Shifting from a conventional, ultra-processed diet to real food can seem challenging. It’s not easy but, when your health is on the line, it’s totally worth the effort.
“The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison” – Ann Wigmore
What is “real” food?
Chances are you’re reading this because you are looking for information about how to make food choices that are nutritionally more supportive. So there’s a lot of confusion, and a lot of buzz words, out there at the moment. Because on the interwebs, in the media, and in a whole host of books. It’s not easy to know where, or even how, to start.
Over the past 80+ years, our food has been through a lot of changes, many of them damaging to our health. The introduction of artificial ingredients (colors, flavors, and sweeteners), chemical preservatives, ultra-processed carbohydrates, cheap refined sweeteners, and highly addictive junk food have all had a significant, negative impact. And science now shows a significant link between these negative ingredients and poor health conditions. The rates for diabetes, obesity, heart disease, autoimmune disorders, and even cancer have soared. All while our food has become more and more processed.
I Love Green Living was born out of an idea to share the five pillars of health: Health and Wellness, Natural Beauty, Vibrant Families, Connectivity, and Non-Toxic Living.
So, the concept of food – real food – is one of the cornerstones of our mission to help you live your best, healthiest life.
So let’s start by getting all the buzz words out of the way and setting a definition for real food. When looking at all of the hype, you need to consider that there’s a mix of terms. They include:
- clean eating
- clean label
- food transparency
- intuitive eating
- low processed food
- slow food
- transparent labeling
Here at I Love Green Living, we prefer the term “real food” and define it as:
“Ingredients that are as close to their natural state as possible and which are identifiable, minimally processed, and nourishing.”
Or, as Michel Pollan says, “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”
Because our modern diet is sometimes also called the Standard American Diet. The acronym, SAD, seems appropriate here. This SAD food plan includes ultra-processed foods, highly refined grains, a large amount of added sugars, processed fats, and even processed meats.
One study, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, found that the correlation between weight gain and ultra-processed foods was more pronounced for women. Meanwhile, a different study in a cancer journal found that high levels of consumption of processed meats may be linked to increased risk for prostate cancer among black men. So these are just two examples of the spectrum of health issues which are now being shown to have a clear connection to poor food choices.
Don’t just eat; nourish your body
It’s a startling thought, but it is possible to be overweight and still be malnourished. Mervyn Deitel, M.D. said it best, “The commonest form of malnutrition in the Western world is obesity.”
More than simply feeding yourself, you should be nourishing your body. Doing that requires real, nutrient-dense foods. The easiest way to get started is to make sure you’re getting lots of veggies and good-quality proteins every day.
You want to avoid energy-dense foods, which tend to be filling but loaded with carbs, sugar, and fats. Don’t eat the beige diet, which is made up of a lot of SAD foods like white rice, pasta, crackers, and chips Foods like this may seem to be cheap, filling options. Unfortunately, they are also nutritionally deficient, leaving your belly full but your body starving.
Don’t drink your sugar
You’ll also want to skip the empty calories. Juice, juice drinks, softs drinks: these are essentially liquid candy bars. Lots of sugar but virtually no nourishment. Instead of drinking your fruits, eat them. That way you’ll get flavor, less sugar, and dietary fiber (which can reduce how quickly the sugar is absorbed into your bloodstream).
If you’re thirsty, swap out the soda for water, infused waters, or tea – especially herbal teas. Caffeine can spike insulin. So even if you’re drinking unsweetened tea, if it’s caffeinated it’s still going to have an impact on your system. These non-sugar options are a great way to hydrate without adding extra calories. If you must sweeten your beverages, I recommend honey, stevia, or cane juice crystals. And cut back to as little as you can. It’s better to eat your calories than to drink them.
Fat is good for you
By now, you know that all the fake fats which were the dietary darlings of the 1980’s (and beyond) are not good for you. Made from hydrogenated oils or poor quality vegetable oils, these types of fat have been linked to heart disease (the very thing they were supposed to prevent), obesity, and diabetes.
Fat – healthy fat – is good for you. Your body needs it in order to make hormones (all of them, not just the sex hormone). You also use fat for energy production, to support your immune system, to regulate your internal thermostat, and even to help you make healthy hair, skin and nails.
Without fat, you can easily become nutritionally deficient. You need it in order to absorb the fat soluble vitamins: A, D, E, and K. Last, but not least, your brain is approximately 60% fat. You need to eat fat in order to maintain this level and have proper brain function.
So, what are healthy fats? They’re the ones found in foods such as avocados and avocado oil, coconut oil, grass-fed butter or ghee, and olive oil. Their health benefits include increasing HDL (the “good” cholesterol), reducing cardiovascular risk factors, and even weight loss.
The object isn’t to avoid fat. It’s simply to make sure that you’re eating the best, healthiest fats you can.
Why you should choose organic
When thinking about food choices, the subject of organic versus conventional comes up. Organic anything is expensive. That can often make you think twice, or even three times, about where to spend your food dollars. You may be wondering why it’s so expensive, and if it’s really worth it.
Part of the expense for organic products is the process companies have to go through in order to be certified as organic. If the company is shifting from conventional methods to organic, they can’t just start changing their labels. They have to begin by changing to organic methods for three years, during which time they cannot sell or label their products as organic.
The organic standards mean that farmers, food producers, and manufacturers are not allowed to use any of the following:
- artificial preservatives, flavors, or colors
- ash from manure burning
- calcium chloride or potassium chloride
- ethanol – allowed as a disinfectant and sanitizer, disallowed as a feed additive
- genetically modified organisms
- heavy metals – specifically arsenic and lead salts
- magnesium stearate
- microcrystalline cellulose
- potassium phosphate
- rotenone – an insecticide, pesticide, and piscicide (poisonous to fish)
- synthetic growth hormones
- synthetic substances
- tobacco dust (nicotine sulfate)
- toxic/synthetic fertilizers
Once producers have met the requirements for organic certification, they can then choose a USDA accredited certifying agent, pay their fees, and go through the review process. According to the USDA, National Organic Program certification costs can run into the thousands. Certification and inspection (and associated fees) are part of an annual process to maintain the organic label.
The benefits of organic agriculture
You may be wondering why organic agriculture is so important. The benefits begin with crops being grown in a way that is better for the environment.
Many of the harmful chemicals used in conventional agriculture can deplete soil nutrients. This not only reduces the nutrition in the plants, but it can also mean there are fewer nutrients for subsequent crops. Because organic agriculture does not use these toxins, the soil and plants are not depleted. In fact, studies have shown that foods grown organically have higher levels of antioxidants and micronutrients than their conventionally grown counterparts.
The organic label is strictly controlled. And expensive. This is why there are some other agricultural options that you should be aware of, especially when shopping at a farmer’s market or if you’re part of a CSA. Many of these smaller farmers are growing their crops without the use of toxic chemicals, they simply cannot afford the high fees that organic certification requires.
One option is Sustainable Agriculture. According to the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program, the goal of sustainable agriculture is “to meet society’s food and textile needs in the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This thinking encourages sustainable agriculture practitioners to look at the whole system – soil, water, pollution, people/workers, social and economic factors – to determine what is best for everyone and everything involved. Many sustainable growers tend to sell more locally or regionally rather than following the large-scale, national or global strategies of commercial agriculture.
Another option is Regenerative Agriculture. This is defined as a form of agriculture that seeks to increase biodiversity while helping to correct and reverse the global impact of our current environment. It is used to refer to farming, ranching, and forestry practices that focus on improving the soil and watershed while also sequestering carbon.
What you can do to make a change
When making choices about your groceries, don’t just think of it as the food dollars you’re spending, consider it an investment in your health, your nutrition, and your environment.
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