9 Things I Learned From Taking A “Clean Eating Challenge”

Yuganov Konstantin / Shutterstock.com)
Yuganov Konstantin / Shutterstock.com)

A few weeks ago I read about a Clean Eating Challenge that promised to make you “Feel Like A Champion At Life.” The basic principles are that the diet is low-carb and gluten-free, avoids processed foods, and emphasizes leafy greens and lean protein. The post also includes a detailed grocery list and a cooking supply list as well as recipes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for two weeks. The description claims, “This is a two-week detox plan that’s actually realistic. You’ll learn to eat healthy, feel awesome, and stay that way.” Who could resist trying something so thoroughly planned out and also good for your health?

I certainly couldn’t. I embarked on the challenge, and this is what I learned:

1. Healthy food is expensive.

After shopping for the first week’s worth of groceries I realized that I could only afford to do the challenge for one week. That first week’s haul at the grocery store cost me three times the amount I spend on food in a normal week. Calculated over an entire month, it would cost me more than my mortgage to use the recipes from this challenge. That total does not include some of the items I already had at home, including many of the canned foods, quinoa, and lentils. Nor does it include some specialty items such as tamari (a soy paste) or chia seeds (priced at $12 a bag at Whole Foods, and which I therefore refused to buy). I also did not purchase any of the cookware, utensils, or storage containers, preferring instead to work with what I already had, which in several cases involved me taking a giant salad bowl with me to the office in order to transport my lunch. If I’m going to be a clean eater, it will have to be part-time.

2. Cooking clean takes time.

In addition to being costly in money, clean eating takes time. The convenience of ordering take-out or popping a frozen pizza disappears when your meals consist largely of fruits and vegetables that have to be chopped and sautéed and roasted and blended. My typical evening looked like this: Arrive home at 6pm. Spend approximately an hour preparing dinner. Eat around 7pm while watching an episode of television. At 8pm wash the dinner dishes. I do not have a dishwasher, so this usually took about 30 minutes. Prep and assemble lunch. Around 9pm, prep or assemble breakfast, put away leftovers, and clean remaining dishes. Finish up around 9:30. With a bedtime of 10 or 11, that leaves relatively little time for things such as writing blog posts.

And that’s just the evening. With the exception of the Overnight Oats, breakfast also required some cooking each day, plus the fact that I also had to eat it at home, because neither a bowl of oatmeal nor an omelet transports very well. My usual breakfast is a Luna Bar on the way to work. The morning prep meant skipping my regular gym routine in favor of a full 8 hours of sleep.

3. Food has value.

When you spend hundreds of dollars and hours of your free time on the food you’re putting into your body, you want that food to count. No one wants to waste their money on junk, so you want your food to be nutritious and satisfying. And you want the food to taste good, because if you’re going to put energy into a project such as preparing a meal, you want it to yield something enjoyable. Committing resources to clean eating helped me appreciate it. I was invested, so I stuck to the plan.

4. Healthy food fills you up.

I have always been someone who needs to eat every few hours in order to avoid hunger. Usually I snack on granola bars, trail mix, and occasionally leftover holiday candy. With a diet consisting largely of leafy greens and protein, I found myself a) forcing down the last bites of a meal as I was already full, and b) not fighting to quiet my stomach grumblings during afternoon work meetings. In the future I will probably forego forcing down those last few forkfuls when I’m already satisfied. Since this was an experimental week, however, I was worried that if I didn’t eat everything I would feel hungry before the next meal or snack. I now have a new perspective on portions and portion control. A giant salad can satisfy both your eyes and your stomach.

5. Nutrients matter.

I’ve long been aware of the empty calories in drinks from lattes to margaritas, but I never worried too much about the emptiness of a pizza crust. In the clean eating meals, every calorie counts, and I mean that in a positive way. All of the foods I ate throughout the day and over the course of the week rounded out my daily dose of vitamins and minerals, proteins and fiber. By trying new foods throughout the week and reading the nutritional information provided with each recipe, I gained an awareness of nutrients, their proper balance, and how they benefited my body and my health.

6. Clean eating is possible, even if you aren’t a good cook.

As a notorious ruiner of recipes as simple as a tossed salad, I was intimidated by the preparation involved in this challenge. Fortunately, the challenge delivered on its promise that the cooking would be straightforward. If you followed the directions, everything came out tasting delicious. The precise, structured presentation of the recipes in the clean eating challenged appealed to me and did in fact carry me through. It turns out I can cook after all.

7. Be flexible.

The challenge introduced me to foods I never would have eaten, and to familiar foods in combinations I never would have considered. Pear with almond butter? I never would have thought to put those together, but now I have a new favorite snack. On a similar note, I also learned to improvise with ingredients. Because my local grocery store did not have all of the ingredients on the Week 1 shopping list, I changed up a few of the greens in some of the recipes, substituting collard greens for spinach on one occasion and asparagus on another. Using flaxseeds instead of the super-expensive chia seeds also worked, as did exchanging almonds for pistachios. While this limited the variety of nutrients in the diet and made some of the meals feel a bit repetitive, these substitutes were still a step up from my usual lunch of cheese and crackers or PB&J in that they were more varied and nutritious on the whole.

8. Be resourceful.

The challenge is structured to use all of the ingredients you buy, so that very little is wasted. This catered very well to my pet peeve of cooking for one, which is that very often, for complex recipes, you spend money on special spices or garnishes that you can’t use because the recipe calls for only a fraction of a tablespoon. When cooking for just myself and my husband, exotic recipes aren’t economical. The clean eating challenge showed me new ways to reuse dinner leftovers for lunch and inspired me to get creative when trying to use up ingredients I buy in the future.

9. It worked.

I felt better after eating clean for 7 days, though not fantastically better like some people expect from a cleanse. I lost a healthy amount of weight over the course of the week. I want to keep eating clean. To me this is the measure of success. Did this experience change my attitudes toward food and nutrition? Yes. Did the experience change me? Most definitely.

P.S. Miscellaneous things I learned: I need a lot more practice before I can successfully flip an omelet. Kale smoothies are not for me. Plain Greek yogurt is sour, so I think adding honey is worth the extra calories. The first day without coffee sucked, but I got over it. Chipotle has some great salads that fit the clean eating model, so that is a great option if you have to eat out. Screw college; start saving for your children’s clean eating habits now. TC mark

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