When you make your weekly shopping list, do most of the items come in boxes, cans, or other packaging? Are the foods full of ingredients you can barely pronounce? If so, you and your family might not be getting all the vitamins and nutrients you need to stay healthy. You may want to trade those processed foods for whole foods and start eating clean, says Dr. Jonathan Wright, coauthor with Linda Larsen of Eating Clean For Dummies® (Wiley, 2011, $19.99). “Just as you’d like to live in a house free of clutter, you need to remove clutter from your diet. That means throwing out the junk foods, refined sugar, additives, preservatives, trans fats, white flour, artificial flavors, and toxins that can be so prevalent in processed foods.”
The eating clean plan calls you to do the following:
- Eat the foods made by nature, not man.
- Plan to eat five or six meals and snacks throughout the day.
- Avoid processed foods (in other words, anything in a box with a label).
- Use healthful cooking methods.
- Eat before you become super hungry.
- Stop eating when you’re satisfied, not stuffed.
- Don’t count your calories, fat grams, or points.
- Enjoy and appreciate its flavor.
“Remember, eating clean is not a diet,” says Dr. Wright. “It’s a lifestyle. It does not include a complicated regimen that restricts entire categories of food. With fewer chemicals to deal with, your body becomes better able to concentrate on keeping you healthy.”
Here are the 10 foods you should always include on your eating clean shopping list. They’re great because they’re versatile, inexpensive, and contain the most potent phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals your body needs to be at its best.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has ranked sweet potatoes as number one in nutrition. They’re loaded with fiber, protein, complex carbohydrates, vitamins, potassium, magnesium, zinc, carotenoids, iron, and calcium. They have more than twice the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of vitamin A, more than 40 percent of the RDA of vitamin C, and four times the RDA for beta carotene. And each one contains only about 130 calories.
Bake sweet potatoes, slit them open, and stuff them with low-fat or Greek yogurt mixed with tomatoes and celery. Or cut them into sticks, toss with olive oil and paprika, and bake until crisp. And eat the skin. Most of the fiber is located there; the flesh right under the skin is highest in nutrients.
Wild salmon contains high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, protein, and vitamin D. It’s also a great source of niacin, selenium, and vitamins B12 and B6. Eating salmon also helps prevent heart disease and diseases caused by inflammation. Scientists have found that omega-3 fatty acids can help slow the degenerative effects of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. These fatty acids can also help lower the risk of depression and aggressive behavior.
Eating salmon twice a week can lower the level of triglycerides in your blood and can improve heart function. Choose wild salmon over farmed salmon because the latter can be high in mercury and toxic chemicals called PCBs, including lead and other heavy metals.
Use it to sauté foods, as the fat in almost any baking or cooking recipe, in salad dressings, and when frying. Most of the fatty acids in olive oil are omega-9s, which are monounsaturated fats that can help lower total blood cholesterol levels. Extra-virgin olive oil is made from the first pressing of olives, without heat, so it’s high in vitamin E and phenols, both of which are powerful antioxidants. And it has a wonderful flavor.
When cooking with olive oil, remember that unrefined extra-virgin olive oil has a smoke point (the point at which the oil begins to break down and emit smoke) of about 375 degrees, which is slightly above the ideal temperature for sautéing or frying food but lower than the smoke points of other oils. So use ordinary (not extra-virgin) olive oil, which has a higher smoke point (up to 430 degrees), for frying and long-sautéed recipes. Save the extra-virgin stuff for salad dressings and baking.
This category includes broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, Kohlrabi, cabbage, kale, and bok choy. Many studies have found a link between eating these veggies and protecting the body from cancer. As a bonus, these veggies are high in antioxidants, which help prevent oxidation and damage from free radicals.
Be careful not to overcook them. Because they have a high sulfur content, overcooking releases that chemical and gives them an unappealing taste. Steam lightly or eat them raw to keep your body (and your tongue) happy.
Did you know nuts are actually seeds? It’s true; any one nut contains every nutrient needed to support the sprouting and growth of an entire young tree. The many nutrients nuts provide offer benefits to you, too:
- Essential fatty acids and monounsaturated fats: Help lower LDL cholesterol and reduce the risk of blood clots
- Vitamin E: Helps reduce plaque development in your arteries
- Fiber: Lowers blood cholesterol levels
- Plant sterols: Lower blood cholesterol levels
The best choices include walnuts, almonds, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, and pecans. Why aren’t peanuts on that list? Peanuts aren’t technically nuts. They’re legumes, like peas and beans. And remember: nuts lose many non-mineral nutrients to oxidation when roasted, so eat them raw whenever possible.
These fruits are high in vitamins E, C, and K, potassium, oleic acid, folate, antioxidants, and phytochemicals (which stop free radical damage). The fat in avocados is monounsaturated, which means it lowers blood cholesterol levels. Plus, avocados contain beta-sitosterol, which is a phytochemical that also reduces cholesterol.
Use them as a sandwich spread instead of mayonnaise or butter. Just mash an avocado with a little lemon or lime juice and spread it on whole wheat rolls or bread. Include avocados in salads, eat them plain as a snack, and use them on burgers and grilled sandwiches.
To get the most nutrients for the fewest calories, eat foods like kale, collard greens, romaine lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, and escarole. They’re rich in vitamins and minerals, especially vitamins C, K, E, the B complex, potassium, and magnesium, as well as phytonutrients, including lutein, quercetin, zeaxanthin, and beta carotene.
A diet rich in dark, leafy greens can help reduce the risk of atherosclerosis and heart disease, prevent diabetes and osteoporosis, and reduce the risk of developing cancer. Eat greens raw, cook them in soups and stews, or stir-fry them.
Curry powder is a blend of several spices high in antioxidants and phytochemicals. The most important ingredient is turmeric, which provides a yellow color and subtle rich flavor. Turmeric contains curcumin, a powerful phytochemical.
People who consume a lot of turmeric-containing curry powder have lower cancer rates, lower rates of Alzheimer’s disease, less inflammation, and improved memory. Curcumin has also been shown to slow the progress of prostate cancer. Sprinkle it on salads, use it in salad dressings, and add it to stir-fries and even your breakfast smoothie. Buy curry powder in mild or spicy blends, or make your own (include plenty of turmeric).
Berries (especially blueberries)
Berries are a sweet treat and make a delicious dessert. Strawberries are an excellent source of vitamin C and contain phytochemicals that can help fight cancer. Blueberries, especially wild blueberries, are one of the most healthful foods on earth, with the highest antioxidant content of all fresh fruit.
Dried berries have as many nutrients as fresh. They’re higher in calories, though, because they have less water. Still, they’re a wonderful snack when eaten in moderation. And don’t forget frozen berries. They’re harvested at their peak and often processed right in the field. Frozen berries can have more nutrients than fresh berries, which may have been shipped for miles. These fruits are also high in fiber, which can help you feel full longer and can reduce blood cholesterol levels. Add berries to green salads, fruit salads, and cereal, and eat them as a snack.
Garlic and onions
These are good sources of allyl sulfides, phytochemicals that can help reduce the risk of cancer and calm inflammation. They’re also high in polyphenols and flavonoids, which prevent oxidation and stop free radical damage. Garlic can help lower cholesterol levels, too.
Chop or crush garlic and let it sit for a few minutes at room temperature before cooking it. That helps preserve the allicin content, even after the garlic is cooked. Because the flavonoids in onions are concentrated near the skin, peel them as little as possible.
“Even though these foods are the cream of the crop in terms of nutrients, fiber, and good fats, don’t limit yourself to these choices,” says Dr. Wright. “Instead, use them as a jumping off point. Experiment with new foods weekly to help you stay interested in your clean eating plan and to ensure that you’re getting as many nutrients as possible in every bite you take. Don’t be afraid to try new cuisines and new combinations, too. Combine leafy greens with curry powder, coat your salmon with chopped nuts before baking, and cook broccoli or Brussels sprouts with garlic and olive oil. The possibilities are endless.”
Dr. Jonathan Wright, MD, a holistic doctor, is the author of several books, publishes the monthly newsletter Nutrition and Healing, and hosts the radio show Green Medicine. Linda Larsen is a nutritionist, recipe creator, and the author of 29 books.