As a dietitian, I’ve been hearing the term “clean eating” for quite some time. It’s a phrase used all over the nutrition and wellness world.
At its root, clean eating is meant to help an individual remove “impurities” from their foods, such as dyes and additives, while focusing on eating more “whole foods,” or foods in their natural form. Clean eating demands that meals are cooked entirely from scratch, using only organic and unprocessed foods.
Usually, a client will bring this concept up to me as a way to detox or restart their diet, or even lose weight. And though this phrase might help my clients rethink their health and spur them on the track to a healthier lifestyle, it also has the potential to be deeply demoralizing.
Particularly for my clients who live in food deserts.
What is a food desert?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines a food desert as an area that lacks the accessibility to foods that allow for a wide range diet, like:
- affordable fruits
- whole grains
People in these areas live more than a mile away from a supermarket and have little access to transportation.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reports more than 23 million Americans — including 6.5 million children — live in food deserts across the country. HHS estimates that in 2008, over 49 million people had limited access to adequate food and experienced food insecurity.
Since the 1990s, there’s been a known link between poverty and food availability. A 2014 report in John Hopkins Magazine notes, however, that when looking at communities with similar poverty rates, African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods often have fewer supermarkets and more corner stores that lack fresh food options.
Society’s pressure to eat ‘clean’ can leave these individuals feeling defeated
For those who live in food deserts, figuring out how to feed their family can be a stressful task. The concept of “clean eating” simply adds to this tension. And much of the stress associated with clean eating stems from media and bloggers who push these “perfectly clean” lifestyles.
Often, this narrative is paired with words which put a moral value on certain food items. For instance, organic is “healthy,” processed is “bad.”
While pushing the concept of eating “clean” and moralizing certain foods might be intended to inspire rather than discourage, it often leaves my clients feeling defeated and guilty for not being able to afford this type of lifestyle.
Stress from clean eating can mean forgoing certain nutrients
As mentioned before, the pressure to eat “clean,” “organic,” or “whole” can cause tremendous stress. It can also result in restrictions of certain foods — often those that provide us with the most nutrients.
For people who live in food deserts without access to organic or fresh produce, there’s often a dilemma: Either eat nonorganic, frozen or canned fruits and veggies, or opt out entirely.
Often, they skip produce as a result of the pressure that these aren’t “clean” options.
Skipping fruits and vegetables, however, leads to missing out on the essential nutrients found in fruits and veggies. But the reality is that the importance of these vitamins and minerals far surpasses that of any need for food to be “clean” or “organic.”
Learning how to make healthy choices
In addition to helping my clients move away from the notion that certain foods are “good” while others are “bad,” I also talk with them about the pressure to always cook from scratch.
While cooking food themselves makes food “cleaner” because they know what’s in it, it’s not always realistic.
As their dietitian, I instead strive to teach them that making sure they and their family are fed is key. Moreover, if they live in a food desert and don’t have a supermarket nearby they can shop at, it’s important to know how to make healthy choices anywhere at any time.
For example, if my clients live close to fast-food restaurants or pizzerias, I’ll have them bring in the menu from these places. We’ll highlight all the great choices they can make without the added sense of guilt or shame.
Some of these choices can include:
- opting for fruit over fries
- a burger without the bun
- a margherita pizza instead of a meat-heavy one
7 money-saving tips for healthy eating without judgement
Let’s be honest. Just because someone doesn’t live in a food desert doesn’t necessarily mean they can afford to “eat clean.” That said, it’s important to make sure variety and flavors are added to everyday meals, as this is important to nourishing the body.
Moreover, learning how to make these fruits and veggies last is equally important, especially for people on a tight budget.
Here are a few tips to help you get started:
1. Buy in bulk
Buying in bulk can be a great way to save money. You can buy almost any fruit and veggie in bulk, especially if you’re buying frozen or canned.
Buying bulk fruits and veggies can allow you to preplan healthy snacks to take to work for the week while stretching out your paycheck.
I also tend to buy my proteins in bulk and then freeze them when I get home. This allows me to always have a variety of proteins to choose from on any given day.
2. Add variety
I come from a Hispanic household that ate rice and beans every day. So, whenever I try to get my parents to try new things, it’s a struggle. They’re so used to our cultural foods and sometimes afraid to try new things.
But new things can be good! Not only does switching up meals help keep things exciting, it’s part of having a healthy relationship with food.
Here are some ways you can do this:
- Add color through fruits and veggies, such as spinach, onions, and blackberries.
- Add texture by switching up how you cook foods. If you typically fry foods, try steaming or baking them instead.
- Don’t be afraid to buy that different-looking veggie that’s on sale. Experiment a little!
3. Buy frozen
Contrary to popular belief, frozen fruits and veggies are healthy.
In fact, all produce that’s frozen is flash-frozen as soon as they’re picked. This means they’re at their peak ripeness, so you’re getting the most nutrients out of them.
It’s important to note that sometimes our produce travels so far to get to our markets that they can lose flavor and nutrients, so buying frozen helps avoid this.
Adding fruits and veggies, regardless of the form they’re in, is key for health, as they provide us with essential nutrients.
Here are some meal ideas with different frozen fruits and veggies to add:
- morning smoothies with frozen strawberries, blueberries, or raspberries
- breakfast omelets with frozen spinach, broccoli, or peppers
- overnight oats with frozen blueberries or raspberries
- pasta dishes with frozen peas, peppers, broccoli, or spinach
4. Buy canned
Much like frozen, canned fruits and veggies are processed at their peak ripeness.
When purchasing canned fruits and vegetables, make sure to look for options that are in water or natural fruit juice. You’ll also want to purchase canned items that contain less sodium.
All three of these will make for a healthier choice. You can also rinse after draining them. This helps reduce the amount of sodium and sugar that’s added during the canning process.
Try the following dish ideas:
- salads with canned corn, green beans, or peas
- cereal with canned mango or peaches
- smoothies with canned pineapple, mango, or peaches
- casseroles with canned corn, green beans, potatoes, or peas
5. Buy dried carbohydrates
Having a good relationship with carbs is key for a healthy lifestyle. Carbs make up about half of our daily caloric needs. Making good, healthy choices will help eliminate some of the stress surrounding them.
Moreover, buying them dried makes for quick meals. Try adding these carbs to your diet:
- dried beans, such as black, pinto, and lima beans
- dried fruits, such as raisins, apricots, and banana chips
- pastas, such as spaghetti, penne, or farfalle (bowties)
6. Switch up the greens
Typically, when we think about the main salad ingredient, we think about lettuce, especially romaine. It’s time to mix it up!
Eating different types of greens provides you with a variety of nutrients needed for health. Plus, you won’t get bored with your salad.
Luckily, there are so many other delicious and nutritious greens that can be added to salads, entrees, and side dishes. They can add tons of flavor and nutrients to your dishes.
Here are some to get you started (and remember, these can also be frozen or canned):
- Brussels sprouts
7. Storing food properly makes it last longer
Storing foods is just as important as making sure you buy a variety and, if possible, in bulk. You want to ensure that what you buy won’t go bad before you get to eat it.
There are a number of great resources available on how to store food, like from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
In addition, here are a few points to remember:
Produce you should refrigerate:
- Brussels sprouts
Produce not to refrigerate:
Produce to keep in cool, dark, dry cabinets:
Remember that you must do what works for you and your family. Clean eating might not be available for everyone, or you simply might not feel comfortable doing it for several reasons. This is OK.
Rather, value that people are fed, happy, and healthy, and begin to reflect on how certain trends affect so many of our population.
Dalina Soto, MA, RD, LDN, is founder and bilingual registered dietitian at Nutritiously Yours, based in Philadelphia. Dalina received her bachelor’s in nutritional sciences from Penn State University and completed her master’s and dietetic internship at Immaculata University. Throughout her career, Dalina has worked in the community of Philadelphia helping clients ditch diets and eat healthy. Follow her on Instagram.