Renew You Challenge: Eat more real food today

Want to fuel up with fruit? Eat more vegetables? Ditch added ingredients? Feed your body right with these eight ideas to help reset your eating habits. 

Joy Manning
Colorful fresh vegetables and fruit.

The Renew You Challenge is the newest health and wellness experience from Renew by UnitedHealthcare® to help inspire you to take charge of your well-being every day. Every weekday in October, we’re sharing new ideas to help build up your body, mind and spirit.


By now you’ve probably heard the term “clean eating.” Over the past few years, it’s become a popular way to describe a certain kind of healthy diet, but since there’s no official definition, it can be tough to know how to go about cleaning up your eating habits. 

“Basically ‘clean eating’ means you’re eating whole, natural foods as much as possible,” says Sandra Arévalo, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It’s cooking from scratch more often than not. And if you do buy something in a package, you’re looking for a short ingredients list,” she says. 

Another typical part of eating clean is focusing on fresh foods that are loaded with good nutrition. Fortunately, you don’t have to change everything about what you eat to get moving in the right direction. Start with these eight simple strategies. Choose one or two that seem doable for you today. Then file the rest away to try over the course of the Renew You Challenge .

Clean Eating Tip #1: Look at (or Lose) the Label

When it comes to choosing foods, you want to make a habit of reading the label. “I always tell people to read the ingredients list,” says Arévalo, “not just the nutrition facts panel.” 

She suggests sticking to foods with shorter lists of ingredients that are easy to pronounce and recognize. “The fewer ingredients, the better,” she says. But the best choices of all are whole, unprocessed foods that are sold without a package and don’t have an ingredients list at all, she points out. Think: meat and fish from the butcher counter, fresh bread and fresh produce. 

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Clean Eating Tip #2: Start Out in the Produce Aisle 

Getting inspired to cook with lots of vegetables and fruits is a great way to make sure you’re eating clean. These foods are chock-full of fiber and nutrients that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says can help significantly lower the risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Yet only about one in 10 adults are meeting the recommended daily amounts, according to the CDC.

Arévalo’s solution? When you enter the grocery store, push your empty cart to the produce aisle first. 

“Almost everything in the produce section is great for clean eating,” says Arévalo. Plus, with heads of broccoli and cauliflower, apples, leafy greens, carrots and all your other favorite produce in the cart, you’ll have less room for the processed snacks you’re trying to avoid. 

Of course, fresh produce needs to be eaten fairly quickly. If you’re stocking up on groceries these days, you’ll be happy to hear that canned and frozen fruits and vegetables can be part of clean eating, too. Just be sure to choose:

  • Low-sodium canned and frozen vegetables with no sauce or added salt
  • Canned and frozen fruit with no added sugar
  • 100% fruit juice with no added sugar 

All of those extras push you out of the clean eating zone.

Clean Eating Tip #3: Upgrade Your Carbs

“Carbohydrates can definitely be clean,” says Arévalo, no matter what you may have heard during the recent anti-carb craze. Keeping your carbs clean is all about choosing whole grains like oatmeal, quinoa and brown rice, rather than refined flours.

A good place to start is by taking a look at your bread. Is whole wheat or another whole grain the first ingredient listed? If not, you can take a step toward eating cleaner by replacing it with one that is. For example, ones that are labeled as whole wheat are made of 100% whole wheat flour. Sometimes, breads that boast of grains on the label aren’t actually made with whole grains, but with refined white flour instead. 

You can also find 100% whole grain pasta, English muffins and pitas as well. If you eat white rice, trade it in for brown rice or quinoa.

Another tip for those who are having a hard time adjusting to the flavor of whole grains — do a mix of the two to help your taste buds along. One half of a sandwich could be whole wheat and the other white, for example. Or do a blend of traditional and whole wheat pasta until you’re accustomed to the new flavor.

When you make the switch to eating more whole grains, she says, you’ll benefit from getting extra fiber and nutrients that help fight inflammation and support your immune system. All of these goodies are absent in the refined versions. 

Clean Eating Tip #4: Keep Your Protein Lean

Even some natural whole foods should be enjoyed only in moderation on a clean eating plan. Fatty cuts of meat like short ribs or pork shoulder aren’t the best everyday protein choices. Fish, chicken, ground turkey, eggs and 100% grass-fed beef are good examples of lean protein, but you definitely have other options. 

“People forget about beans,” says Arévalo. “Beans offer one of the best lean protein choices in the supermarket. And there are many varieties to choose from.” Tofu is another overlooked source of quality lean protein. Both are surprisingly versatile, she adds. You can add them to pasta dishes, wraps, tacos and stir-fries.

Clean Eating Tip #5: Brush Up on Nutrition

“Older adults don’t always have the same appetite they used to, and the result is they’re eating smaller amounts or fewer meals,” says Arévalo. Others might be cutting back in an effort to lose weight for better health.

Whatever the reason, if you’re eating less, you want to be sure the foods you do enjoy are packed with the nutrition you need. Arévalo suggests keeping eggs, beans and green vegetables in regular rotation. These foods are rich in vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber — making them great choices to help keep you feeling your best.

Clean Eating Tip #6: Cook at Home Tonight

The easiest way to clean up your diet is to prepare your own meals. “Home cooking plays a huge role in clean eating,” says Arévalo. “When you’re eating food prepared at restaurants, you don’t always know what you’re eating or how it’s being prepared.” 

You don’t need to have chef-style skills in the kitchen to make wholesome delicious meals. “Really, simpler food is usually better,” she says. “I look for recipes with fewer ingredients, because they’re often healthier than more complicated recipes.”

Healthier Eating Begins Here

Eating right doesn’t have to be complicated. Find helpful nutrition tips with Renew’s nutrition and healthy eating resources. To find them, sign in to your plan website and go to Health & Wellness. Then look for Nutrition in the Quick Links section. Not a member? Learn more.  


Clean Eating Tip #7: Layer the Flavor

“People can start to lose their sense of taste a bit as they get into their late 60s and 70s,” says Arévalo. It’s often subtle, but it can lead to seeking out foods that have more fat and sodium than those that are considered “clean” foods. 

If this sounds like something you’ve been doing lately, try reaching for different spices and adding fresh herbs to your dishes. Those bold flavors turn up the volume on your food without adding salt. 

Clean Eating Tip #8: Research Restaurants

It’s a great clean eating goal to cook most of your meals yourself. Still, there will be times you’ll be ordering takeout or going to a restaurant with friends or family. A little advance planning can help keep your clean eating plan on track. 

“Many places, especially the major restaurant chains, have nutrition information for the whole menu online now,” notes Arévalo. The same rules apply here as when you’re choosing foods at the store: Less is more when it comes to ingredients, and simpler dishes often mean better nutrition. 

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Day 1: Strengthen Your Core