Easy, right? Everyone knows what “real food” is, don’t they? Sadly, not. It is not labelled “all-natural”, or “made from whole grains” or “fortified with vitamins and minerals”. It usually does not come in boxes, or have an indefinite shelf life. Just because something says “organic” on the label, don’t be fooled!
So What Is Real Food?
Real food is a nutritious, edible plant or animal product in its least-processed available form. It is usually perishable, does not have an indefinite shelf life (though there are some exceptions!), and must be kept refrigerated, frozen or at the very least in a “cool, dry place”.
Let's also get this out of the way right at the start - if it has added sugar, sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, aspartame, sucralose, or some other refined sweetener added in any way, shape or form, it shouldn't be going in your body.
But let's give you a bit more info on what it really is:
Fruits and Vegetables
You know, those things that grow on trees, bushes, or otherwise started out as a seed and came up from the earth. Those things your mom may have always told you to eat when you were growing up that you hid in your napkin and threw out after dinner was over. Well, it turns out your mom was right, and you should be eating them!
Fresh (and fresh-frozen, and some canned) fruits and vegetables are packed with nutrients, fibre and all kinds of other good stuff that will keep your body healthy, lean and strong. Eat as much of as big a variety of minimally-processed fruits and vegetables as possible. We could get into more detail of organic, local, and in-season, but for now just focus on the basics – real, whole fruits and veggies. The key here is minimally-processed.
- If you can crack open a bottle and drink it, even if it says “provides 2 servings of vegetables” on the label, it is NOT real food.
- If it comes pre-cooked or ready to microwave in a package swimming in sauce, it is NOT real food.
- If it is canned or bottled and has anything on the label other than what it is supposed to be (E.G. if there is added sugar or preservatives, or some unpronounceable super chemical on the label), it is a NO.
Meat, Poultry, Seafood, Eggs and Dairy
I know I’m lumping a lot of things together here, but if I don’t, this will be a mighty long article! While there is a lot more specific detail of the best types of each of these to eat (E.G. grass-fed beef, free-range poultry and eggs, wild-caught seafood, etc.), let’s just get the real thing first, then we can talk about the best forms another time.
With meat, poultry and seafood, it’s pretty straightforward – buy it from the meat, poultry or seafood counter at your grocery store, and if it's not ground into a paste and is without any added flavourings, seasonings or preservatives, it’s a relatively safe bet it is the real deal.
- If it’s pre-cooked and frozen, in batter, sauce or otherwise, or has anything other than “chicken”, “beef” or whatever it is you are after on the label ingredients, it is NOT real food.
- If it is a sausage of any kind (unless you’ve made it yourself from scratch), “luncheon meat” (I mean really, what the heck is that, anyway?), “head cheese” (ditto!) or anything like that, again, it is a NO if optimum body composition is your goal.
- When it comes to dairy, if it has any flavouring or sugar added, it is NOT real food (some would also argue that any dairy that is pasteurized isn’t either, but again – another day!)
Nuts, Seeds and Oils
Raw, whole, unsalted nuts and seeds are a great source of healthy fats, as are cold-pressed, minimally-refined oils like extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil and flax seed oil.
- The more common cooking oils (canola oil, peanut oil, grape seed oil, corn oil, etc.) are usually processed with a lot of heat and/or highly chemically refined - these do NOT count, and should be avoided at all costs!
- If the nuts you have in your cupboard are peeled, roasted in oil, heavily salted or covered in sugar, they are NOT real food.
Legumes - Beans, Peas and Lentils
With legumes (a group of foods which includes all beans, peas and lentils), whether dried, canned or frozen, the key again is plain and minimally-processed.
- Whether dried, canned or frozen, if it is listed as being in any kind of sauce, having any kind of flavouring, or has much else other than "beans" and maybe water on the label ingredients, it is a NO
- I know it's disappointing if you're a Mexican food lover, but refried beans don't count either!
Can you name five whole grain foods? Are you sure those are whole grains? Some recent surveys by the folks at Precision Nutrition found that people believed the following to be whole grains:
- Whole wheat bread
- Quaker quick oats
- Whole wheat pasta
- Whole grain crackers
- Brown Rice
What do you think?
In actual fact, NONE of the above qualifies as whole grains, which are whole, intact, seeds of plants. Likewise, don’t be fooled by those breakfast cereals that sport big “Made With Whole Grains” banners on them. Some examples of real whole grains are:
- Plain full-flake or steel-cut oats
- Plain amaranth
- Plain quinoa
- Plain millet
- Plain wheat berries
- Plain barley
- Plain wild rice
Note that I’m specifying “plain” here to differentiate these from pre-packaged, flavour-added varieties. If any of these are made into flour, unless you are grinding it yourself, you can no longer consider them whole grains!
Just to make it clear – bread, cereal, chips and pasta of ANY kind are NOT real food. This does NOT mean we are saying "never eat them", but they should not form the bulk of, or even a large part of your diet if optimum body composition is your goal.
That Should Do For Now
Like I said in a number of the sections above, there is a lot more detail on the best kinds of each food to eat that we can go into, and will another day. For now, use the information above and compare it to what you eat – how much of what you eat every day could be considered real food?