Eating Real Food means eating food that is unprocessed and of high nutritional quality. This means consuming foods from each food group that are naturally high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber without added sugar, salt, fat, or other unhealthy ingredient additions. Read on to learn more about what foods will help fuel your day and keep you healthy.
What Foods are “Real”?
Thinking back to elementary school health class, do you remember what the main food groups are….? Vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, and the all-inclusive meat, fish, poultry, eggs, beans, nuts and seeds group, which is often shortened to be called the “protein” group. Protein, however, is not a food, but a nutrient that is found in food. Carbohydrates and fats are also nutrients. Collectively, protein, carbohydrates, and fats are called macronutrients, because they are large (macro) and provide calories in our food.
We must have macronutrients to live, but we must also have vitamins and minerals to run body functions and help us fight sickness and disease. Vitamins and minerals are non-caloric nutrients, and collectively we call these micronutrients. There are 32 vitamins and minerals spread out among the food groups, and we need all of them for best health.
This is where real food comes into play. Food in its original form means it is already well-equipped with the nutrition we need. Eat a variety of these foods from each food group, and you will cover your bases from macro to micronutrients, without fear of too much or too little of any!
Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are carbohydrates, and they are high in fiber, vitamins C, A, and K, and have a plethora of minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables can reduce blood pressure and your risk of heart disease and stroke. It can also prevent some types of cancer and lower your risk of eye and digestive problems. Try different types and colors of fruits and vegetables to get the nutrients your body needs. Aim for 5 or more servings a day.
Grains are carbohydrates. They have protein. WHOLE grains are high in fiber. Most grains are sources of B vitamins; plus they have minerals including selenium, magnesium, and iron.
It is best to avoid highly-processed, also called refined, carbohydrates; these grain products do not have WHOLE before them in the ingredient list, for example: white breads and pastas, pastries, and many cereals and chips.
Refined carbohydrates also include any product with added sugar, including sugar-sweetened beverages like sodas, energy drinks, and flavored juice drinks. Many condiments, sauces, and dressings will contain high amounts of added sugar also. Check your food labels to see if there is added sugar, as there are many that may surprise you!
Beans, Legumes, Nuts and Seeds
Beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds contain a combination of all three macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrates; plus they are a good source of fiber, omega-3 oils, vitamin E, selenium, chromium, and copper.
These foods are naturally high in healthy oils that help balance out the fats found in animal products, listed below. One of the keys of eating real food is to ensure a variety of fats from plant sources. Aim for a serving of beans, legumes, nuts, or seeds each day!
Meat, Fish, Poultry, and Eggs
Meat, fish, poultry, and eggs are sources of protein, fat, all B vitamins, vitamins A and E, heme iron, choline, and zinc, among others.
These animal products get a bad rap due to our tendency to overconsume them. In moderation, these foods can supply us with necessary nutrition. Best quality nutrients will come from choosing lean cuts and avoiding all processed or cured meats, like salami, pepperoni, hot dogs, and prepacked deli meats. Processed red meats are often high in sodium as a preservative and have less healthy fats that can increase cardiovascular disease risk.
Moderation in this category means keeping portions to 3-5 ounces a day for adults. Note that fish has a different fat profile (more anti-inflammatory) than other animal products and positively contributes to an overall healthy fat balance and should be consumed around 2-3 times a week.
Dairy gets its own category because it is an animal product, but it contains not only protein and fat, but also carbohydrate in the form of milk sugar (lactose). It is also a natural source of calcium, phosphorus, vitamins A and B12, plus it is often fortified with vitamin D.
Besides its natural lactose sugars, dairy tends to have sugar added to it during processing, especially yogurts. It is a good practice to read labels on dairy products to ensure you get the product with the least amount of added sugar.
Like the animal foods listed above, overconsumption of dairy, especially as cheese, may contribute to an imbalance of fat in the diet and increased risk of chronic disease. Recommended dairy intake is up to three servings a day.
ABOVE ALL…Practice Being Mindful
Aim to eat only when your body tells you it is hungry and stop when you feel full. Avoid dieting and instead, focus on slowly substituting healthier foods into your diet. Instead of using food to cope with emotions, reflect on other ways that can you address these non-food moments in your life. It is a good practice to pay attention to how foods make you feel, both mentally and physically, and let that guide your choices; healthy-for-you foods typically leave you feeling, well, healthy!
For more evidence-based information on real food, visit the following websites:
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Eatright.org
Harvard Nutrition Source: www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource
Fruits and Veggies More Matters: www.fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org