What’s all this buzz about real food? Are you ready for clarity on the ins and outs of the food choices we make?
Great, I’m here to guide you.
Real food is simple, but it’s not always easy to understand.
Every day we are bombarded with conflicting nutrition advice and the latest diet trends. These messages can feel overwhelming to say the least.
What if you could break free from the rollercoaster ride the media takes us on; trading in overwhelm for empowerment?
My goal with this guide is to walk you through the definition of real food, the reasons for its importance, where to find it, and considerations for who may benefit from REAL FOOD and the journey towards primal living.
Using the practical knowledge and simple tips from this guide, you’ll feel confident that you can make food choices you feel good about for you and your family, getting the nutrition you need to reach peak performance.
What is real food?
Real food is food that is found in nature; growing and living on a farm, in the forest, in the grasslands, in the ocean, in the rivers, or in your backyard garden.
Real food is whole, unprocessed (or minimally processed) and we recognize exactly where it came from. (You can picture an apple hanging from an apple tree. What about an apple strudel pop-tart?)
Nothing’s been added or taken away. It doesn’t need a package or a label because it contains ONE ingredient!
Consider the foods eaten 10,000 years ago. The ancestral bites; the food the Earth provided; the sustenance that supported our evolution and allowed our species to flourish. The foods that tradition was first built on and celebrated around.
How to tell if it’s real food (or not)
10,000 – or even just 100’s of years ago – people didn’t have to question whether the food they ate was real. They had issues of food scarcity and safety, but the food industry had yet to monopolize the food supply.
Today we have to decipher the real foods from the food-like-products that have taken over the aisles of our supermarkets.
When making this distinction, it’s helpful to ask ourselves these questions:
- Could this food be hunted or caught?
- Could this food be gathered or picked in the wild?
- Could this food be naturally grown in a garden or on a farm?
It can take practice to quickly answer these questions, but if you answer yes to any of them, you can feel good about putting that food in your grocery cart.
Here are some foods that can be hunted:
Here are some foods you could gather or grow:
Now that we’ve covered what foods to focus on for a healthy real food diet, let’s take a look at some of the foods you should avoid.
Foods to avoid
Simply stated: avoid factory foods. But as we both know, this is easier said than done. With some foods it is blatantly obvious that they are factory produced, others are more subtle.
So just like we did to remember what real foods to reach for at the supermarket, here are five questions to ask ourselves as we look for foods to avoid.
- Ask, has this food been significantly altered, refined, or processed?
- Have parts been stripped away, or have chemicals and artificial ingredients been added?
- Does it have a fancy package with a long ingredient list?
- Are there ingredients you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce?
- Does the bag or box contain health claims or eye-catching buzz words?
If you answered yes to most of these questions, it’s probably a food-product, not real food. Some foods require you to put on your detective’s hat. But foods with sugars and industrialized oils are quick to go on the avoid list.
Here is a list of ingredients and food-products you should avoid (most of the time):
Sugars and sugar substitutes:
Agave, cane sugar, brown rice syrup, brown sugar, cane juice, carob syrup, coconut sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, lactose, malitol, maltodextrin, maltose, mannitol, imitation maple syrup, saccharine, sorbitol, sucralose, xylitol, aspartame
Industrialized oils: canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, cottonseed oil, rapeseed oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, vegetable oil
To learn more about the downsides of these oils, check out Chris Kresser’s article, “How Industrial Seed Oils Are Making Us Sick.”
Products made with sugars, processed oils, and refined grains: cakes, cereals, chips, crackers, cookies, condiments, energy bars, pretzels, pastas, breads, pastries
The gray area surrounding real food
In our complex world and frantically paced world, we have to consider foods that undergo some minimal processing for digestibility or convenience, but could still be nourishing options.
While we can thrive on a diet consisting of 100 percent of foods that are hunted and gathered, it’s not realistic or practical for most of us today.
Moving to a real food diet and reaping the health benefits does not have to be all or nothing – so don’t talk yourself out of trying just because you’re concerned about going all-in.
Real food has four categories that fall into the gray area
Whole grains: While whole grains (such as amaranth, barley, buckwheat, bulgur, corn, farro, Kamut, millet, oats, quinoa, rice, rye, sorghum, spelt, teff, wheat, and wheat berries) do grow in nature, they still fall into this questionable territory.
The grains themselves have built-in defense mechanisms to protect the species and prevents humans from being able to digest them as they are found. To make them digestible to humans, we have to take careful steps to remove outer layers, soak, and cook the grains to give the body a chance at nutrient extraction and absorption.
So are whole grains real?
Yes, but it’s a gray area because before the agricultural revolution we didn’t have the technology to eat grains, especially in large quantities; we didn’t evolve eating grains.
Legumes: A similar story is true of legumes, or beans and lentils (such as adzuki, black, fava, garbanzo, kidney, lima, mung, navy, pinto, red, soy and white beans, as well as edamame, miso, peanuts (yes, they fall in the legume family, not the nut family), tempeh, tofu, and brown, green, red, yellow and black lentils).
As with grains, legumes require diligent soaking and cooking to be properly digested, and absorbed. Your stomach would be very upset if you tried to eat raw black beans.
To avoid this, you will want to opt for your great-great-grandmother’s traditional preparation methods.
Dairy: To really understand the gray area of dairy, we need to first break it into two separate categories: 1. Real Food dairy 2. Processed dairy
Real food dairy: This comes raw, unpasteurized, full-fat, sometimes fermented, and from pasture-raised (or grass-fed) cows. Quality butter, cheese, cream, milk kefir, and yogurt can provide us with beneficial nutrients, good bacteria, and enzymes.
Processed dairy: However, much of the dairy that is available in our stores is highly processed and sourced from factory-farmed cows. High heat pasteurization kills off much of the beneficial nutrients, bacteria, and enzymes.
Reducing the fat content often means sugar is added and the fat-dependent vitamins and minerals (calcium included) can’t be absorbed well. Dairy also contains proteins that some of us have trouble digesting.
Grains, legumes, and dairy are all foods found in nature. But their gray area designation lies in whether or not they support optimal health. This is where individual assessment and experimentation is helpful.
Minimally processed: Foods such as shelled nuts, pitted olives, sauces, and condiments with clean ingredients. We can also look to alternative flours, processed meats (salami, sausage, bacon), canned or jarred single ingredient foods.
These foods, such as coconut milk, are commercially prepared for convenience or added shelf life, but within reason, can land on the approved list.
Where we can find ourselves in trouble with minimally processed foods is overconsumption or overreliance on them. Just think how easy it is to eat a bag of nuts. What if you had to crack all the shells yourself, would you eat as many?
Why choose real foods?
Hopefully you have a better idea of what it means to eat real foods, but why does it matter?
Let’s take a look at the health benefits, the environmental benefits, and the community benefits of choosing a real food approach.
The health benefits of real food
Although the health benefits of eating a real food diet varies depending on who you talk to and what their goals are, there are five main benefits that I am going to touch on here.
Our health starts in our gut (actually in our mouth, but it’s all connected)! The tube that runs from one end to the other is the gateway into our body. The cells that line that tube, and the bacteria that live in it, are responsible for keeping our gut healthy.
The types of foods we choose to eat either help our GI tract to thrive, or become compromised.
A variety of real foods feed the good bacteria, keep the bad bacteria from overgrowing, and keep our GI tissues healthy. When we eat processed “Frankenfoods” we risk an overgrowth in bad bacteria. This, in turn, can cause irritated and inflamed intestinal wall.
To learn more, check out Dr. Axe’s article on “Leaky Gut Syndrome: 7 Signs You May Have It“.
Blood sugar regulation:
Real foods work to help us keep cravings at bay. With regulated blood sugar levels we avoid the rollercoaster of highs and lows that ensue from processed foods.
Foods high in simple sugars and refined carbohydrates, cause a spike in our blood sugar, followed by a spike in insulin release, a downward plummet (aka, “the crash”), and the “need” for more sugar to feel good again.
Overtime, this vicious cycle can lead to insulin resistance, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.
When processed foods, such as sugary cereal, feed the bad bacteria in our gut, those bacteria signal to the brain that they want more! They taste so good. These signals are the cravings we experience for more sugary cereal.
Think about it…
Is it easier to overeat a large green salad with sliced avocado and diced chicken, or a bowl of spaghetti with a side of garlic bread?
The primal diet, and similar nutritional regimens based around real food, focuses on foods low in refined sugar (sucrose), preventing blood sugar spikes and cravings.
Reduced toxin exposure:
We live in a toxic world, and it can be argued that our greatest toxic load comes from the food we eat. The good news is that when we focus on consuming real foods, we not only decrease the number of chemicals that enter our body, but we also benefit from natural detoxification properties within the foods themselves.
Our ancestors’ diets naturally consisted of foods without the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, hormones, or GMOs – they didn’t have to worry about environmental toxins as we do. We can emulate this by seeking out organic, local, seasonal, and chemical-free whole foods.
Equally important, foods that are rich in nutrients, phytonutrients, antioxidants and certain proteins help our skin, intestines, liver and kidneys get rid of toxins and waste that would otherwise wreak havoc. With real food, we decrease load and support a strong detoxification system all at the same time!
Quality meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and natural fats provide all the essential nutrients we need, and calorie for calorie, they are the most nutrient dense! Rich in vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and antioxidants, these foods are the most bioavailable to our body.
The nutrient profile of certain foods can look very different from laboratory analysis to what our body is actually capable of digesting, absorbing and utilizing.
For example, the grains or legumes we talked about earlier; beyond the outer layers that make them hard to digest, they are also high in antinutrients, or nutrients that can bind to vitamins and minerals and prevent absorption in our gut.
We may be thinking that we are getting adequate iron from a serving of beans, when in fact, that iron is getting bound by phytates and is passing through unabsorbed.
Why don’t we just take lots of supplements, then? We can assure that the pills don’t contain antinutrients and the vitamins and minerals we are looking for come without the sugars and fillers we are trying to avoid.
Sounds rationale, and this mentality has been supporting the food industry for years.
According to Wikipedia, “Nutritionism is a paradigm that assumes that it is the scientifically identified nutrients in foods that determine the value of individual food stuffs in the diet. In other words, it is the idea that the nutritional value of a food is the sum of all its individual nutrients, vitamins, and other components.”
This concept has dominated nutrition science, dietary advice and food marketing, probably taking away some of our appreciation for real, whole, quality food.
This idea of nutritionism also allows highly processed food to be viewed as healthy based on the “good” and “bad” components it contains. But the body doesn’t deal well with individual parts – there is a magical synergism of whole food that can’t be replaced by the pieces on their own.
As you can see, the health benefits of eating a real food diet are enormous. But the benefits don’t end there, they actually go way beyond ourselves.
The environmental benefits of real food
Not only is real food good for our personal health, but it’s also good for our planet’s health! Decreasing our negative impact on the environment is more important than ever, so let’s take a quick look at our food choices in relation to sustainability, energy and waste.
The large industrial food producers and manufacturers that dominate the packaged food and drink business (AKA Big Food) have been trying to convince us that their way is the way to feed the future.
However, the large-scale monocropping methods are leaving our soils depleted, our food nutrient-deprived, and our planet polluted.
On the contrary, if we support family farmers, ranchers, herders and small-scale fishers who are practicing diversified agriculture, and eco-friendly methods, we can produce large quantities of real food on a smaller percentage of land, while using fewer resources. This agroecological practice is naturally more self-sustaining long-term.
Reduced energy needs:
A food system that considers the importance of symbiotic relationships can use more renewable resources compared to a food system that relies on fossil fuels.
Picture the simplicity of nutrient rich soil, growing nutrient rich food, making nutrient rich compost and waste to refeed the soil. Not to mention, it takes the body less energy to metabolize real food than it does processed food.
Decreased non-biodegradable waste:
When you remove the majority of boxes, bags and cans from your pantry you can see how highly-processed foods quickly contribute to our growing landfills. We aren’t even talking about the toxic chemicals that are released in conventional fields or processing plants.
When you shop for real food from your local farmers market to your local store, especially with reusable produce bags, those foods typically have less to no packaging at all = smaller carbon footprint.
The community benefits of real food
Food has been bringing us together from the start of time. Communities, whether it be families, tribes, or villages, had to work together to provide food for their people.
The celebration was often centered around the foods of the natural world close to home. Today we are at risk of losing the social and emotional benefits of gathering around nature’s bounty.
Shop local and seasonal
Small farmers are typically using best or better practices to grow and raise their food, and you are naturally getting unadulterated, seasonal and nutrient-dense choices.
Your health benefits, and your spending supports local agriculture, encourages productive land use, boosts the local economy, decreases fossil fuels and plastic packaging.
Plus, when you engage with your local farmers and food producers there is a greater sense of community and connection with your food.
Appreciation for where your food comes from
Knowing where our food is grown sparks an unmatched level of appreciation. We are more apt to eat the food, taste the food, and be grateful for that food.
Unite your friends and family
No question, industrialized-processed foods are convenient! They allow us to grab n’ go, eat on the run, and stay “productive.” They allow everyone under the same roof to choose their own desired taste at whatever time suits them.
But convenience foods are also fostering loneliness and a lack of connection.
When time and energy are put into preparing a meal with real ingredients, we desire to share it with others. Bonding and conversation happen while chopping, sautéing, and plating, and when it comes to gathering around the table, the social interaction is invaluable for our health (physically, mentally and emotionally).
Food should bring friends and family together – it’s been part of culture and tradition for thousands of years.
Where do we find real food?
This may seem like a silly question – shouldn’t real food be all we know?
Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to find nutrient dense options amongst our current food supply. But, with these tips, you’ll be able to seek it out in more places than you may think.
Whether you have a pot of fresh herbs on your kitchen windowsill, or a small homestead with vegetables, fruits, chickens and goats, growing your own food brings value. This is a great way to learn what elements are needed to support life and teach your children where food comes from.
Check out the article, “Gardening with your children” for ideas on how to get your little ones or the whole family involved in growing food at home.
Eat Wild discusses the benefits of eating eggs, meat and dairy from properly raised and fed animals and provides a state-by-state directory of local farmers who sell directly to consumers.
Local Harvest provides a list of farms, farmers markets, and local events by zip code or town. Meet your growers and weave their goods into your weekly meal plan.
Farmers markets are a place where many local farmers come together to sell their foods at a central location within a town or city. This is a wonderful way to get a feel for what’s growing in your area and incorporate more seasonal items into your diet. It also encourages conversation with producers.
Not all of us have access to farmers markets and most of us don’t have access year-round. This means many of us will be hitting the grocery store to seek out our goods.
Here’s a trick for you, spend most of your time and money amongst the perimeter of the store – this is usually where you will find the freshest real foods. Look for signs promoting local items and on sale organics.
Contrary to what you may think, eating real, healthy food does not mean you can only shop at expensive health food stores.
Many Walmart’s are carrying a greater number of organic produce items and grass-fed meats. While there are a multitude of benefits to shopping local, don’t count out the corporate super-stores to check off your grocery list.
While it doesn’t make much sense to purchase fresh foods online, there are web-based companies who offer the “minimally processed” products at reduced prices.
When stocking up on canned, boxed or bagged items that contain real and trustable ingredients, check out:
If you have trouble finding local grass-fed, pasture-raised, or wild-caught meats and seafood in your area, I recommend:
Is the real food approach right for me?
Of all the questions I get asked about cooking for families and eating healthy, there is one question that comes up more than any other.
Is this a diet, like keto or Atkins?
There’s a tendency to assume that eating healthy means we must be following a rigid, restrictive protocol. Manipulating our food intake to get certain results is something most of us have tried once or 100 times.
No, it’s a sustainable lifestyle:
Ultimately, we want to find a way of eating that is sustainable, enjoyable, and nourishing. When we reach for real foods and learn how to balance them, we find our health supported and our cravings diminished.
No counting calories, no measuring:
Real food eating is intuitive eating. When you tune in and listen to your body, real food satisfies and nourishes without the need to count calories (a calorie is NOT a calorie) or measure your serving sizes.
Let go of the diet mentality. Our bodies need nutrients to survive and thrive. Deprivation only sets us up for deficiencies that result in sickness and a battle between starvation and willpower; a lose-lose.
Comparison to other diets
How does real food fit into common dietary approaches?
- Paleo and Whole30: Both mandate real foods, but with an outright elimination of grains, legumes and dairy.
- Vegan: Veganism can be accomplished with either real foods or processed foods and a definite elimination of all animal products.
- Gluten-free: If you follow a Paleo or Whole30 “diet” you will be eating gluten-free by default, but just eating “gluten-free” doesn’t mean that you are on the real food train.
- Keto and low-carb: Most carbohydrates are going to come from fibrous vegetables on a keto or low-carb diet, therefore, grains, legumes, some fruits and potatoes will probably be eliminated.
When we talk about “diets” we usually focus on their differences, but there are plenty of similarities to consider.
Whether you find yourself on the low-carb, paleo, vegan, vegetarian, Mediterranean, keto, Whole30, or gluten-free bandwagon, real food can be used to meet the various guidelines within a particular protocol.
Each of these strategies will yield more nourishment when real foods are selected in place of more industrialized items.
A great base to build from:
Once you establish a real food approach and are comfortable putting together balanced meals, you can begin tweaking your nutrient needs based on your health status and your goals.
If you need to experiment with eliminating dairy because of a suspected intolerance, decrease carbohydrate intake to manage diabetes, or avoid nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplant) to put an autoimmune disease in remission, then you have a great base to work from.
Who benefits from this way of eating?
- …are looking for greater energy and vitality: the deep nutrition found in real foods will give you the extra boost you need to thrive.
- …prioritize their health: if your health, and the health of your family, matters than real food is your first medicine!
- …have health issues: whether you struggle with weight, metabolic disorder, hormone imbalance, cancer, heart health, digestion, blood sugar, autoimmunity, mental clarity, depression, anxiety, sleep, skin conditions, or another lifestyle ailment, real food is your first step to reclaiming your wellbeing.
- …want to save money: real food can be an initial investment, but the amount you’ll save on health expenses is incomparable. Processed food made with conventional commodities is unfairly cheap, but those prices won’t last forever – we’ll run out of viable soil before you know it.
- …want to see a healthier planet for their children and grandchildren: real food produced from agroecological practices and purchased locally when possible is one ticket to combating climate change, infertile soils, and non-biodegradable waste – it’s a way to reclaim a symbiotic planet.
- …want to cut through the confusion of nutrition: deciding what to eat can be overwhelming when we are bombarded with mixed messages in the media, but with a diversified selection of real foods, nutrition gets quite simple.
Will it work with my lifestyle?
Everyone’s day to day routine looks a little different. Our needs, responsibilities and free time may vary from our neighbor’s. This makes it important to ask how a real food lifestyle style can fit into your unique life.
Adopting a real food lifestyle for the whole family can feel daunting! It can be done, and it can be enjoyed with an open and positive approach.
Kids love to be involved with food when given the opportunity, so it can be a great way to get the kids in the kitchen. When children are part of the process they are much more likely to try and eat healthy foods.
The primal diet is versatile, lending itself to a wide variety of fun, healthy dinner ideas for kids.
Start with small changes and always celebrate the small wins!
When’s the last time you asked someone “how are you?” and their reply DIDN’T include the word “busy”? The hustle-bustle of life can feel (and I would argue IS) unsustainable.
Being so “busy” often means we neglect the basic tenets of wellness, including giving real food the attention it deserves. With that said, real food meals can be kept simple and easy – no need for fancy gourmet!
Take the next step
Once you understand WHAT real food is and appreciate WHY it leads to a life of wellness, it’s time to learn HOW to transition to this approach. Primal Peak’s 4 Weeks of Real Food is a program designed to help you with just that! Don’t travel these unchartered waters alone, grab your friends and family and let me help you navigate your way.