We are experiencing a health crisis of epic proportions today. Obesity, diabetes, cancer, depression, anxiety and autoimmune conditions (the list goes on) are at all-time highs despite many people’s attempts to “eat right” and exercise. Dogma is rampant in the health and wellness world and marketing sends mixed signals or even outright incorrect information bases on motivations rather than actual data or facts. Western medicine can be so helpful for targeted treatment plans for some illnesses or acute conditions, but it is failing us in many ways as we are sicker than ever on the whole.
Today’s health epidemic is likely caused by many factors including but not limited to: our diets, lifestyles, and the environment we surround ourselves with. If there is one thing that most health and wellness experts agree on – it is that eating real, whole foods can significantly improve your health. I know that it is not always practicable to eat this way 100% of the time, but getting in as much real food in our diet as possible will allow you to thrive. You may notice that you are sleeping better, have more energy, fewer mood and blood sugar swings, and are even seeing improvements in your traditional health markers.
What is Real Food?
You might think that this term is not worth defining, but I want it to be super clear. Real food is food found in nature or that comes from a whole, unprocessed source. These untouched or minimal processed foods are typically the highest in nutrient density as well. Our bodies are built to recognize these foods, digest them and most importantly, utilize their nutrients (assuming that we prepare them in a way that does not harm their nutrient profile). Some examples of natural sources of food besides the obvious fruits and vegetables, include wild-caught fish and grass-fed or pastured meat, dairy and eggs. When an animal eats the food that it is meant to eat, its own meat and milk will have the highest sources of nutrient possible. An animal is what it eats so if it is eating inappropriate, inflammatory foods, this will get passed on to us when we eat it. Conventionally raised meats from animals raised in tight quarters, on feedlots have a significantly different nutrient profile than an animal raised on pasture. Butter from grass-fed cows have significantly higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which is supportive of heart health, and eggs from pasture-raised chickens have more Vitamin A, D, E, C, omega-3 fatty acids and folate than their conventional counterparts. You can often tell how nutrient-dense a food is by its color. This goes for the deep, rich colors of many fruits and vegetables as well as animal products. For example, pastured egg yolks have a much deeper color which comes from that higher nutrient content.
Dairy. If you tolerate dairy, look for non-homogenized and raw milk form of cheese and yogurt when possible. The homogenization and pasteurization process denatures the milk and significantly reduces the nutrient quality, eliminating it as a real food. At minimum, look for organic and preferably grass-fed varieties. It is definitely harder to find non-homogenized, non-pasteurized, raw dairy unless you are purchasing straight from a farm.
Produce. While all fruits and vegetables are considered real food, aim to purchase organic versions, especially when it comes to the dirty dozen. It is likely that fewer pesticides and organic growing methods allow for more nutrients in the soil, raising the nutritional content, and making these fruits and vegetables more nutrient dense. One study found organic strawberries to have more vitamin C and antioxidants than conventional strawberries while another concluded organic tomatoes have more polyphenols (an important antioxidant) than commercially grown tomatoes.
Grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. These are also considered real food, assuming that they are properly prepared and not coated in refined sugar or inflammatory oils. Purchasing these items in their natural, raw form and prepping them at home will ensure you are removing as much anti-nutrients as possible and getting the maximum nutrition. This will also allow you to control the ingredients that go into your prepared dishes as these pre-packaged foods often contain sugar, inflammatory oils and fillers which your body does not recognize as real food.
Oils and fats. Most oils and fats are found in nature and are nutrient dense, meaning they are considered real food. You have to be careful though because many oils on the market are man-made, highly-processed and the opposite of nutrient dense. These man-made oils, including canola (or rapeseed), soybean, sunflower safflower, corn and cottonseed come from tough seeds and legumes that were originally grown for industrial use. Their consumable form is only achieved through an incredible amount of processing, often times using harsh, petroleum-based chemicals to bring them to an edible form and to extend their shelf life. They are toxic and inflammatory to the human body, especially when heated, as they degrade and release volatile toxic compounds into the air and our food. The best real food oils and fats are those found in nature and have not been altered. My favorite fats for cooking include: ghee, avocado oil, coconut oil, for higher heat and butter, sesame and olive oil for lower heat cooking. Animal fats can be great too if they come from quality sources. As a general rule, consider cooking with saturated fats as they are more heat stable and have a higher smoke point. Use butter, olive oil, and polyunsaturated fats as finishers for serving. These fats have lower smoke points and easily oxidize when exposed to heat or light.
Tips for Transitioning
- Shop the perimeter of the store first – This is where you will find the bulk of the REAL food like produce, dairy, proteins etc.
- Aim for a minimum of five colors on your plate – This will ensure you are getting a variety of vitamins and minerals at each meal and are including plenty of vegetables (which tend to have the best color variety)
- Eat local whenever possible – Find a farmers market close to your house, purchase produce and meat products from Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) or grow your own food in a garden. These foods are higher in quality, are more nutrient-dense and taste better too!
- Meal prep one day a week – Planning your meals in advance and prepping items ahead of time will set you up for success. Our lives are busy today and we eat what is convenient! Set aside a few hours a week to plan out some meals and prepare parts of them ahead of time to make it easier to get real food on the table.
- Be gentle with yourself - Go slow and change things one step at a time. There is no rush to this process and no need to beat yourself up for not always eating this way. Even one small change will improve your health!