No, it’s not all about making sure those carrots are squeaky clean before chowing down (though that’s probably not a bad idea). While there’s no hard and fast definition, clean eating is all about consuming only whole foods (think: fruits, vegetables, and whole grains), while avoiding processed and fast foods at all costs. The idea is to promote health and encourage individuals to become aware of what they are eating (plus the benefits of lowering sugar, sodium, and artificial ingredient intake).

So what’s the fuss all about, and should you try it too? Due to the lack of super-strict rules attached to this lifestyle, its popularity may lie in its ability to encourage healthier eating by allowing people to pick the foods they like and reap healthy rewards.

What’s the Deal?

While the term “clean eating” is relatively new, the concept originates from the 1960’s and its (hippy-dippy) health-focused condemnation of diets containing high amounts of processed foods. (Keep in mind not all processed foods are equal: They span a spectrum ranging from minimally processed items like the bag of spinach you get at the grocery store, to heavily processed foods like the frozen fish or chicken nuggets in the back of the freezer.) The closer your foods are to the minimally-processed side, the closer you are to eating clean.

The “rules” of eating clean can vary widely, and it’s important to note that this diet isn’t really about losing or gaining weight—it’s just about eating healthier. While some serious clean eaters choose to forego anything that’s been processed at all—meaning they’ll stick to fresh-picked produce, and will pass on supermarket meats, dairy, and grains. Others choose more lenient plans, focusing on eating only whole foods (even if they’ve undergone some minimal processing), allowing conventional supermarket meat, veggies, and grains (though loaf bread with unrecognizable ingredients is probably off limits).

Why It Matters

The benefits to eating whole foods are plentiful. Research shows that eating fresh fruits and vegetables can aid in the prevention and control of weight gain, which can lead to a host of chronic diseasesA qualitative study of perceived barriers to fruit and vegetable consumption among low-income populations, north Carolina, 2011. Haynes-Maslow L., Parsons S.E., Wheeler S.B., et. al. Department of Health Policy and Management, CB 7411, Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC. Preventing Chronic Disease, 2013 Mar;10:E34.. Plus, studies suggest a diet rich in these healthy food groups can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and stroke (to name a few!). The consumption of a variety of whole grains and legumes has been linked to reduced risk of diabetes, tooCereal grains, legumes and diabetes., Venn B.J., Mann J.I. Department of Human Nutrition, University of Otago, New Zealand. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2004 Nov;58(11):1443-61..

And we’re not the only ones on board with upping veggie intake: The US Dietary Guidelines for 2010 (the most recent) encourage eating more fruits, veggies, and whole grains and reducing the amount of sugary beverages like soda and juice.

Adding more vegetables and quinoa to the plate are great, but cutting down on the added salt and sugar is also important to clean eating (and overall health). Research shows a reduction of dietary salt intake can help delay or prevent hypertension and decrease the chances of cardiovascular related health issues and deathSalt and hypertension: is salt dietary reduction worth the effort? Frisoli T.M., Schmieder R.E., Grodzicki T. St Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center, New York, New York. American Journal of Medicine, 2012 May;125(5):433-9.. Additionally, 80 percent of trans fats come from processed foods (the other 20 percent take place naturally in meat and dairy products) — yikes! These trans fats increase LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels that are linked to increased cardiovascular related health issues.

Is It Legit?

All signs point to yes (though we’re not saying “all clean, all the time” is definitely the way to go). While it might not be necessary for everyone to eat clean, there don’t seem to be any downsides (other than having to pass on that nitrate-packed chili cheese dog at the ball park). Clean eating is more of a lifestyle than a diet, and its flexibility leave a lot of accountability up to each individual. The key is to being a successful clean eater is eliminating as much processed food as possible.And the great part is that it allows a high level of customization (not a fan of Brussels sprouts? No problem!). As with any change in diet or food consumption, it is always recommended to consult a health care professional (such as your doctor or registered dietitian) who may have suggestions on the best way to get started.

It’s also important to note that allowing yourself a cheat day (or meal, or week-long vacation) every once in a while can actually help you stick to that healthier diet for the long-term. Some research suggest that the occasional cheat day can actually boost metabolism by upping leptin production, which can help the body burn more calories after overeating (at least temporarily). Restricting calories can cause leptin levels (the hormone responsible for maintaining our energy balance and helping with weight loss) to decrease, but temporarily increasing calorie intake can also give a boost to leptin productionEffects of short-term carbohydrate or fat overfeeding on energy expenditure and plasma leptin concentrations in healthy female subjects. Dirlewanger M., di Vetta V., Guenat E., et al. Institute of Physiology, University of Lausanne, Switzerland. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, 2000 Nov;24(11):1413-8.Plasma leptin responses to fasting in Pima Indians. Pratley R.E., Nicolson, M., Bogardus C., et al. Clinical Diabetes and Nutrition Section, Phoenix Epidemiology and Clinical Research Branch, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, Arizona. The American Journal of Pysiology, 1997 Sep;273(3 Pt 1):E644-9.. It’s that bump that can briefly increase metabolism (by about 30 percent, for up to 24 hours). Plus, you deserve a little reward on Friday night after a long week of healthy eating!

Want to try eating clean yourself? Making time to prepare meals each day can be tough. To make it easier, some suggest creating shopping lists for the week, month, or season and keep the list simple and manageable. Cooking double batches of a recipe can help save time, and you’ll have healthy leftovers to take to work or school the next day. The extra planning may be worth it for the body and the wallet: Research shows that foods from convenience stores are less healthy and more expensive than a well-budgeted and planned out menu from items purchased in a grocery storeCost of eating: whole foods versus convenience foods in a low-income model. McDermott A.J., Stephens M.B. Department of Family Medicine, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, MD. Family Medicine, 2010 Apr;42(4):280-4..

Introducing whole fruit and veggie smoothies and juices to your breakfast routine, as well as experimenting with new and creative salads and soups for lunch is a great way to eat cleaner each day. Another way to eat cleanly and effectively is to read each food label (including ingredients!) carefully, and to see how many nutrients the food gives you per serving; there’s nothing wrong with being aware of what’s going in that body and how it makes you feel! Plus, reading the ingredient list is often a clear giveaway as to whether a food would be considered “clean”—a long list of unpronounceable and unrecognizable ingredients is a sure giveaway that something’s been over-processed and loaded with not-so-healthy stuff.