Fuel: Eat Real Food

September 19, 2016
Variety of organic food including vegetables fruit bread dairy and meat. Balanced diet.

Variety of organic food including vegetables fruit bread dairy and meat. Balanced diet.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. —Michael Pollan

For simple, honest food rules to live by, Michael Pollan says it best.

We used to eat real food. Many years ago, if our ancestors wanted food they would have to hunt, gather, or grow their foods. Food grew out of or walked on the ground, and wasn’t found in a factory before being wrapped up in a colorful package. It was found in its natural state, as real food. I’m not suggesting we should go back to more primitive times, as some of the advancements in the food industry have been very positive. Having readily available food has allowed us to advance as a society and shift our focus to other areas of development. However, there is a balance.  It’s become all too easy to eat without actually consuming real food.

If you walk into a grocery store, the majority of the products are substances once recognized as food, not actual food.  These “imitation foods” if you will, are convenient and greatly appeal to our taste buds. Never mind the flashy slogans plastered all over labels promising us health, happiness, and weight loss. The appeal of convenience also drives our purchases. Instead of having to prepare a meal using whole foods, we can simply buy a can, open it up, and have a whole meal ready to eat. Same difference, right? No, not by a long shot.

Making decisions about food can be really complicated. We are constantly bombarded with phrases like organic, non-GMO, gluten free, and all natural. We can now buy organic Diet Coke, but does that mean it’s healthy? No. Marketing claims on packaging have made food confusing.  A better way to shop and avoid all that confusion is to buy whole foods, which by definition, contain one ingredient. Whole foods are nutrient dense, whereas processed foods are energy dense. Nutrient dense foods provide our bodies with more than just energy, they also contain vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and water that not only nourish our bodies but also fill us up with less. Energy dense foods are devoid of many micronutrients and generally are not as satisfying – one of the reasons we often consume more empty calories.

Aside from the health benefits of eating real food, there are also environmental benefits. Think of how much time, energy, and money is takes to gather foods, process them into a different state, incorporate dozens of ingredients together into one product, package, ship it, and place it on a shelf for purchase somewhere down the line. Contrast that with picking some vegetables out of your garden. See the difference? Those are extreme examples, but it is important to think about the carbon footprint involved in purchasing foods that have traveled a long way. Even locally produced processed foods often contain ingredients that are brought in from across the country.

Eating real food is an experience for all the senses. Think of the sight, smell, taste, texture, and sound of biting into a fresh, ripe peach. There is nothing better than the experience of nourishing your body with real food. It tastes and feels good. This approach to eating definitely takes more time, effort, and creativity. But the benefit is worth the effort. Our health is truly important, and eating real food is one way we can ensure that our diets are helping support a healthy and sustainable way of living.

Tips for eating real food:

  • Buy local produce that’s in season. Try to think in concentric circles – local is best, but an orange from California is better than an orange from Argentina.
  • In the grocery store, shop the perimeter first. Stay out of the aisles as much as possible.
  • Prepare meals using fresh foods that are in their natural state.
  • Pick a day to shop and prepare large batches so you have fresh meals on hand for the week. Planning ahead is key.
  • Don’t be afraid to eat some processed foods. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Start with small changes and gradually adjust your eating behaviors over time.
  • If you do purchase processed foods, aim for products that contain five or less ingredients.

About the Author

Stephanie Howe, Ph.D., is a nordic skier turned trail runner, and enjoys racing distances from 50K up to 100 miles. Stephanie splits her time between racing as an elite runner on The North Face team, and working as a coach and sports nutritionist. She recently completed a doctoral program in Nutrition & Exercise Physiology at Oregon State University. You can learn more about Stephanie on her blog at www.stephaniemariehowe.blogspot.com and about her coaching and nutrition at www.endurancebystephanie.com.

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