Want to start eating healthier, but can’t get past all the conflicting advice? Keep reading for some tips on how to start eating real food, stay healthy, and leave the fads behind.
We’ve all been there. You decide you want to start eating healthier, and suddenly there it is. You’re bombarded with diet advice.
Carbs are poison. No, wait. Fat is poison. Only eat sugar alternatives. No. Wait. Those are horrible for you. You shouldn’t eat any grains. But they’re a great source of fiber, too. Plant based…Paleo…Keto…
It’s all the same. They all have their own sets of rules, usually conflicting with one another, and all swear their way is the only way to be healthy.
Figuring out what to eat, and what to not eat, can often feel overwhelming. I’ve been there, too. Trying to navigate all the diet advice while staying sane almost seems impossible. At least, it feels that way until you go all the way to the root of healthy eating.
Food. Food that’s been eaten for centuries to nourish our ancestors.
Instead of focusing on all of these conflicting diets, why don’t we look at what’s worked for centuries before us?
Today, we’re going to talk about a real food diet. What it is, what it isn’t, and some simple advice to show you how to start eating real food and leave those fads (and the confusion) behind.
What is Real Food
Please note that I am not a doctor or medical professional. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any ailment. Please consult your doctor if you need nutrition advice specific to you. Furthermore, this post contains affiliate links, which means I could earn a small commission based on your purchases. To learn more, read my full disclosure here.
Simply put, real food is food as it’s found in nature. They’re foods that have stood the test of time. It’s what previous generations have eaten for centuries.
Real food is food that nourishes our bodies and supports our hormones, immune system and growth with vital nutrients and minerals. Food that makes us feel good after we eat it.
Now, ask your self this: Does the food I eat do this?
Does it fuel your body? Do you feel good after eating?
Or, like most people, do you feel bloated, ready for a nap, or maybe a little foggy?
What’s wrong with our food?
I recently read the book “Food Rules,” by Michael Pollan. It’s a book I highly recommend everyone read. It’s super quick and easy to get through, and written in language anyone can understand. My husband and I were both able to get through the entire book in just a couple of hours, to give you an idea.
Anyway, in his introduction, Michael Pollan explains populations that eat a “Western” diet (otherwise known as the Standard American Diet, or S.A.D.) consisting of lots of processed foods, added fats and sugars, processed grains, and very few actual fruits and veggies are generally sicker. These populations suffer from diseases like obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer – all of which can be linked back to diet.
He goes on to explain that populations eating a more traditional diet generally don’t suffer from these diseases. These traditional diets aren’t one size fits all, either. Some are very high in fats and animal products. Others are very high in carbs. Many are a good mix of both. But, the simple fact remains that these populations are generally healthier than us, regardless of what types of foods they eat.
What we can take from this is that our diet is making us sick. Processed foods just don’t contain the same nutrients as real foods from the ground.
But the good news is, people who eat a typical “Western” diet who then go on to eat more traditionally have seen a marked improvement in their health. So there’s definitely still hope.
All we have to do is figure out what to eat, and what not to eat. And since I’m sure that’s what you’re really here for (just tell me what to eat already!), that’s covered in the next section.
What a Real Food Diet Looks Like
A lot of times when people hear the term “real food” they immediately think of the Paleo diet. While that’s not necessarily untrue -the Paleo diet does consist of all real foods – a general real food diet doesn’t have to eliminate whole food groups.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t. Or, in some cases shouldn’t. It just means that with the exception of having a medical or emotional reason not to eliminate a food, you don’t have to in order to be healthy.
One of the benefits of eating real food is that, since you’re eating simpler ingredients, you can really start to tell when something makes you feel bad.
Maybe you notice that you break out in horrible acne after consuming dairy, or eating too many grains makes you feel bad. Maybe you’ve got an allergy, or just don’t want to eat something for personal reasons.
In that case, obviously you wouldn’t have to eat everything on this list. And, for the sake of not turning this into a novel, this list is not all inclusive. Use this as a jumping off point to explore foods to enjoy that can nourish your body at the same time.
Start eating real food by following this list:
- Meats: We should be eating meats from animals who ate their natural diets and lived their natural life (aka grass-fed, pasture raised animals), and using as much of the animal as possible, from serving the meats to making a broth from the bones.
- Eggs: Look for eggs labeled free range or pasture raised, and eat their natural diet free from added hormones. Fun fact: In nature, chickens are not vegetarian. Maybe some of the food we feed them is vegetarian, but if they’re free to wander a pasture or field, they will find plenty of other sources food that aren’t vegetarian. Keep that in mind when you’re looking at labels!
- Good fats: naturally occurring fats are so good for us. Look for things like butter, ghee, olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, eggs, nuts, and seeds to add good fats back into your diet.
- Grains: Look for whole grains vs processed grains. Ancient grains, sourdough, or at the very least, 100% whole grain. Tip: if you see the word “enriched” that means it’s not a whole grain.
- Fruits and Veggies: Look for seasonal, locally grown produce whenever possible. Check out your farmer’s market, connect with a local farmer when you can, but if you can’t, there are plenty of options at the grocery store!
- Spices, herbs, and other seasonings: whether they are fresh, dry, or ground, look for the most minimally processed options you can. Many pre-packaged seasoning blends contain additives. When you check the label, all you should see is the name of the herb/seasoning. Nothing else.
- Dairy: Look for full fat, organic, and grass fed as much as possible. (“fat free” typically equals added sugars to replace the flavor the fat gave). If you can find a good source for raw milks that you trust, that’s even better!
- Seafood: you can look for food that’s raised in the wild, and avoid farm raised. As with any other animal, you want it to have lived it’s natural life and eaten it’s natural diet.
- Sweeteners: You want to find sweeteners that actually come from a plant and are pretty close to their pure form. Look for things like honey, real maple syrup, coconut sugar, and even minimally processed cane sugar for an occasional treat.
Note: a great resource I found recently for anyone not used to cooking with these types of ingredients is this blog. It’s full of recipes, tips, and info!
What Real Food is NOT:
There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to real food, and I thought we could take a minute to clear those up.
Real food is not a fad:
I know it’s getting talked about a lot lately, but it’s not new. Real food is how our ancestors ate. If anything, processed food lacking in nutrients is the fad. Think about it. This diet is relatively new, and has only really been prevalent for a few generations.
Real food is not “elitist.”
It’s not just for people who make a certain amount of money and can shop at specialty stores. You can find real food in any grocery store and on any budget.
In fact, my family made this swap when we were still well below the poverty line and found that when done carefully, it actually saved us money.
Things like beans and rice, homemade chili, and homemade spaghetti were staples for us back then, and still are today.
Real food is not about feeling deprived
On a real food diet, you don’t have to feel deprived or restricted. Did you see the list above? You can enjoy just about everything in one way or another. You’re not cutting out whole food groups, counting calories, or eliminating treats. It’s about choosing those items with purer ingredients that are still full of flavor and nutrients.
I know when I talk to people about eating real food, the number one issue that comes up is that they can’t eat anything they like. That’s honestly not true. There are simple, healthy swaps for just about everything (even pizza and cake) that make enjoying yourself just as easy as ever. In fact, here’s a list of foods that shouldn’t be eaten on a real food diet. If you look closely, you’ll see that most of what you can’t have is just a few ingredients that tend to make up the majority of the Standard American Diet.
What to Avoid to Start Eating Real Food:
- Packaged, Prepared, & Fast Foods: These are foods that are made with chemical additives like artificial flavors and colors. They lack vital nutrients that actually fuel our bodies.
- Refined Grains: A good rule of thumb is to avoid anything white, or labeled as “quick.” White bread, white rice, white flour, or anything that doesn’t say “100% whole” on it.
- Refined sugar: Avoid ingredients like white sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or anything artificial, like Sweet n’ Low or Splenda. Pure cane sugar should be reserved as an occasional treat.
- Anything “low fat” or “fat free”: When you remove the fat from something, you also remove the flavor. This leaves you with something that doesn’t taste very good, and so companies make up for it by using sugar and chemical additives to replace the taste.
- Processed oils and fats: Avoid ingredients like vegetable oil, canola oil, margarine, and non-butter spreads.
How to Start Eating Real Food
When you’re trying to start eating real food, there’s really just a couple of basic things to keep in mind.
Eat foods the way nature intended when possible:
A good rule to keep in mind when picking foods is to buy them as close to their natural state as possible. For each step you get away from nature, you lose more nutrients. So for example, a carrot straight from the ground is more nutrient dense than flash steamed and frozen carrots. Frozen carrots are better than canned. And they’re all better than what you’d get from a carrot cake made from a boxed mix.
Sure, there’s some processing that has to be done for things like cheese, yogurt, or bread, but the ingredients are simple. You could make all of these things in your own kitchen if you wanted to, and that’s the goal.
Buy things your great-grandparents would recognize as food:
This was one of the rules I adopted from “Food Rules,” but I don’t know. Maybe in 2020 we need to go back another generation, but the rule is the same. And, sadly, most of what’s sold in stores today, my great grandparents wouldn’t recognize as food.
When you walk down the aisles of any grocery store, you’ll see rows and rows of brightly colored cereals, packets of powder that magically turn into gravy, and food products in various shapes to appeal to kids.
But when you think back to what your great grandparents (or great-great grandparents) ate, they had things like homemade bread with real butter, eggs, meat from animals that grazed in the pasture, fresh fruits, and veggies straight from the garden. They simmered bone broth on the stove all day, and cooked real foods, straight from the earth.
Learn to read labels:
One of the most important things you should do when trying to eat real food is learn to read labels. I’m not talking about the part that tells you the number of calories and how much fat something has. I’m talking about the part below that, where you can find the ingredients.
Of course, products like fresh fruits most likely won’t have a label, which is even better, but anything in a package will have the ingredients listed. And, while you might think you’re buying a simple product, that’s not always the case. (I’ve even found frozen green beans with added ingredients).
When you see an ingredients label on a product, you should be able to read it and recognize everything on it without a food science degree. They should be ingredients you might find in an actual kitchen.
Where to Shop for Real Foods
There are a lot of specialty stores out there that offer healthy food choices for consumers. But, one of the problems I come across there is that everything is so expensive.
You can easily blow through your budget buying all of your groceries there, and honestly, it’s not necessary.
All you need is a regular grocery store. You can even find good choices at Walmart!
The biggest thing, especially at first, is to just stick to the perimeter of the store. Shop the produce section, the deli, dairy, and meats.
Of course, foods like pasta, dry beans, and rice are in the aisles, but be cautious. That’s also where you’ll find all of your overly processed food-like products that you’re trying to avoid.
Of course, as with anything in life, it’s all about moderation. If you’ve been around awhile, you know I am not about living in extremes.
Life shouldn’t be difficult. Especially when it comes to food. In fact, two of my favorite pieces of advice from Michael Pollan wrote in his book are these:
- Eat all the junk food you want, as long as you make it yourself, and
- Break the rules once in awhile.
The bottom line? Don’t let what you eat stress you out. We shouldn’t be so focused on what to eat that we forget to enjoy it.
Do the best you can, enjoy a cheat day once in awhile, and remember that it’s what you do most of the time that really matters in most cases.
How to Start Eating Real Food: Final Thoughts
There is so much advice out there regarding what it takes to be healthy. It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin!
What we really need is to go back to the basics. These tips will help you figure out how to start eating real food without stressing about all of the fads and rules floating around today.
Be sure to save this to check back with as you learn, and if you want to dive deeper, be sure to pick up your own copy of the book Food Rules, and start following some of his rules!