I’ve been struggling to figure out how to delve into the topic of food and what to eat and what is healthy and what isn’t without being redundant and yet without assuming too much since most of what I wrote on the topic is several years old. I figure it’s worth recapping the basics, or at least, the basics as I see them. After all, it is my blog, right? Ha!
As always, these issues are complex, and I am not an expert. Please use these posts as a jumping-off point and then do your research and determine what is best for you.
Here is where I’m coming from when it comes to healthy eating and the modern food wars. Keep in mind, each of these topics is and probably will be its own post. This is only to recap what we’ve discussed before and to give you an idea of where I’m coming from if you haven’t been reading my blog for all that long.
Discussing diet and nutrition is difficult because truly, the devil’s in the details. It’s never a matter of “is red meat bad or good?” because the answer will always be, “it depends . . . what KIND of red meat are we talking about? how was it raised? what was it fed? how is prepared?”
You see what I mean?
What We Know
Real food rocks.
As much as possible, it’s best to eat real food that is as unprocessed as possible. Yes, most of us cook our meat rather than eating it raw, so food is almost always processed to a certain point. When I use the term “processed food” I am referring to food products created in a factory that have been denatured (the nutrients have been removed by the processing, which is ultimately the problem with highly processed foods) and are no longer a good source of nutrition.
Real food can be found in nature (i.e. fruit from a tree, fats from an animal not a factory, milk from a cow – ideally one that has been raised humanely and fed its natural diet . . . see what I mean about the devils in the details???)
Processed food comes in a carton or a box and has a bar code on it.
I think most of us can agree that sugar is generally bad for our health and well being. Not only can it contribute to a plethora of health problems and common ailments, it has addictive properties that make us want more. That is why it is hard to eat sugar in moderation. Ideally, we wouldn’t consume much sugar at all. (Unfortunately I’m not there yet.) Let’s not get me started on high fructose corn syrup.
ARTIFICIAL SUGARS . . .
are no better. I would counter and say they are worse. I realize that this is a hotly debated topic, but what I’ve read about artificial sugars (and if you really want to make your blood boil, read the story about how aspartame came to be approved for public consumption) makes me very reticent to feed them to myself or my kids AT ALL. In fact, I avoid them like the plague. There is some evidence to suggest that stevia is okay, but I don’t like the taste of it so I use real sugar when I bake, and I don’t buy packaged products made with artificial sugars. Ever.
I’m not saying I have it all right. I do think the evidence is complex, but at the end of the day I will always opt for something that you can find in nature and not something that has been adulterated in the hands of food manufacturers.
Speaking of which . . .
CORN and GMOs
source (also an interesting article, albeit long and a bit dry)
GMO stands for “genetically modified organisms” and this topic is a post in and of itself. What I find concerning is, most other first world countries do not allow GMO ingredients in their foods. So why do we???? We just don’t know enough about them, and what we do know is concerning.
Corn is in EVERYTHING, and I’m not talking about the kind of corn you pull off the stalk and eat in the summertime. Commodity corn that is used in so many processed foods and drinks is mostly genetically modified, and it is probably contributing to many of our modern health problems. For reasons that are too complex to delve into here (the article I linked to above explains it in detail) it is subsidized by our government so it is cheaper to produce foods with corn oils and corn sugar and, well, corn everything. And of course we feed corn to our animals, and they were not intended to eat grains. This is why I guy grass-fed meats and organic whenever I can. (Organic foods cannot contain GMOs.)
If you’re falling asleep reading the article above, watch the documentary called King Corn. In fact, do it anyway. It is thoroughly enlightening.
First fat was bad, and now it’s good. Who are you supposed to believe?
Well, it depends . . . doesn’t everything?
There are good fats and bad fats, and many of the fats we have been told are bad may actually be good for us. Go figure!! I keep my kitchen stocked with butter, lard, coconut oil and olive oil and have rid my cabinets of all margarine, corn oils, canola oils and the like. It goes back to the real food vs factory food issue. Oils and fats that come from vegetables or animals and aren’t ruined by factory processing are ideal. And there is evidence to suggest those fats are not harmful to our health.
Furthermore, the low-fat craze of the 80s and 90s was a big, fat lie. We are probably better off eating foods in their original full-fat form. I always buy whole milk and whole milk products (such as sour cream and cream cheese.) Plus, you should actually butter your veggies because as it turns out, fat helps our bodies digest the nutrients in those foods. Again, this is a topic for another post (or two)!
MEAT and EGGS
Cows and chickens were not intended to subsist solely on corn and other grains, but because the government subsidizes it, it is cheaper to do so. They were meant to roam freely on pasture, not live packed like sardines into a huge barn on a factory farm. Therefore it is ideal to buy meat and eggs from small local farms whenever possible, and when it’s not, buying the organic brands at the grocery store at the very least eliminate the use of growth hormones and GMO feed.
Milk might be one of the most complex foods to discuss. Ironically, we don’t really even need to drink milk, but since most of us do, it’s a good idea to know what we’re drinking.
We used to drink raw milk, but we got sick from it and we’re a bit unsure about it now. You can read the whole saga in my post, About That Raw Milk. I am still convinced that it’s one of the healthiest things you can eat or drink, but only if you’re drinking it from the cow you keep in your backyard AND you handle it properly. It is a hard product to mass produce.
The next best thing would be milk that is low-heat pasteurized and sourced from cows raised on pasture on a local farm. You can read more about the different methods of pasteurization and why I try never to buy ultra-pasteurized anything in this post, Pasteurized vs. Ultra-Pasteurized.
Ah yes, another sticky wicket! From what I understand and can remember from the research I did a few years ago, grains today are not the same as the grains we were eating 200, 100 or even 50 years ago. The rise of Celiac Disease and gluten sensitivities is likely due to the fact that we eat way too many grains (thank you, USDA Food Pyramid) and the wrong kind. It is recommended that if you eat grains, to soak them before cooking with them to remove the anti-nutrients, or buy sprouted flour. Also, there is a plethora of different kinds of grains, but as a modern society, we have resorted to eating mostly wheat and rice — and wheat and rice that has been so highly processed that it is devoid of nutrients. A wider variety of whole grains prepared carefully would be better for our health. This is why many people have given up grains altogether. That, and some believe we just weren’t meant to consume them. I’m on the fence on that whole debate.
ORGANIC . . . is it worth it?
Again, it depends! Aren’t you sick of hearing that yet? You will be.
I always like to say “organic junk is still junk.”
Eating healthy is less about buying organic and more about rejecting the industrialized foods that have emerged only in the last 100 years in favor of traditional foods grown and prepared in traditional ways — local and seasonal produce (preferably grown without chemicals), unrefined fats and oils, meat from animals that are fed traditional diets and without antibiotics and growth hormones, etc.
Guidelines to Define Real Food
In end of the book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan lays out five basic guidelines that help define “real food.” I think they’re great because you don’t have to be up on the latest study or the newest terminology. It really comes down to common sense. (The guidelines are straight quotes from the book; the commentary is mine.)
1. Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
Margarine? Splenda? Non-dairy creamer, anyone? I’ve long been a fan of the “real thing” when it comes to sugar, coffee creamer, butter, sour cream, cheese, etc. I didn’t know it was healthier; I just thought it tasted better. So this part of my real food journey was an easy transition. If you’re used to eating that stuff, you might want to do some research about it.
2. Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number, or that include d) high-fructose corn syrup.
Pollan says that none of these characteristics are so bad in and of themselves, but together they signal foods that have crossed the line into “food product.” I can tell you that shopping this way will seriously reduce the amount of items in your grocery cart. It will also lessen your food bill. See, it’s a two-fer!
3. Avoid food products that make health claims.
You really have to read the book for his premise about how nutritionism has taken over the food industry, but suffice it to say that if a food has to announce its health benefits, it probably doesn’t have many.
4. Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.
This is a loose rule. There is still plenty of junk to be found on the peripheries of the supermarket. Um, “Go-Gurt”? Pulleeze. But it’s a start, since mostly processed foods dominate the middle aisles of the store.
5. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible.
I used to love making my rounds — the farm market for produce, the farm for eggs and meat, the whole foods store for milk, another farm for yogurt. I’m busier now than I was then, and it’s less of a novelty. I do love to go to the farmer’s market, though. I buy most everything else at our small whole foods mart or Wegmans. This year I hope to get more of our meat from local farms.
Want more? Watch this clever 2:30 minute video for Michael Pollan’s Food Rules where he explains why organic food CAN INDEED feed the world.
So Now What?
There is sooooo much more we can discuss but this post hits the highlights (I HOPE!) I can share more about what we DO buy and how I prioritize our food purchases in followup posts.
The basic premise is, we as a culture have a lot of health problems that are likely due to our diet and environment becoming so toxic over the past 100 years, and it scares me to think what we are doing to our bodies and to our kids. We can help combat that by getting back to basics and trying to eat a more traditional diet of “real food” — I really hate labels, though, don’t you???
I would love to know what YOU want to know. Tell me what you would like me to write about on the topic of food. Those of you who asked for more, are you interested in more information, more from the media, more about what we do and why? I guess I still feel I don’t have a lot new to say on the topic, and I want to make sure I’m posting relevant information.
One final comment.
If you haven’t watched Food, Inc., rent it today! And for a good read, I highly recommend Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
9 thoughts on “Real Food: A Refresher”
Great tips! And Great timing since we are all trying to be healthy after the gluttony of the holidays 🙂
Almost six years ago my son was diagnosed with Celiac disease and several food allergies, including corn. It’s unreal how much of our food contains corn and wheat. I had to quickly clean up our diet. I did not realize how much junk we were eating until I had to read every single label and scrutinize every ingredient. Not only did I eliminate the allergens but I buy organic whenever possible. The entire family has benefited greatly. We no longer catch every bug that goes around. We feel better, mentally and physically. Thanks for the information. It’s important to take a close look at what we put in our mouths.
Great points! I believe many health issues are do to our food supply as well. I have a friend who says she can’t eat gluten it upsets her stomache but when she went to Italy and ate their bread and pasta she had no problems. It makes you wonder. Also, I can’t believe all the peanut allergies you hear about. When I was a kid, that’s all most kids ate was peanut butter and jelly!
Thank you for this. A lot of the information out there is very confusing and this is a great breakdown for the layperson.
Great article – good information to get started and I like how you have links for anyone who wants more information. I am trying to move to at least 80/20 whole food/junk food. What I struggle with is now that my children are older (10 and 12) they will fix their own breakfast and pack their own lunch if I have “convenient” foods available (cereal, frozen waffles, pre packed snacks, etc) I have gone back to packing their lunch most days and cooking breakfast a few days during the school week. Any ideas for easy things a kid can pack for lunch? (we usually pack a sandwich, fruit, chips and water bottle)
I am lazy when it comes to lunches. I try to get them to take leftover dinner in a thermos when I have good stuff like soup. But otherwise, we do sandwiches, a piece of fruit, and maybe a yogurt or cheese. I’m trying to get away from cheesesticks and just slice up some cheddar for them instead.
It must be for several years now that I’ve been following with special interest your blogging on real food, Jo-Lynne, but this was quite ‘fresh’ ; ) and was a good re-cap.
Great links! Do you have any on grains? I’d like to read more on why we’d want to eliminate the anti-nutrients, since they’re in most of the natural foods we eat anyway.
Looking forward to your future post(s) on fats! (no pressure! ; )
Thanks for taking the time to do such a good, updated summary. When friends ask me about any of these topics, I’ll forward them this!
Great recap of the basics. I spent last gradually making the shift away from processed foods. We’ve made even more changes since the first of the year. I’m interested in hearing how to find the best places to buy things like meat outside the grocery store.
Love this! Thank you! We’ve been on a journey to get back to real food for awhile, and now looking back I can’t believe we used to put all that processed stuff in our bodies. Eating better, along with taking whole food supplements, has made such a difference for my family!