How to spring clean your eating

One way to think of clean eating is in terms of different levels of processing of foods:

  • Level 1 (More Processed): Ingredient list can be covered with the width of your thumb (less than an inch. You can pronounce all the ingredients and recognize them as foods (not chemicals)
  • Level 2: Five “real food” ingredients or less
  • Level 3: Foods that are minimally processed and as close to the source as possible
  • Level 4 (“Cleanest” or Least Processed): No ingredient list – the item itself is the one and only ingredient (think fruits, veggies and whole grains)


  • Good (or sometimes just OK): 100 percent apple juice; kettle cooked potato chip (not ideal)
  • Better: Unsweetened, natural apple sauce; mashed potatoes
  • Best: apple; baked potato

What are the benefits of clean eating?

  • More gut-friendly and digestion-boosting fiber – processed, stripped down foods give you all the sugar and none of the fiber to help with blood sugar absorption and promote gut health and good digestion. The same is true for whole grains as compared to refined grains. 
  • Less sugar, salt, and saturated or trans fats – the amount of salt, sugar, and fat we add as flavorings to our food when we cook with whole, minimally processed real foods pales in comparison to the amounts added by food manufacturers to packaged, processed foods.
  • More energy – from better blood sugar regulation and more crucial vitamins and minerals

How to get started:

  • Include more fresh fruits and veggies – and other “cleaner” foods rather than packaged, processed foods or snacks. 
  • Look for cleaner versions of your favorite foods – maybe a granola bar you eat regularly and slowly, make replacements – or better yet, make your own!
  • Slowly work your way to simple, fresh, whole foods – start from Level 1 working up to Level 4.

Don’t worry about perfection – think about the 80/20 rule. If you can work toward eating clean 80% of the time and the remaining 20% you don’t worry so much about it, you’ll be much more likely to adopt an overall cleaner way of eating that’s more sustainable.

And remember: this is not a diet but a healthy, balanced way of eating to include more whole, “real” foods for long-term, overall health.


Alison Bradow is the chronic disease prevention coordinator at the YMCA of Metropolitan Lansing. Contact her at  (517) 827-9656 or at 

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