You are What You Eat—And What it Eats, Too

A Crash Course on Clean Eating

By Lili’a Uili Neville

I am Samoan, and in general, we have a reputation for being quite large people—think Dwayne Johnson, formerly known as “The Rock.”

In all seriousness, present day Samoans have startling obesity and diabetes rates.

From what I understand of the research, as Samoans and other Oceanic peoples explored the Pacific Ocean, their metabolism adapted to store fats for longer periods of time to sustain them until they reached land. Present day Samoans still have this metabolism but no longer have open-ocean voyages that utilize the stored fat.

Me with my Samoan relatives in 2009.
Me with my Samoan relatives in 2009.

I often joke that if I look at a piece of cake, I gain five pounds. But I joke to mask the reality.

My recent family history includes widespread cholesterol problems, morbid obesity and adult-onset diabetes resulting in death.

Since I have to be very careful about what I eat, I’ve tried all sorts of diets and eating habits. It was about two years ago when I realized eating right requires intention and commitment.

As I became more intentional about my food choices, I found the clean eating lifestyle.

Clean eating means that you only consume food with zero or minimal amounts of processing.

Switching to a clean eating lifestyle may mean your typical food options will become limited, which can be overwhelming and hard. But for me, it’s been the right approach.

If you’re interested in learning more, I’ve included some tips, recommendations, recipes and even my weekly grocery list to help you get started.

Tip #1: If it comes in a sealed package, stay clear. There are exceptions, but it’s an easy standard to remember.

8 Recommendations for Clean Eating

1) Sweets: Don’t eat them.
If you’re eating clean, you’re not eating white flour or white sugar, and that’s the foundation of almost every sweet. Instead, try clean baking at home by using almond flour, honey, maple syrup, molasses or agave nectar.

2) Condiments: Look at the ingredients.
If it doesn’t use high-fructose corn syrup, it probably uses white sugar. Neither qualify for eating clean. Like clean baking, you can make clean condiments to use at home.

3) Drinks: Almost all drinks are not clean.
Stick to water, coffee, tea and herbal infusions instead.

4) Proteins: You are what you eat—and what it eats, too.
Corn-fed animals, hot dogs, sausages, hams and sandwich meats are not clean. As an alternative, purchase whole meats straight from a butcher. The animal itself should be the only ingredient. For ground meats, most butchers will freshly grind meat you select from their store.

If you’re a vegetarian, clean proteins can be slightly more difficult to consume because meat substitutes are highly processed. My personal clean protein go-tos are eggs (I have two every morning) and beans. When it comes to actually substituting for meat, I prefer beans and tofu instead of processed veggie burgers, meatless crumbles, “chik” fingers, etc. Tofu is processed soy milk but it is still considered to be a clean protein. To replace veggie burgers, I make black bean burgers from scratch. To replace meatless crumbles, I use my day-old black bean burgers and stir-fry them so they are slightly crunchy. When it comes to “chik” products, I have spent a substantial amount of time and energy learning the secret to breading and baking/frying tofu. The trick is soaking the tofu in salt water for 10-15 minutes before patting dry and using cornstarch in your breading.

5) Fruits and Vegetables: Raw vegetables are your best friend.
Be careful with fruit because natural sugars are unhealthy when eaten in excess.

Fruits and Veggies

6) Fats and Oils: Butter is clean and fairly healthy as long as you don’t eat it in excess. Use oils sparingly because they aren’t very healthy. Your typical oils like vegetable or canola are not clean, but olive and coconut oils are clean.

7) Grains: Avoid packaged breads at home and in restaurants.
Whole grain, packaged bread will use clean ingredients like whole-wheat flour and water but also use unclean ingredients like sugar, juice concentrates, milk and a variety of preservatives.

Tip #2: If you want to eat bread, consume local artisan bread because the processing will be substantially less.

Truly, bread isn’t the problem. Whole wheat, almond and other whole-grain flours are clean. The problem is with white flour. This is where clean eating hurts me the most. No packaged breads or white flour means no sandwiches, subs, buns, crackers, chips, cereal, granola bars, pasta, noodles, pizza, calzone, pita and basically everything we like to eat because the American diet is based on grains.

I get my bread fix by eating starchy tubers and whole grains. I eat a potato almost every day at breakfast. Getting that big starch portion first thing in the morning helps me avoid bread at lunch. At dinner, I typically cook with basmati, jasmine, brown and long grain rice.

8) Restaurants: Clean eating problems typically arise at restaurants.
However, most chain and upscale restaurants will have clean meat or fish options and whole food sides, like rice, baked potatoes (no fries!) and vegetables.

Fast-food restaurants are problematic—but not impossible. I recommend starting with the salad options. Pick off the croutons and forgive yourself for the cheese and dressing.

To be completely honest, I have a hard time eating salads from fast-food restaurants. I’m really picky about lettuce. Like, really picky. If you can’t bear to eat a fast-food salad, most places have apple slices or fruit cups on their sides menu that will hold you over until you can find clean food.

 Tip #3: Wendy’s restaurants have a variety of baked potato options.

Getting Started at the Grocery Store

After getting your fill of produce, add these clean items to your cart:

  • Unsweetened almond, soy, coconut milk or creamer
  • Honey
  • Greek yogurt
  • Organic eggs
  • Tofu
  • Beans (Black, garbanzo, kidney, navy)
  • Whole nuts (Almonds, peanuts, cashews)
  • Rice or nut crackers
  • Rice (Brown, long grain, wild)
  • Oats
  • Quinoa
  • Whole-wheat flour

Always check ingredients on packaged foods, but a few brands are pretty trustworthy:

  • Trader Joe’s
  • Kroger’s Simply Truth Organic
  • Earth Balance
  • Blue Diamond

2 New Recipes to Try for Whole Grain Salads

Lili'a Uili NevilleLili’a Uili Neville  Contact
UT Knoxville

Lili’a Uili Neville is a runner, environmentalist and health nut. Lili’a is the communications director in the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity at UT Knoxville. When she’s not at work, she is underestimating how long it will take her to complete a craft project, telling funny stories about her dog and cat or having a classy date night with her husband.

Posts represent the views, expertise and recommendations of their authors and do not necessarily reflect an endorsement by the University of Tennessee. Furthermore, the content of the blog is for informational purposes only. The content of the blog is not, and is not intended to be used as, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.