discuss those right now.
And if you’d like a GREAT article that goes into depth about why you need to avoid CAFO meat, (and if you don’t know what that is, then you NEED to read this article), click here.
Fake meat. Meat that is processed (chicken nuggets, anyone?), that has been filled with chemical or salt "plumpers," any CAFO meat (see above---yes, cows are horribly mistreated. I wish the people who run these operations could be treated the same way), or boneless, skinless meat.
Anti-biotic and hormone free whole meat. The reason you want the bones and skin is they contain valuable minerals and nutrition for our bodies. Why strip these healthy parts out?
Another better type of meat is meat that is grass-fed and organic. This doesn't mean they have lived a happy life, mind you....but at least they have been eating a little bit more normally for their digestive system.
The best meat you can buy is expensive if you buy it in the stores. BUT if you belong to a CSA, or buy from a local rancher, you can find the best meat, which is whole, pasture-raised, and hopefully organic.
That's the best meat of all. Here in Las Vegas, even in our desert far from any ranches, there are ways to buy from farmers in Utah who will actually deliver. AND--the price is as good as BAD meats at the grocery stores. So---there are ways. You just have to search them out.
Final Thoughts About Learning to Eat Healthy and Make Good Food Choices
You know what, you guys? I knew this was going to happen. I feel so depressed now. Anytime I give much thought to our modern sources of food, I just. Feel. Bad. That's because the average American has no clue. These things are not taught in our schools. Parents don't know, unless they work REALLY hard to educate themselves.
And that takes time many folks just don't have or want to spend. Unless they can bring themselves to read, watch documentaries, etc. about our food system, most are ignorant. You can see this fact when you go to a place like Walmart or Costco and watch people leaning over the meat refrigerators. Just saying.
Also---Money is an issue for so many these days. Unfortunately, it seems like it costs more to eat healthy. BUT, if you do your research, sign up for local CSA programs, attend farmer's markets or local farms....you may actually even save money on your food. It's all about the effort and education. You need to do the best you can with the resources you have, right?
OK---MINDSET SHIFT...No more sadness.
The ENCOURAGING thing is that people are starting to figure out the evils of our modern food practices. Americans are becoming aware in our global world that people from other countries won't touch our food products with a ten-foot pole. Why? The Standard American Diet is killing us. It seems Europeans, especially, have made certain products illegal in their country, including GMO foods and even CAFO meats.
PLEASE read about CAFO's. Or at least take a look at the old but very good documentary for the person beginning to learn about where your food comes from: Food, Inc. It's a great start! Read about Genetically Modified foods and what that means. I've listed sources below that are a good start. Find out about the difference between organic, GMO, what's been done to our wheat/soy/corn, and more.
Here are other great resources for your food education: Nourishing Traditions; Folks, This Ain't Normal; Forks Over Knives; In Defense of Food; Wheat Belly; and so many more books and documentaries. Do a search on Netflix for Food Documentaries---you'll have even more free options for learning more about our food system so you can make the best decisions for you and family.
It's about your health, ya'll! I'd love to hear your thoughts on this! Please feel free to comment or question in the comments section!
You may also enjoy these articles:
And LOTS more on the blog! :-) And, if you are interested in clean eating specifically for homesteaders, take a look at this article by my friend Kristi at Stone Family Farmstead.
As always, browse the blog for lots more information!
Oh! I almost forgot! Are you interested in starting to use herbs to supplement your natural health? To feel great again? The Confident Herbalist: A Guide to Home Herbalism can get you started on a great foundation. Check it out!
Hugs, Health, & Self-Reliance,
P.S. If you haven't done so yet, I hope you'll sign up for our newsletter! You'll never miss a thing, and you’ll get immediate access to the Resource Library where you’ll find all kinds of mini-eBooks, guides, checklists, and more for your natural health success!
Just complete the form below: