We know what healthy food looks like (or at least have some idea), so why is it challenging to eat healthy on a regular basis? Between a busy career, school, a significant other and kids—life happens, and suddenly our good intention to be healthier falls to the wayside.
Deep down we still want to develop sustainable, clean eating habits because we know our diet, or the culmination of foods we consistently choose over time, impacts the duration and quality of our life. The leading causes of death—heart disease, cancer and stroke—in the U.S. are nutritionally related, and the rest of the developed world is not lagging far behind. Our health, weight, energy level, mood and even sleep are influenced by diet.
When it comes to food, nutrition and which diet really works best, there’s not much that all of us agree on. And with good reason! Nutrition is not one-size-fits-all, largely because our bodies all function a little bit differently. While a lower-carbohydrate diet may work exceptionally well for one individual trying to lose weight, it may not work for the next. On the other end of the spectrum, carb-loading may help one athlete more than others.
But when it comes to achieving good health, and yes, even weight loss, there’s one common ingredient among all diets that have stood the test of time (such as lower-carbohydrate, vegetarian, vegan, Mediterranean and the newer Paleo diets). They all borrow on some or all of these clean eating strategies:
- Eat minimally processed foods, or foods made from minimally processed ingredients.
- Eat mostly plants and plant-based foods.
- Eat animals and animal products that eat mostly plants.
Or to sum it up: Clean eating means choosing real food.
No standard definition for “healthy” food actually exists, just like there’s no cookie-cutter definition for what it means to be healthy, but it shouldn’t stop us from defining what that means to us. “Real food” has no official definition but embodies what a general healthy eating pattern could look like without using airy terms like “balanced,” “honest” and “genuine” to describe it (because who really knows what they mean?).
Real food is simple.
It hasn’t gone through a ton of processing to get from the ground to your plate. Here’s what that looks like: fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy, seafood, nuts, seeds, whole grains and beans are all real food. Natural sweeteners, coffee, chocolate and wine count, too—just enjoy them in moderation!
Real food is not processed food.
Another way to think of it is this: Real food is not processed food. According to Dr. Robert Lustig, MD, founder of the Institute for Responsible Nutrition, processed food meets these seven criteria:
- consistent batch to batch
- consistent country to country
- specialized ingredients from specialized companies
- nearly all macronutrients are pre frozen (which means that the fiber is usually removed)
- emulsified (fat and water don’t separate)
- long shelf or freezer life
At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Wait a minute, processed foods don’t sound so bad!” True; processed foods can be one of the safest foods on the planet in terms of germs, and that’s great for the short-term. Eating processed foods now and then won’t kill you, but you should really focus on eating mostly real foods if you’re concerned about your long-term health.
1. Eat “healthier” without thinking about it. It’s useful to think of food as nutrients (macro- and micronutrients) so we can better understand our body. When it comes to healthy eating, it’s more useful to think of food simply as food. Choosing “real” foods lets you eat healthier from a nutrient perspective without thinking too much about nutrients.
2. Redefine your relationship with food. Do you find yourself labeling food as “good” or “bad” based on a predefined notion of what healthy eating looks like? Nothing should always be that black and white, least of all a healthy relationship with food. Choosing real foods forces you to reevaluate the foods you think are healthy (aka processed foods labeled “low fat,” “sugar-free” and so forth). That being said, if you’re willing to buy real food ingredients to bake a cake, you should be able to enjoy a slice of dessert without a side of guilt.
3. Get the most nutrients out of the foods you’re eating. Processing foods usually removes or destroys valuable nutrients. The two exceptions are fortified foods (think: orange juice with added vitamin D) and preserved foods (think: canned and frozen). Choosing mostly real foods helps you maximize the nutrients you get from the foods you eat.
4. Cook, connect and celebrate with friends and family. Real food means real cooking! Since real foods come in the most natural form, it pushes you to be creative in preparing and cooking your meals. Cooking is an essential skill when it comes to living a healthy life. Since good food is a cause for celebration, get your friends and family members involved if you can.
5. Live a longer, healthier life. “You are what you eat” is a simple mantra capturing the impact that diet quality has on your quality of life. Eating mostly real foods will decrease your chances of getting a debilitating chronic disease like heart disease, stroke, diabetes or cancer. After all, the goal of being physically healthy is to live a long life whilst avoiding these pitfalls.
Home-cooking is at the heart of healthy eating, especially if it involves real food. Here are a few tips to get you started:
Save and organize your favorite recipes. Gather recipes from your favorite cookbooks, food bloggers or the internet at large. Rotate through the recipes as you plan your weekly or monthly meal calendar. If you’re not the planning type, having these recipes on hand will help inspire your cooking adventures.
Choose recipes that use healthy cooking techniques. Delicious food doesn’t have to be complicated; if you’re a beginner cook, choose recipes with 10 ingredients or less. To make your home-cooking even healthier, be mindful about how much sugar, sodium and cooking oil you’re adding to your foods. Here’s a list of common additions you should use mindfully to keep your home-cooked meal healthy:
|Added Sugar||Added Sodium||Added Fat|
|- Granulated sugar|
- Brown sugar
- Maple syrup
- Agave syrup
- Baking powder
- Baking soda
- Condiments (hot sauce, mustard, barbecue sauce)
|- Canola oil
- Olive oil
- Vegetable oil
- Peanut oil
Keep honing your cooking skills! No one is born an amazing cook, so if you fail at your cooking ploys, remember to learn from them. If you’re a beginner, read these resources to learn more on how to plan and prep your meals: Beginner’s Guide to Meal Planning and Meal Prep.
Stocking up on real foods is a good first step, especially if you plan to eat more of it. Check out these pointers to help you shop real at the grocery store:
Skim the perimeter of the grocery store. It’s where real food lives. We suggest you prioritize the following aisles: fresh produce, whole grains and breads, milk and dairy, meat and seafood. After you’ve loaded your cart, you can proceed to the center aisle for other necessities, just be sure to keep your eye on ingredient lists. Less is more!
Go to the store with a grocery list. Grocery-shopping with a list is your plan for success, because you’ll know exactly what to grab and be less inclined to buy processed convenience food. Ideally, your list should reflect the recipes you intend to prep for the week.
Pick up some handy, real food snacks that require minimal prepping and no recipes. Here are some ideas for you:
|No Prep Snacks||Minimal Prep Snacks|
|- Fresh fruit|
- Unsweetened dried fruit
- Roasted nuts
- Dark chocolate
- Trail mix
- Mozzarella sticks
- Baby carrots
- Cherry tomatoes
- Whole-grain crackers
|- Celery sticks
- Bell pepper sticks
- Hard-boiled eggs
Think outside the grocery store! If you live near a local farmer’s market, go check it out! Farmer’s markets are a good place for you to buy and support local produce, sometimes at a fraction of what you’d pay in a brand-name grocery store. For more information, check out “Real Food Sources.”
Grabbing food on the go can be unavoidable, and we get that. Here are some strategies to choose healthier dishes and keep your food real:
Avoid fast-food and chain restaurants. The majority of meals made by these establishments contain processed foods (nuggets, patties), that use additives, preservatives, flavor enhancers and artificial coloring. If possible, choose restaurants whose main selling point is local, fresh ingredients.
Use the cooking technique as your tip-off. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but it works well when you’re trying to choose healthier fare. Choose dishes that are baked, steamed, sauteed, roasted or boiled. Try to avoid items that are fried, deep-fried or drenched in heavy, cream-based sauces.
Check out the menu before you go. If possible, browse through the restaurant’s menu online first. Choose two to three options that look good to you, making it more likely you’ll make the healthier choice.
What does “real” food look like to you? Share your opinions in the comments below.