What is Real Food?

bright leafy greens

Let’s be honest. Shifting to a real food eating style is like trying to spread cold butter on toast. It’s tricky until you warm up to it.

While we inherently know that real food is better for us, we’ve become increasingly disconnected from the sources of our food and more reliant on convenience foods. With so many fad diets and marketing campaigns to sift through, it’s hard to even identify real food.

After studying nutrition for more than two decades, I’ve come to the conclusion that eating is personal, and that there are many approaches to eating well. We all have different philosophies and opinions when it comes to food. That’s because our food choices are driven by many factors including our religious beliefs, social views, cultural influences, regional availability of food and flavor preferences. Some people enjoy broccoli; some don’t. Some believe eggs are healthy; some don’t. Some choose to eat meat; some don’t. My family raised and butchered hogs so eating pork seems normal to me, but I know that it’s not something everyone chooses to eat. Likewise, I grew up with Jif peanut butter and I still eat it today. I’m well aware that it contains hydrogenated oils and emulsifiers, but I like it. Being a real food supporter is not about eating perfectly, it’s about understanding and owning your choices and giving thought to what you eat.

Imagine for a moment that there was a real food revival in this country. As Americans, we begin choosing real food over convenience foods more often, we prepare more meals at home, and maybe we even grow some of our own food. It’s exciting to consider how empowering it would feel to take ownership of our food again. I really don’t think I’m being overly optimistic here either. Starting a real food movement will require challenging some deeply entrenched norms for sure, but Americans are smart and fully capable of rising to meaningful challenges.

Are you still with me? Okay then, let’s define real food!

Words like clean, whole, unprocessed, organic, local, natural, unrefined, raw and fresh are often used to describe real food, but some real foods just don’t fit neatly within those narrow categories. Grandma’s home-canned green beans, for example, are technically considered processed. Likewise, homemade applesauce isn’t raw after it’s heated. And garlic isn’t exactly whole after you chop it. Then what exactly is real food? Here are a few guidelines to consider:

Real foods are ingredients. Think of real foods as individual ingredients. As a general rule, if you can visualize each of the ingredients listed on a food label, it’s probably real. And if it doesn’t require a label, that’s even better!

Real food is beautiful. Real food doesn’t need artificial coloring to make it pretty; it’s comfortable in its own imperfect skin.

Real food is authentic. Real food doesn’t need to look like something it isn’t, which means it doesn’t have a label displaying a nonsensical list of preservatives and additives. It speaks for itself. What you see is what you get.

Real food teaches us gratitude. It takes time to prepare food. Planning a menu, shopping, cooking and cleaning up all require careful attention and organization. Sharing a meal that was prepared with love is hard to replicate in a commercial setting. Giving thanks for our meals – both for the food itself and to the person that prepared it – teaches us how to express gratitude and connect with others.

Real food is compostable. Real food has the ability to break down and feed other living things. That’s the circle of life at its best. As living things return to the earth, they replenish the fragile soil with nutrients that are vital for plants that will eventually become food as well. Choosing real food keeps landfills from growing because we let the earth recycle our leftovers rather than tossing them in the garbage.

Real food is nutritious. No matter where you stand on this issue, I think we can all agree that real food is full of powerful nutrients and phytochemicals – many of which we still don’t fully understand. These mysterious synergies cannot be replicated, synthesized or manufactured in a laboratory.

My quick definition of real food is this: Nourishing plant and animal ingredients as close to their natural form as possible. 

I know what you’re probably thinking. A few guidelines are nice, but not all that practical. I agree. Try out the Menu Upp! Meal Planning Toolkit that I developed to plan my own weekly menus. This keeps me focused on the foods I want to include rather than those I wish to avoid. (The latter just feels like a time drain to me.) Make a list of your favorite healthy foods and the process will be even easier. The important thing is that you feel inspired to eat real food!

Are you a real food supporter? What does your real food eating style look like?