What I Eat in a Day: A Beginner's Guide to Clean Eating to Manage Chronic Inflammation
During quarantine, more and more people have taken the time to focus on their personal wellness. More than one person has mentioned how much better they feel since cooking their own food and ultimately eating cleaner.
One of the things I like to discuss on my website are the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. It is something I am passionate about because it has helped me manage my chronic illness and feel great. In fact, I recommend you start by reading my clean-living philosophy article here, because making the commitment to eat cleaner really starts with the right mindset.
Food is either fuel or poison for your body. And once you start filling your tank with stuff that is actually good for you, you will notice a marked difference. Eating clean has helped me manage a chronic disease, my husband eliminate inflammation from an old injury, and both of us feel great overall.
With all of that being said, both of us (usually) have full time jobs and neither of us is a chef. You don’t have to prepare elaborate meals or live on kale smoothies (although they can be really good!) to eat clean. It’s about making simple switches and aiming for an 80/20 split (we still indulge in alcoholic beverages and weekend brunches on the regular). It isn’t about an obsessive lifestyle, it’s about making more purposeful decisions about what we put in our bodies, making easy switches, and limiting sugar and salt found in processed foods.
Below, I’ve outlined some of my go-to clean meals and snacks. Almost everything here requires minimal effort, which means it’s easy to implement right away and start feeling great!
What is considered “clean?”
Clean Eating Magazine put it simplest: At its simplest, clean eating is about eating whole foods, or "real" foods — those that are not processed, refined, and which are not handled, making them as close to their natural form as possible.
RULES OF THUMB:
The more ingredients you control, the better.
Most packaged foods are very processed.
Avoid large chain restaurants unless they are known for fresh, unprocessed ingredients.
Check ingredient labels for chemicals, preservatives, words you can’t pronounce, added sugars, and high sodium.
I am not a medical professional, and this is not medical advice. This is just a lifestyle that has worked for me. Self-management of chronic illnesses isn’t for everyone.
Let’s start with the most important meal of the day…and the easiest place to go off track.
Most breakfast foods are loaded with sugar. We haven’t had cereal in our house for years because most is over-processed, devoid of any nutritional value, and full of sugar. (Yes, even the ones that trick you into thinking they are “healthy.”)
Even options like yogurt can be full of aspartame (more fake sugar) and other ingredients that do not make the “clean” cut. That’s why I select my yogurt brands carefully.
What we DO NOT eat
Any sweetened yogurt
White or “whole wheat” toast (if it says “enriched” or “bleached,” it is a no)
Any traditional breakfast meat (bacon and sausage are super processed—but of course, on the weekends they are fair game!)
Instant oatmeal (sugar, sugar, sugar)
Granola bars or most breakfast bars (take a look at the sugar and ingredients)
What we DO eat
Plain, non-fat Greek yogurt with fresh fruit and sliced raw almonds
· If you need a little extra sweetness, I recommend adding sliced bananas or a drizzle of natural honey
Organic Acai Bowls
· We like the Trader Joe’s brand because they are minimally processed and don’t have any added sugar. You can top with sliced raw almonds, bananas, berries, and chia seeds for extra protein, vitamins, and fiber
· Though it’s pricey, we LOVE our Vitamix because we can make nutrition packed smoothies pretty quickly. We like to put in nuts for protein, kale, turmeric, ginger, organic mint leaves, carrots, avocados, and whatever organic fruit we have. We’ll usually buy fruit that’s on sale and cut it up and freeze it in bags to pull out whenever we need to make a smoothie.
Eggs on toast
· We prefer free-range (different than cage-free), organic eggs. And we don’t use traditional bread (bread is probably one of the most processed foods EVER in the States). We like sprouted grain bread which can be found in the frozen section. Ezekiel Bread is our go-to brand.
· Dress up your toast with tomatoes or avocados if you’re feeling fancy!
· This is rare, but we all can be in a rush sometimes. If we have to resort to a bar kind of breakfast, KIND bars have some of the cleanest ingredients. I personally hate to waste my sugar intake this early in the morning, but of all the bars, they are one of the better brands and they do have a decent amount of protein.
Y’all, snacks are IMPORTANT. I am not about counting calories. If I’m hungry, it’s because my body needs fuel and as long as I’m providing it with quality food, then I eat until I’m not hungry.
Having clean snacks on hand will make your life so much easier. Conversely, making sure you do NOT have processed snacks around means you will not be tempted by their sodium-laden deliciousness. Seriously, that stuff is addictive, and I know that if I succumbed to BOGO Cheez-Its at the store, those boxes would be GONE in days.
What we DO NOT eat
Any kind of chips—even those chips pretending to be vegetables, because who are they kidding?
Pretzels—I used to eat these ALL THE TIME, but they’re really just refined sugar like bread and have zero nutritional value
Any “diet bars” or “health” bars—seriously, look at the ingredients of a Nature Valley Bar or Cliff Bar. Nature Valley Bars are essentially cookies and Cliff Bars are fine if you are going to climb a mountain during your coffee break
Any sugared beverages—period. No soda, no sugar coffees, etc
What we DO eat
Fruit, fruit, fruit—any kinds, all kinds, all the time
Organic nuts—I love almonds or cashews. Back to Nature has only two ingredients: nuts, sea salt. Trader Joe’s has some good organic varieties as well.
Almond butter with apple or banana—check the label for the least amount of ingredients and the sugar content
Carrots or peppers with hummus—I like the carrot chips and HOPE humus is one of my go-to brands
Sliced avocado—add a little sea salt and pepper!
Hard boiled eggs
High quality cheese (small piece)—I have cheese almost every day. But make it decent cheese—not that Kraft singles junk.
Caprese salad—cut up some grape tomatoes, mozzarella, chopped basil, and add balsamic. Or make it a Turkish salad. I chop up red onion, peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes and add feta cheese.
I give myself a little slack on lunch since I’m usually at the office. But I’ll bring a number of the snacks mentioned above and then bring something easy to heat up or keep in the refrigerator. I figure if I’m eating enough healthy snacks throughout the day and a small, relatively clean lunch, I can make dinner the main event.
What I DO NOT eat
Salad—Yep, you read that right. There’s usually a salad bar or salad options at work or most restaurants, but I think salads are tricky. Unless it’s a primarily VEGGIE based salad (like the ones I mentioned above for a snack), I think salads are nutritionally deficient and unsatisfying. Lettuce counts for nothing and most salads have very little vegetables on them. Once you add any “toppings” and most salad dressings, they aren’t even healthy any more. And don’t even get me started on salads that include “crispy chicken” or cesear salads or “garden” salads.
Restaurant/fast food/take out—Typically, most restaurants are just full of salty, processed foods. Unless it’s a restaurant that you know makes its food fresh, most places are going to have food that is NOT clean. If we want to get take-out food, our usual go-to is Chipotle since we know they are all about keeping it as clean as possible. There’s a couple local Greek places we like, but any of the “big box” type restaurants (Olive Garden, Red Robin, Applebee’s, Chili’s, etc) we never go to.
Frozen “diet meals” or packaged lunches—They might be low in calories, but they are also usually high in sodium and probably leave you feeling hungry.
What I DO eat
Black bean burgers—get a good brand. Dr. Praeger’s is pretty good, Morning Star is a decent alternative (although some of their products have a lotttttttt of ingredients in them). I’ll either eat it with avocado and tomato, or put it on Ezekiel sprouted grain bread. If you want more protein, you can add a fried egg!
Avocado egg salad—just replace the mayo with mashed avocado! So delicious! Get fancy and add grape tomatoes and balsamic.
Soup with Ezekiel bread—I love Trader Joe’s lentil soup for protein, but their tomato soup is also good.
Leftovers from clean, homemade dinners
Dinner is not about counting calories or making “low-fat” diet foods. It’s about making something delicious after a long day of work that we are going to ENJOY.
The great thing about eating clean is that it’s a lifestyle and not a diet. So as long as you are using good ingredients, you can almost make whatever you would like (within reason) and not have to worry about if it’s a “health food.” Food is good fuel if your body has to actually WORK to break it down (processed food is already partly processed for you).
We do follow the 80% rule at dinner—so we may sometimes have naan with our meals or other semi-processed foods, but we try to select brands that are not full of additives and chemicals.
What I DO NOT eat
Pasta—not because we don’t love it or because I think carbs are the devil, but unless I want to make my own pasta, store bought pasta is in the processed/enriched flour category. I have heard of pastas made from chick peas or black beans, but I haven’t tried them myself.
Salads—see above. And I’m just going to be hungry five minutes later.
Red meat—we aren’t full vegetarians, but we do limit our meat intake. And when we eat meat, it’s typically organic/farm-raised. We almost never eat red meat at all unless we are out at a nice restaurant having steak.
What I DO eat
Really, almost anything else. We try to incorporate vegetables into each meal and keep to vegetarian dishes most nights of the week.
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Pesto Chicken Genovese with roasted veggies and sweet potatoes—we get the chicken from Trader Joe’s and just put everything on a pan in the oven. Add a little olive oil, toss with some salt and papper, bake. Easy, delicious, and healthy!
Indian food—we loooooove curries and rice. This lentil coconut curry is great for leftovers!
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Moroccan Tagine—you can substitute turkey or chicken instead of sausage
I pickle the cucumbers and onions for a little extra flavor. If you want to skip the naan, you can substitute rice instead. Make a nice Turkish salad (chopped peppers, cucumbers, red onions, red peppers, feta, balsamic) for a side.
Yes, we eat dessert! During the week, I limit my added sugar intake to almost nothing (weekends are for ice cream and key lime pie!). We try to satisfy our sweet cravings during the week with mostly fruit-based desserts.
Acai bowls—the organic, no-sugar added packets from Trader Joe’s are great!
Fruit smoothies—seriously, our VitaMix is THE BEST. It’s a little pricey, but if you can get it for a gift or on sale, it will seriously make eating clean sooooo much easier!
“Fun” yogurt—ok, here is where you can have those yogurts you used to eat for breakfast. The Yoplait Whips Key Lime or Chobani Flips Key Lime are both DELICIOUS, but totally a dessert.
Fruit salad—go for something super sweet like watermelon, pineapple, or honey mangoes.
Dark chocolate—a couple pieces are fine!
Yasso popsicles—we discovered that these are actually pretty satisfying and a bit “healthier” than my Blue Bell ice cream addiction.
Eating clean shouldn’t feel like torture where you are constantly hungry and never satisfied with your food. That sounds like one of those awful fad diets. Ideally, you should feel great while eating clean—and you’ll quickly realize that when you go back to eating processed foods, your body kind of rejects them.
Both Andrew and I have really loved eating this way. It provides us with flexibility to enjoy some of the indulgences in life, but overall we feel so much better. Our energy levels are higher, my chronic gut problems have resolved, and Andrew, who used to have chronic reflux, hasn’t taken any medication for it in over a year.
Try a couple of these suggestions and find what works for you. And then let me know if you find any good recipes! I’m always looking for new ones!