What is Real Food?

In a way it seems silly that this question needs to be asked and discussed. Food is what we eat. If we can chew it and swallow it, it is real…right? Well, perhaps that used to be the case, but it is no longer quite that simple. Grocery stores offer us a wide variety of foods — from recognizable real foods such as lettuce, apples, and carrots, to what Michael Pollan calls “edible food-like substances” that come in the form of boxed cookies, crackers, and quick meal options. The food and nutrition industries both deliberately play into our confusion around what to eat, and how to get a “healthy meal on the go.” 

So how do we sort out the real from the not real? And how do we navigate the uncertain gray area in between?

As an experiment, I asked google “What is real food?” and here are a few of the answers I got:

  • “Whole foods in their most natural state.” 
  • “Foods that have not been industrially processed.”
  • “Ingredients that are as close to their natural state as possible.”

This all seems relatively easy to comprehend. Just eat real food. However, if you think a bit harder you might start to wonder…

What is a food’s most natural state? Is coconut milk in a natural state? 

What counts as industrially processed? Canned foods? Ketchup? Pasta? Ice Cream?

What about crackers and baked goods? Most of these are made from grains, seeds, and nuts that are finely ground and highly processed, moving ingredients further away from their natural state. 

At this point you might be thinking, “Yikes. I guess this means I should only eat raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, eggs, and meat. Also, I guess this means I need to cook everything myself.”

Well, we could all benefit from cooking more at home, but before we go to any extremes, let’s keep it simple. One of the most basic rules for eating was outlined by Michael Pollan in his book, In Defense of Food. Pollan encourages us to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Another much recalled guideline from this book was to “only eat food our great grandmothers would recognize as food.” By eating a wide variety of plants we diversify fiber sources and thus feed the bacteria in our guts, that in turn keep our guts and immune systems functioning properly. By only eating food that past generations would recognize as food, we avoid inflammatory oils, chemicals, and highly processed carbohydrates that can lead to inflammatory conditions. Notice that neither of these guidelines promotes a specific diet such as paleo, vegan, plant-based or whatever popular diet trend is most current. Just eat real food. 

Your body knows what real food is. When we pause before walking into the grocery store and push aside the external messaging that tells us that feeding ourselves should be fast and easy and not take time away from all the other things we want to do, we still have the ability to tap into our innate intuition around what is really food. When we take time to listen, our bodies tell us what is good to eat. When we really take the time to listen, we can tap into the exciting reality that, as Dr. Mark Hyman says; “Food contains information that speaks to our genes, not just calories for energy.” Each meal is an opportunity to provide our cells with important nutrients and information. 

I’m not going to lay out any further rules, or parse out whether something with more than five ingredients that comes in a box is real food or not. You can read Pollan’s book, Food Rules, for additional suggestions. You can also create your own guidelines and experimen. Put a diverse array of whole food ingredients in your cart, and have fun experimenting with how to prepare and eat them!

I recently had to buy dinner for a rare date night with my husband and faced the challenge of making real food choices on the go. We planned to take our canoe out for a paddle and have a picnic dinner. I had been working right up until the last minute and found myself rushing into the grocery store thinking I would just pick up something already prepared (which really I never end up doing, but the idea of it still lures me in). 

I looked at the to-go salad options, enticed by how easy it would be to just eat something already prepared out of a container. I’ve trained myself well to read ingredient labels before I buy anything, and a quick glance at the label showed way more ingredients than a salad should have (ie. canola oil, maltodextrin, some type of sugar), so that was off the table. Darn. 

Next, I walked past the prepared foods display and scanned for anything that stood out as gluten-free or looked like a basic vegetable. This narrowed my options down to cold, tough-looking chicken breasts and cold, unappetizing green beans. Given that both had likely been cooked in canola oil (which can lead to excess inflammation and oxidative stress), and they looked sad sitting there in the case, I passed them by too. 

My next option was to figure it out on my own. What would be easy to eat in a canoe, require minimal preparation, be tasty, and satisfying? I walked out of the store with a jar of olives, two heirloom tomatoes, some basil and arugula, a yellow pepper, a cucumber, some prosciutto, and a package of grain-free tortillas. This made for delicious wraps, prepared and eaten in a canoe, with juice from the tomatoes running down our arms. In a perfect world perhaps the tortillas would have been homemade or instead been big pieces of bibb lettuce…but hey, I’m not perfect. I think my great grandmother would have recognized all of it as food anyway.

If you want to start shifting towards more real foods and fewer processed ones, here are some ideas to start:

  • Make it a point to cook more of your meals at home. 
  • Buy a few cookbooks or choose a few blogs from which to gather recipes. Start with the simple ones. Pick a few recipes to try, and make a grocery list. 
  • If you don’t like planning ahead,  just buy a diverse array of fruits and vegetables and then figure out what to do with them when you’re back home. Better yet, sign up for a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box, and enjoy the surprises you get each week. 
  • Keep real food snack options on hand, and make them easy to choose. Keep fresh, seasonal fruit available on the counter and in the fridge. Do a bit of advanced prep when you return from the store and cut up veggies so that they are easy to grab when you feel hungry. Stock up on high quality olives, cheese and nuts when veggies alone don’t seem like enough. 
  • Experiment with Pollan’s Food Rule #39: “Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.” This will force you to make the ice cream (or brownies, or cheese crackers) yourself out of real food ingredients. Additionally, making these items yourself will likely lead to you eating these foods less frequently. 
  • Don’t overthink it, and have compassion for yourself. Shifting habits takes time and consistent practice. If cooking at home is a rare occurrence for you, try committing to eating one meal at home consistently, like a high protein breakfast to set your metabolism for the day. 

For more resources on how to incorporate more real food into your life, sign up for my newsletter. I’ll share recipes, inspiration and real-life perspective on how to build a strong foundation for health with real food.