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Like many of you, I am always on the lookout for ways for my family to eat healthier and ways to teach a healthier approach to food to my children.
For the past couple of years, I have been hearing a lot about “real food” and have started doing a lot of research into what exactly constitutes real food, why it’s so important for our bodies to consume it, and what is so bad about processed foods that we should cut them out of our diet.
Hopefully, some of what I have learned may be beneficial to some of you, so I thought I would share it with you here.
First things first: what is real food?
At the most basic level, real food is eating whole foods, or foods in their most natural state. This means eating tons of fruits and vegetables, whole wheat and whole grains, and using only natural sweeteners (like honey, maple syrup, and sugar in its most natural state- no white sugar!) in moderation.
Dairy products should be organic, whole (no skim milk or reduced fat cheese), and ideally from pasture-raised and grass-fed animals. Milk is even better if it’s raw, or unpasteurized. This is not available everywhere, however, so then just buy organic.
Yogurt should be unsweetened.
Meats should come from grass-fed cows, and poultry from pasture-raised chicken. Ideally, you should buy these locally, as well as your milk and eggs.
Snacks should be dried fruit, seeds, nuts, popcorn (made yourself, not that stuff in the box that you stick in the microwave), and any homemade treats using whole foods.
Finally, drink mostly water. Whole milk, 100% juice with no sugar added, tea, coffee, beer, and wine can be had in moderation.
Wondering what specifically to avoid if you want to switch to a real food diet? There are five main things to watch out for.
For me, the biggest thing is to stop buying any packaged product that has more than five ingredients on the label or ingredients that you either can’t pronounce or wouldn’t cook with at home (maltodextrin anyone?).
Next, you’ll want to cut out refined grains such as white flour or white rice. You’ll also need to stop buying anything with refined sweeteners like white or brown sugar, corn syrup, cane juice and anything with artificial sweeteners (no Splenda!).
Another one that will be tough for most of us Southerners is not having deep-fried foods (oh, fried chicken, how I’ll miss you!), though you can make healthier deep-fried-imitation side dishes with veggies, such as this fried kohlrabi for example.
Lastly, and this might be the hardest of all in today’s fast-paced, go-go-go society: no more “fast food” – you may need to cook some of your meals at home rather than eating out except on the rare occasion.
There are a few things to consider that will make it a little easier to make the switch. The easiest thing to do is to simply up your intake of fruits and vegetables. You’ll naturally be eating a more real food diet without even thinking about it.
Your produce should ideally be all organic, and locally sourced at that, but that can get a little pricey. In that case, stick to the “dirty dozen” for your organic shopping.
These are thinner-skinned fruits and veggies that any pesticides used on or near them can easily get into the “meat” of the food itself. These are apples, bell peppers, blueberries, celery, cucumbers, grapes, lettuce, nectarines, peaches, potatoes, spinach, and strawberries.
Another tip is to buy your bread from a local bakery, if you don’t want to or don’t have the time to bake it at home. You’re much more likely to get a real food product that way. For pasta, cereals, and crackers, just remember to go whole grain.
Whole grain products are far less likely to have added sugars or chemicals.
One final suggestion is to always avoid any store-bought products that list sugar or high-fructose corn syrup as one of the first ingredients on the label.
So what’s so bad about processed food? For an in-depth analysis, I refer you to Michael Pollan’s eye-opening book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. It’s truly game-changing, in my opinion. For the purpose of this article, however, let me just point out that 4 of the top 10 chronic diseases- coronary artery disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer- “can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food” (see above referenced-book).
Further, processed foods are normally loaded with added sugar. Just check out the ingredients on a jar of marinara versus a homemade batch, or a bottle of balsamic vinaigrette. It will blow you away what things manufacturers will add sugar to (see the mention of diabetes above).
Not only that, but all of the chemically-processed foods we are eating actually are engineered to make you want to eat more of them. No wonder countries with a more “Western” diet are the most obese in the world. Food addiction is real, folks, and it makes processed food even more damaging than all the artificial stuff used to create it.
I really could write several pages just on the topic of the evils of processed food, but, other than Mr. Pollan’s awesome book, I’ll just say that there are a ton of articles online dealing with this topic, and I highly recommend you doing some research on it.
Enough about that, though. What are some practical ways that you can simply and easily get started on the path to a real food diet and a healthier lifestyle? The first steps really could not be easier:
- Replace margarine with butter (preferably organic).
- Replace vegetable and canola oils with olive and coconut oils.
- Replace white flour with whole wheat (white wheat flour IS wheat flour, just a different variety and is milder-tasting, so for picky eaters, this is a great real food choice) and white rice with brown rice.
- Increase your veggie intake. You should ideally have at least one with each meal.
- Cut out soda. Completely. No exceptions.
- Replace store-bought, sugar-laden treats with homemade, real food goodies.
- Buy local and organic whenever possible.
- Try healthy techniques for grilling on your barbecue.
Follow these 8 steps and you will be eating a much more wholesome diet in no time.
Some of these steps can be a bit pricey, especially trying to go all organic and buying locally. (Look for another article coming soon on how to eat real on a budget. I’ll have some great tips for you!) Remember, though, that they are more expensive for a reason. It costs more money to farm this way, and local farmers have to make a living off of their profits.
Can’t really afford to do that step right now? That’s okay. Make the changes you can make today, or next week, and you’ll get there in time. You’ll feel better just knowing that you are making the strides to fuel your body with better food to make a better YOU.
Eating a real food diet can lead to higher energy levels, weight loss, improved regularity (that’s what naturally happens when you eat more fruits and vegetables), and an overall sense of improved physical well-being. If you need more help figuring out what diet plan may be the best for you, read our helpful article that analyzes the pros and cons of seven popular diet plans.
There are so many reasons to make this lifestyle change, and many more reasons why it’s harmful not to do so. I hope this article points some of you in the right direction.
About Ashley Martell
Ashley has enjoyed creative writing since she was six years old, when she wrote her first short story. She majored in English literature at the University of Montevallo. After years of professional work, she is now a stay-at-home mom of three, who uses her craft to write about her life and adventures in and out of the kitchen.