The Lowdown on Clean Eating: January’s Most Overused Phrase

Abigail Keeso, co-founder of That Clean Life, shares her crib notes


(Photo: Abigail Keeso)

While the term “dieting” seems to have gone out the door, you can’t throw a doughnut without hitting someone espousing the virtues of clean eating—basically, not mawing down on anything that comes in a box or has more than a handful of ingredients.

Clean eating isn’t a diet of restriction, however (though you do have to bid adieu to sugar, dairy and gluten); it’s one comprised of foods that are plentiful in essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients, says Toronto-based RN Abigail Keeso. “Clean eating is primarily a plant-based diet—fruits, vegetables, clean organic meats, nuts, seeds, spices—just whole food in its natural form: nothing processed, no refined sugar; basically nothing with a label on it,” she says. To encourage people to adopt a clean-eating diet, Keeso co-founded That Clean Life, a website that encourages clean eating and offers recipes, challenges and automated grocery listsAnd it’s surprisingly easy, and unprecious. Herewith, her crib notes.

Use vanity as your motivation. Keeso’s interest in clean eating started because of one of the oldest reasons around—she wanted to lose weight. And lose weight she did: 20 pounds in total. Over time, however, she realized there were far more profound physical and mental benefits. “Once I started thinking better and sleeping better and having more energy, I was like, OK, this is really good.”

Start with one meal. There’s no need to purge your pantry and say goodbye to your beloved breakfast sandwich forever—at least not yet. Keeso recommends starting slowly, eating one clean meal a day, preferably dinner. “That way you have leftovers for lunch, too, so it eventually translates into you cleaning up your dinners and lunches.” Once you’ve tamed dinner, rein in your beverage intake.  One week, cut the sugar out of your coffee. The next, kick your soda addiction. “Just make small, sustainable changes week by week, and that way you sustain them over time.”

You can do it on the cheap(ish). While Keeso eats almost 100 percent organic, she says it isn’t absolutely necessary. You can be flexible with fruits and vegetables, for example. (She notes that it’s obviously better to eat non-organic kale than no kale at all.) But she advocates eating only organic meat. “That’s one thing I’m pretty passionate about: buying ethically raised meat, organic meat, no hormones,” she says. “You can wash fruits and vegetables and while it doesn’t get rid of everything—pesticides and stuff—they pump hormones into meat. Nobody needs that.”

Cheating is not out of the question. “You don’t need to eat clean 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” says Keeso (music to our ears). “I love pizza and ice cream and all of that stuff, and I think it’s important to have it, otherwise you’re going to feel like you’re depriving yourself.” To live well and eat well, Keeso recommends adopting the 80-20 rule: eat really healthily 80 percent of the time and indulge for the rest.

Education can amp up your willpower. To truly understand the value of eating minimally processed foods, nothing will drive the message home like a terrifying documentary. Her favourites: Food Matters and King Corn, both of which she describes as “life-changing.”