What is Real Food?
(And why the hell do I keep capitalizing it?)
Real Food is a bit like the Law; there are many interpretations.
Sometime it’s hard to determine the line between Real Food and not Real Food.
Sometimes a definition is based on one's personal beliefs about food.
For example, some people believe that grains are evil and try to stay gluten-free as much as possible while others think grains are just fine.
(Hint: plenty of research suggests that grains are actually evil from a health point of view, especially when they are refined and processed. What I tell people about grains is this: “If you grow, harvest, mill, process and bake your grains from scratch—the way our ancestors did whenever they ate grains—then grains are just fine.”)
But I don’t want this to turn into a long ramble about nutrition. Instead I'm going to define what Real Food is to us here at Wild Foods.
After that, you can make your own decisions about which Real Foods you decide to eat based on what you believe about food.
To start off defining Real Food, we have to look at ingredients.
Every ingredient that goes into a food product has a specific story to tell; how it was made, grown and processed.
The more you know about the ingredients you eat, the more control you have over your health... which is the point of seeking out Real Food.
Eating a Real Food diet is ultimately about promoting health and longevity. And this is done by seeking out the best ingredients you can find.
Real Food is free of synthetics, GMOs and other suspect ingredients and processing methods that have a deleterious affect on human health. This brings us to the Real Food Law #1:
Real Food law #1: Real Food is Whole Food
Like I said, defining Real Food can be tricky, especially considering we also have to define whole food.
Whole food, just like Real Food, has many definitions and interpretations.
I’ll try to make this simple….
Whole food is any ingredient you can find in nature as is, with nothing added or subtracted.
Let’s look at a couple examples of whole versus non-whole foods.
- Whole Food: Orange
- Non-Whole Food: Vitamin C - ascorbic acid
- Whole Food: Coffee beans
- Non-Whole Food: Caffeine extracted and in powder form
- Whole Food: Chicken breast
- Non-Whole food: Mechanically separated chicken (Watch this video: What Chicken Nuggets are made of)
- Whole food: Olive
- Non-Whole food: Olive oil
The last one is tricky. You see, olive oil is kinda a whole food and kinda not.
Let me explain.
First of all, you won’t find olive oil in nature hanging out by itself because it is found only inside an olive.
But if you go to an olive tree, grab an olive and squeeze, you'll get olive oil. And since you can get olive oil out of a whole food product as a still intact food ingredient, it will fit our definition as a whole food.
Foods like olive oil, ones that are a step away from their natural state, can be a bit tricky to define as Real Food (Good to eat) or not.
The way I interpret these gray area ingredients is by looking at how the ingredients were processed before being put in a bottle or package and put on a shelf.
Some ingredients can be gently processed and thus still qualified as a Real Whole Food ingredient. Other foods are impossible to process in a way that doesn't damage the natural integrity of the foods.
So, first I determine how an ingredient is processed and from there I can make a decision as to whether or not I still consider it good enough to eat.
In the case of olive oil, mass-produced, non-organic olive oils that are processed with machinery and heat, and that are always cheaper, are not what I consider Real Food.
On the flip side, olive oil grown on small estates using organic methods and gentle processing methods and that have a harvest date on the bottle—to ensure freshness—fit my description of Real Food.
Whole food (and Real Food) is also defined by what is not added to it.
Whole food should include nothing but what is included by nature—and nothing removed.
This means it should be as minimally processed as possible. And as we will see, even “processed” has many definitions, adding even more complexity to defining Real Food.
For example, chopping chicken into smaller pieces would be a form of processing, but ok in most cases. Compare this to mechanically separated chicken, the kind that makes up McDonalds chicken nuggets, and you see how some processing is better than others.
Part of determining if a food product is Real Food is applying our logic to every ingredient on the nutrition label—which is now the biggest struggle facing us all in our modern, industrialized food supply.
Real Food law #2: Real Food is Made Up of Only Real Food Ingredients (The Fewer The Better)
The first part of figuring out if a product is Real Food is looking at the ingredients. If you can identify each ingredient on the nutrition label as complete, real foods, you're set. If you have trouble pronouncing an ingredient, and have no clue what it is, you have a red flag.
Let’s look at some examples.
- Real Food Example - Raw Chicken
- Ingredients: Chicken breast
- Non-Real Food Example - Oven Roasted Chicken Breast
- Ingredients: Chicken breast, water, contains less than 2% of salt, Dextrose*, Sodium Phosphate, Sugar, Spice Extractives, Browned in Vegetable oil
- Real Food Example - Trail Mix
- Ingredients: Almonds, Cashews, Raisins, Pecans
- Non-Real Food Example: Big Brand Typical Trail Mix
- Ingredients: Ingredients: peanuts roasted in peanut oil and salt. M&M’s (milk chocolate (sugar, chocolate, cocoa butter, skim milk, milk fat, lactose, soy lecithin, salt, artificial flavours), sugar, cornstarch, corn syrup, gum acacia, coloring (includes Red #40 Lake, Yellow #6, Blue #2 Lake, Yellow #5, Blue #1 Lake, Red #40, Blue #1), and dextrin]. Raisins coated in non-hydrogenated sunflower oil. Almonds roasted in canola and almond or safflower oil and salt. Cashews roasted in peanut oil and salt. MAY CONTAIN: Other tree nuts, sesame, wheat, mustard, and eggs. (This is an actual ingredient list for a product.)
- Real Food Example - Tuna
- Ingredients: Chunk light tuna, Water
- Non-Real Food Example: Cheaper brand Tuna
- Ingredients: White Tuna, Water, Vegetable Broth, Salt, Pyrophosphate added. Contains: Fish, Soy.
There are near limitless options at the grocery store. In fact, it's not uncommon to see a dozen brands for a single ingredient. (I counted 12 almond butters last time I was shopping for groceries.)
Along this spectrum of choice, you will find products that can be defined as the best, good, average, bad, and worst.
And it's your job to make the best choice!
(Hint: the best products are usually the most expensive. Unfortunate, I know, but this is life and as with most things, you get what you pay for. Plus, you either pay in the grocery store now or you pay MORE to the doctor later)
You'll often find products that include some Real Food ingredients and some not Real Food ingredients.
Sometimes these products will include the most subtle extra ingredient(s), so be careful because these are the dangerous foods because they will trick you into thinking they are ok when they are not.
Be ruthless. Don't buy anything with any suspect ingredients.
It might seem nitpicky to obsess over an ingredient here or there, but it’s not.
Here’s why: products that use preservatives, additives or other crappy ingredients are likely to be using other crappy ingredients as well as other forms of cost-saving production and processing methods.
None of us really know how our food is made, where it comes from or any of that. We can only make the best decisions we can make, which reduce our odds of buying food products that will adversely affect our health.
That’s why you have to do everything you can at increasing the odds that you are getting the best ingredients you can find and afford.
Buying smaller brands, that are typically more expensive, is a great place to start. Testing various brands and determining how they taste and make you feel is how you will build trust and loyalty to a brand.
If a product contains non-Real food ingredients, don’t trust it, don’t buy it and don't eat it.
There is so little regulation in the food industry that you need to obsess over the smallest details because the smallest details are often byproducts of the big details. And it's the big details that make certain foods poison even when touting a seemingly healthy or benign food label.
To get good at recognizing Real Food, first focus on the ingredients. Aim for the highest quality, rawest and realest ingredients you can get.
Lucky for us all, a growing segment of the food industry consists of companies that focus on ingredients; how they are made, where they come from, and their environmental and social impact. (Wild Foods being one of them!)
It’s not hard to find quality ingredients if you know what to look for and spend time reading labels.
The better you get at reading labels and keeping an eye out for Real Food ingredients, the better you’ll get at deciphering the difference between the good, the average and the bad products vying for your attention.
But make no mistake about it: this is a skill and takes practice.
The easiest way to get Real Food Law #2 right is to buy only foods that include ingredients you recognize and can pronounce.
Real Food Law #3: Real Food Goes Bad
Everyone knows that “processed food” is bad.
But what does “processed food” mean?
This is where it gets tricky because not all processed food is bad. Some Real Food is processed and ok as long as it’s made with whole Real Food ingredients.
“Processed” means any process that takes a food ingredient from it’s natural state and makes it easier to chew and digest.
This could be as simple as peeling and dicing an onion.
Or it could be as complex as threshing the tops of wheat plants, removing the grains, transporting the grains to a milling facility and grinding them into a fine powder before mixing them with a list of other food extracts and preservatives before finally baking them into bread in huge gargantuan ovens. And in the case of wheat used to make bread, you end up with a product that is heavily processed and that does not fall within our definition of Real Food.
Aim for as little processing as possible in the food you buy and eat.
This means buying raw ingredients that go bad if left on the counter instead of buying products that have been processed and preserved so they can sit in your pantry for weeks on end (chips, bread, and other grain-based products being prime examples).
Real Food Law #4: Real Food requires cooking (most of the time)
Whenever you buy food that has been fully cooked by a corporation, you are taking a risk.
You don’t know how it was cooked, how it was stored and transported or if the ingredients on the label are actually what's inside the package.
You also miss out on the benefits that come from food that is fresh, like flavor and the beneficial properties inherent in raw, and closer to raw, foods.
A side note on processed foods and dental health: Paleontologists have found a link between chewing and the underdevelopment of the human jaw and the impacting of wisdom teeth. Because so much of our food is already processed for us, we chew less and so our jaws are not formed the way our ancestors’ jaws were due to needing to chew foods that were not processed. Read Daniel Lieberman’s book "The Story of The Human Body" for more on this. And as an off-topic recommendation, make a point to chew your food more (which improves digestion) and considering chewing some Xylitol gum on a regular basis for the point of improving jaw and dental health.
Real Food Law #5: Real Food Is Healthy
I said I didn’t want to get into the nutrition debate in this article, but I realized that I need to at least mention it.
My personal beliefs about food most closely align with Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint recommendations.
Paleo/Primal are the words you’ll often see when defining this style of food choice.
But I don’t like labels, especially when talking about food because they often exclude people and muddle understanding, which is why I’ve simplified what I believe about food and nutrition into as simple a definition as possible: Real Food.
For my personal eating program, I stay away from grains, legumes, sugar and seed oils (including vegetable oil).
I aim to eat as little preservative-laden processed food as possible, which means eating out as little as possible, cooking at home as much as possible and always being an educated consumer.
To truly eat a Real Food diet, you are going to have to cook for yourself. There's no way around it.
Either that or hire a private chef.
A crockpot is like a private chef, so make sure you buy one and use it as much as possible.
Bulk and batch cooking is a great way to prepare meals for the week ahead, both of which help save time and money.
Learning how to cook easy, fast dishes is another technique for home cooking that I use all the time myself. For example, you should know how to prepare eggs every way imaginable. Further, grass-fed ground meat should be a staple in your fridge since you can produce a tasty meal in under 10 minutes with nothing more than a a hot skillet and some salt.
Because the point of this article isn’t to make specific nutrition advice regarding what foods to eat, I’ll just leave you with a few links to do some research on your own.
I’ve been doing this healthy eating and exercising thing for many years now. I’ve also coached hundred of clients in both categories (I used to own a CrossFit gym back in Florida).
The thing I’ve learned from it all, and that I believe with 100% of my being, is this:
Nutrition is about food quality, not quantity.
Loaded statement, I know. But I’m going to do my best to make it stupid-simple for you.
In every case of nutrition success I’ve ever had in my life, and that I’ve seen in others, the most important aspect of nutrition, weight management and body compassion is always rooted in the quality of the food one eats.
- The more you eat at home and cook your own food using the rawest and realest ingredients you can find, the easier it is to feel great and look great.
- The less you eat out, the less calories, preservatives, sugar, and seed oils you ingest, and thus the better you feel and look.
Real Food Law #6: Real Food is The Human Diet
Most diets are about how much to eat with little, if any, emphasis on what to eat.
And this emphasis on quantity over quality is the number one fail in the countless diets, books, articles and advice out there.
Now, I’m going to drop a knowledge-bomb-fact-of-human-existence that I have recently “discover/realized.” I hope you're ready.
(Preface: I know others have discovered this concept as well, but even with my extensive expertise on this subject, and years of trial and error and reading and research, finding this simple, yet profound and succinct understanding, took years and felt very much like a discovery.)
Before dropping this on you, I want to refer to a book I read recently by Daniel Lieberman called “The Story of The Human Body.”
It’s a great book about evolutionary biology; the story of our ancestors.
Lieberman did get one thing in his great book wrong, though.
He asserts that there is no such thing as a single human diet because our ancestors ate what was around them in nature and since each area of the world had a different supply of foods there is no single “diet” for humans.
But the reason he is wrong, or at least missing the point, is because he is operating from the way most people talk and think about nutrition—they think in terms of defining nutrition as a set of rules about how many carbs, proteins and fats to eat.
But this is a shallow understanding of nutrition. You have to go deeper to truly etch out what determines ideal human nutrition.
Of course, there should be considerations relating to how much one should eat, especially considering the amount of fake and processed food we now have access to. But the thing is, my realization usually takes care of that without any extra effort or thought.
The goal is to answer the question: what is the natural human diet.
Instead of brushing this question off as ‘unanswerable’ due to the many environments and foods that varied between different hunter gathered populations, you have to look a bit closer to find the answer.
Here's the answer:
The natural human diet is Real Food. And more specifically, Real Food found in the wild.
Before the invention of agriculture, which comprises the bulk of the time human beings have existed, our ancestors ate only real food found in nature.
Sometimes this Real Food consisted of a diet heavy in starches, like the Kitavans whose diet consisted of nearly 80% of calories consumed coming from carbohydrates in the form of tubers (sweet potatoes, cassava, yams) with the rest of their calories coming from coconut, fruit and fish.
For other hunter gatherers, a Real Food diet may have consisted of mostly meat, as is the case with the Inuit, whose diet consisted mostly of animals such as seals and whales.
How can one people eat mostly fat and protein calories while another eat mostly carbohydrates yet both enjoy a lack of cavities, obesity and virtually no prevalence of modern Western disease?
Because they both eat ONLY Real Food!!!!!
And that’s why Daniel Lieberman was wrong when he said that there is no such thing as a single human diet.
There is a single human diet and it’s Real Freaking Food.
And this is also why 99.99999% of the diet advice out there is complete garbage.
Of course, agriculture added to this mix causes problems because certain foods grown by a farmer are better than others, with many foods having other less than desirable properties that can cause problems for humans (like corn and gut issues).
There is some evidence that our nomadic hunter gather ancestors did apply certain principles of farming and cultivation by interacting with the wild environment in a limited capacity through encouraging certain plants to grow, but this, of course, was nothing like the big agriculture and factory farms that now produce the bulk of the industrialized food supply.
Which brings me to the next law of Real Food…
Real Food Law #7: Real Food Is Small
Keywords for small food include: local, small batch, small farms, etc.
These are all keywords that can give you hints as to the production and methods and nutrition included in food.
The basic rule of food is this: the bigger the food operation, the worse the food.
The bigger a food operation, the more pesticides, machinery and various cost-saving methods of production are used, with each one contributing to the degradation of the nutrition in the final ingredient.
Small food is always going to be better than big food.
"Local" is another food term that people don’t entirely understand, yet often (rightly) assume is better.
Local is better, unless you live next to a factory farm, because it is likely to be produced in a small, hand-crafted way. It also did not have to travel long distances to get to your plate.
The longer a food has to travel, the more likely it is to be ripened synthetically while in a truck or barrel, usually under circumstances that are going to further contribute to the degradation of the nutrition and flavor of the ingredient.
An example: mass-produced tomatoes are often picked green then sprayed with pesticides that speed or slow the ripening process during shipment. One reason why most tomatoes at the grocery store taste bad.
This law is almost always reflected in the price of a product, as the smaller a food is, the more expensive it’s going to be.
Real Food Law #8: Real Food Is Always More Expensive Food
When buying foods produced on a smaller scale, there is going to be less yield and thus higher prices.
Also, the less synthetic help an ingredient has, the more labor and natural ingredients it requires to grow, each increasing the cost of production.
The last price variable relates to certification. The more certified a product is, the more cost incurred by the producer/manufacturer. While some certifications are more legitimate than others, there is always going to be more cost when certifying a food product.
While it's not a universal law, the more expensive food product is more likely to be better quality.
Some examples of ingredients and higher cost:
Our Wild Matcha is made from specialty grown green tea that is processed on a small organic 100 year-old farm in Kyoto, Japan. It takes about an hour of slow milling using granite stones to produce a mere 30g of matcha!
Our Wild Coffee is organic and fair trade, both of which contribute to a better, yet more expensive, product compared to the typical mass-produced coffee you find in the grocery stores. It is small-batch artisan roasted and delivered to customers as fast as possible, ensuring maximum freshness. These variables produce a superior product in every way.
As I keep reiterating, the thing I’ve learned over the years is that Real Food is the single most important aspect of health and weight management. (Sleep and stress management being the next two on the list.)
In fact, most people that go Real Food often complain they have trouble keeping weight on.
And For many, this would be a good problem to have.
Let’s summarize this all…
- Read labels
- Buy from companies you trust
- Make sure labels include only whole food ingredients
- Choose food that is as unprocessed as possible
- Eat out as little as possible (because you can’t control the ingredients and most restaurants use low-quality ingredients)
- Cook as much of you food as possible (instead of letting corporations cook for you)
- And last of all: savor the results you get in your health and body composition from eating a Real Food diet!