Ultimate Guide: What is Real Food?
Nourish your body with real food using these simple, delicious guidelines that will help you avoid those foods that are unnatural, unhealthy and bad for you. Plus, learn how real food can reverse auto-immune disease, replace prescription medication, cure hormonal imbalances, help you lose weight and make you feel great!
Here on Root + Revel, we talk a lot about eating real food.
After all, a real food diet saved my life–it helped me reverse chronic auto-immune disease and digestive problems, like Leaky Gut (IBS), and cured my hormonal imbalances, including PCOS, Insulin Resistance and Hypothyroidism.
Related: How to Heal Your Body With Food
Truly, eating healthy food, non-processed food, fresh food, whole food, real food (whatever you want to call it! all of these terms are synonymous to me) was a total game changer.
But what do all these terms really mean? What does real food look like?
What is Real Food?
Put simply, real food is food as it’s found in nature (single-ingredient foods are best, as are unprocessed, unaltered foods made without any chemicals or additives).
Real food is food that has stood the test of time (meaning previous generations ate the food). It’s food that nourishes our bodies and minds with vitamins and minerals, and makes us feel good after we eat it (not like we need a nap or a toilet within our line of sight at all times).
Real food is food that improves our health, not destroys it. Real food is medicine.
In fact, real food is BETTER than medicine, real food is better than supplements. Our body absorbs the nutrients from food more easily than from supplements. AND, most important of all, real food actually heals the root cause of your symptoms, unlike prescription medication which just masks your symptoms without addressing what caused them in the first place.
Real food is synonymous with organic food because organic food, at its core, essentially means pure, no additives, no pesticides, no junk. It’s just the food. That’s the difference between a real food tomato and a conventional tomato. Note: this doesn’t apply to processed snack food that’s labeled organic. More on that later.
Some people might argue that real food is Paleo, or the Paleolithic diet. It’s not that I disagree, rather I don’t think you need to go so far as to eliminate entire food groups, like dairy and grains, in order to eat real food.
I believe that all foods that are found in nature fall into the real food camp. All whole foods that were naturally made–that’s how I’d define the real food groups.
It’s like that concept, a square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square. The Paleo diet is real food, but not all real food is considered Paleo.
At this point, you may have starting skimming to get to the good part: a list of real food. I get it–we want the quick answer, the immediate gratification. And I aim to please…so, without further ado, here is a list of real food, along with some notes about what to look for when shopping for real food:
- Fruits & Vegetables: local, seasonal and/or organic when possible.
- Meat & Seafood: wild, grass-fed, pastured and/or humanely-raised without hormones or antibiotics when possible.
- Dairy & Eggs: full-fat, grass-fed , pasture-raised when possible (raw and/or unpasteurized preferred).
- Whole Grains: must be 100% whole grain; ancient, gluten- and wheat-free grains preferred.
- Beans & Legumes: including green beans, snap peas and lentils; soaking helps with digestion, BPA-free cans when possible.
- Seeds & Nuts: raw, unsalted, unsweetened and/or organic when possible (sprouting helps with digestion).
- Spices, Herbs & Seasonings: fresh/dry/ground; minimally processed and organic when possible.
- Unrefined, Virgin, Cold-Pressed Oils & Fats: coconut oil, olive oil, grass-fed butter, ghee, palm shortening and rendered animal fats, like tallow and lard.
- Natural, Unrefined Sweeteners: honey, maple syrup, coconut palm sugar and dates (raw when possible).
Still not sure if you understand what real food is? Check out our FREE guide!
What is NOT Real Food?
Ok, so now that we’ve defined what is real food, it begs the question, what is NOT real food?
I’ve got a list for that, too! Take a look:
- Packaged, prepared and/or fast foods made with chemicals and additives, like artificial flavors and colors.
- Foods made with “natural flavors”. They may be called natural, but you can’t be sure what’s really in this processed “flavor” that comes from a lab and it often contains allergens like dairy, soy, wheat, nuts and animal products (important for vegans and vegetarians).
- Refined grains: white flour, white rice, white pasta or any grains that don’t say “100% whole”.
- Refined sugar: white sugar, high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, and anything artificial, like Splenda, Equal or Sweet’N Low.
- Processed oils and fats: trans-fats, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated and/or polyunsaturated vegetable oils (canola oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, peanut oil), margarine and non-butter spreads and sprays.
- Genetically modified foods
- Fake foods, like those labeled as fat-free, low-fat or “lite”.
Still not sure if you understand what is NOT real food? Check out our FREE guide!
Why You Should Eat Real Food
Alright, so even though those lists aren’t exactly short, when you really look at them, it’s pretty simple–real food is natural, whole, unprocessed, and then there’s everything else. But you may still be wondering why eating real food is important. Why is real food better?
There’s a reason real food is having a moment right now; there’s a reason Lisa Leake’s 100 Days of Real Food blog is one of the most visited food sites in the country. Why there’s a million results when you google “real food recipe” or “real food diet”, why a growing number of real food challenges exist.
The big secret: eating real food will make you feel awesome. I could write a book about the dangers of GMOs or the negative health effects that come from eating too much sugar or inflammatory canola oil or fast food.
We all know by now that processed food and the toxic additives and chemicals that lurk in what we eat are horrible for us. But instead of going that route, let’s take the high road. Let’s talk about why real food is SO GOOD FOR YOU instead.
Do you have an auto-immune disease? How about a hormonal imbalance? Are you overweight? Is your cholesterol too high? How about your blood pressure? Are you on a dozen pills because your doctor is worried you’re at risk for heart disease or because your thyroid is out of whack?
Or maybe you just have what you’d consider some mild symptoms, like constipation or diarrhea, acne or eczema, bloating, fatigue or irregular periods. No matter, I can promise you that real food is the answer.
I am living proof that a few simple changes to your diet can have MASSIVE results! I’ve reversed and cured all of my chronic health conditions–the same conditions that dozens of doctors told me had no cure and that I should just go on the Pill–all because of real food.
Related: My Healing Journey as A Food Writer
It makes sense–real food is full of nutrients, vitamins and minerals; and so many health conditions are the result of a lack of nutrients. You’d be amazed at what filling your plate with healthy fats, protein and produce can do for your health. Try it!
Where to Find Real Food
This is one of the most commonly asked questions I get from readers, and it’s one that always surprises me.
Yes, processed junk is around every corner, but honestly, so is real food. Go to the grocery store, shop the perimeter only (don’t even go into the aisles for now) and you’ll find real food in abundance. Even at Walmart.
Yes, I recommend shopping at your local farmer’s market or grocery stores who specialize in organic food and support local, sustainable growers and farmers, like Whole Foods, Sprouts and Earth Fare. But you don’t have to shop at these stores to find real food.
By me (I’m in Atlanta), Publix, Kroger and Trader Joe’s all have at least some real food options. If your favorite grocery store doesn’t sell organic produce, grass-fed meats and healthy fats, ask them to…or consider switching to one that does.
If I can’t find what I’m looking for, I often look to online retailers.
How to Make Real Food
Inevitably, after people find real food at the supermarket, I then get the question, “how to cook real food”. Guys, there’s no big secret here: just like the food itself, real food is best made simply.
Roasted vegetables are a staple in my house. Grilled meats are amazing. Grain bowls brimming with rice or quinoa, meat and vegetables are a go-to. Big pots of nourishing soup get made weekly, as do huge salads with all the fixins. A daily green smoothie will CHANGE. YOUR. LIFE as will magical green sauces, like pesto, salsa verde and chimichurri.
If you’re looking for recipe inspiration, I’ve gotchya covered.
The 80-20 Rule of Healthy Eating
Okay, that was a lot of information… but know that it’s served up with a big spoonful of balance and reality. As with all things on Root + Revel, life is meant to be celebrated and there’s no better way to embrace it than with food. Food shouldn’t be stressful or difficult–it should be delicious and satisfying.
So take these guidelines as just that–it’s not about being perfect; rather, it’s about being aware, about making informed decisions, about nourishing our bodies so we can live a happy, healthy, balanced life.
Sometimes a cheat day is in order. Sometimes it’s just not a birthday without cake. Sometimes french fries are necessary to maintain our sanity. So break the rules once in a while and aim to eat mostly real food, rather than only real food. That’s the 80-20 rule that I swear by.
It’s also important to note that every single human body is different and has its own set of tolerances and sensitivities. Some people can’t handle gluten. Others are lactose-intolerant. Some are allergic to nuts, while others have seemingly iron stomachs that can digest anything thrown at it.
I’ve found that rather than apply one “diet” or way of eating to all of humanity, it’s best to listen to your own body and eat those foods that make you feel good, and avoid those foods that don’t. Everyone can and should adjust their own personal “diet”, within the boundaries of real food.
There’s no right or wrong–there’s just what’s right for YOU.
If you’re struggling with whether or not you should eat something, I’ve got a list of questions that you should ask yourself. Click here to download the list for FREE–it’ll help you determine whether something is actually real food or not, and whether or not you should eat it.
To keep learning about real, whole food principles, I recommend reading Michael Pollan’s book, Food Rules.
Photo Credit: Heidi Geldhauser
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