What foods are healthy and what should I eat? Not too long ago, this wasn’t a complicated question. People just ate what the generations before them ate and no one questioned it. Now, it seems that there’s about a hundred different ways to answer this question. Each answer conflicting with the next. I’m here to give a simple answer that has been tried and true for thousands of years. Eat real food.
What is Real Food?
Real food is something your grandparents and great grandparents would recognize. A meal with real food has ingredients that you can pronounce and haven’t been dramatically altered to become a food-like substance. You don’t need a B.S. in Chemistry to understand what you are eating.
If you are at the grocery store and are wondering what foods are healthy, I have a technique for you. A simple way to find real food is to walk around the perimeter of the inside of a grocery store. All of this food is fresh and will go bad if you don’t eat it within a few days or weeks. We are living beings so we need living things to keep us alive.
What is Not Real Food
When looking for what foods are healthy, you should avoid any fake food. Fake food, or food-like substances, are anything that you don’t recognize. They have ingredients that have names closer to chemicals than to food. Some of the ingredients may sound familiar because they appear so often in our foods. In reality, they are actually completely far removed from their original food source (I’m looking at you high fructose corn syrup and canola oil).
Have you noticed that many of these weird semi-foods don’t go bad? They can be left in your cupboard or pantry for years and would look the same. I know if I went to my parents’ house I’d find some old low-fat crackers from 3 years ago. They would be in the back looking just the way they did when they were purchased. Our bodies age and so should the foods we ingest. If we eat foods that don’t age, it actually ages us quicker, the irony!
Why Is There So Much Confusion?
Although eat real foods sounds like a common-sense idea, for most of my life I had no clue what foods are healthy. I used to pay attention to calories only, because I thought that was all that mattered. There was a point where I remember frequently eating off of the Wendy’s kid’s menu because the calories fit into my daily budget. So why is it that so many people aren’t getting the real food memo? Well, it’s because a lot of different sources are constantly telling us the wrong information.
Think about how many different diets you have seen on TV or have read about. There’s Weight Watchers, Atkins, Zone, Gluten-free, Juice Cleanses, Ketogenic, Paleo, Vegan, Pescatarian, the Subway diet, the Olive Garden diet (I’m not kidding, it’s actually a thing). Each one is telling us that we are eating wrong and need to follow their rules to be healthy and happy. They aren’t the only ones telling us conflicting messages.
The companies that make the fake foods you see in stores are smart and like any other company, they want to turn a profit. They put out commercials touting the benefits of eating their fake foods. Sometimes they will make claims that the fake foods are super-foods. Always be weary of any packaging that has to boost their health claims. If the packaging says lowfat, low sugar, fortified with nutrients, or loaded with fiber, then it is trying to glamorize itself to compete with the boring veggies in the produce section. Stick with boring, much it’s healthier.
The inconsistent messages from our own government demonizing a new food every decade isn’t helping either. One decade it was meat, another cholesterol. Even the American Heart Association has labeled food-like substances, such as processed cereals, “heart healthy”. The governing bodies that we trust are misleading us, well-intentioned or not.
So…I Should Eat Real Food, But Won’t Some Make Me Fat?
I’m going to steal a line from Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. It is my favorite quote about food. The instructions are simple. They are how we should be eating and how our ancestors have been eating long before us.
I used to be in the calorie counting camp from about age 13 to my mid-twenties (aka basically my whole life) and sometimes it is hard to not fall into the trap to this day. The thing is, if you are mostly filling your plate with vegetables, then the “not too much” part becomes second nature. When your plate is mostly vegetables, you become full off of foods full of nutrients.
The rest of your plate (less than half) can be a mix of meat, fruits, or starches/whole grains. A little healthy fat is also important. These non-vegetable groups of foods are all healthy for you as well but just in smaller quantities than your veggies.
I hope this brought a little clarity to the question what foods are healthy. The less you have to think about how to eat, the more you can concentrate on enjoying life.