What does “eating healthy” really mean? The topic is commonly discussed, studied, packaged, marketed, and sold to consumers. It makes sense that we are mindful about our food choices, but do those choices need to be complicated? Is there a special, restrictive formula for healthy eating that is yet to be discovered? According to best-selling author Michael Pollan, the key is simple, and the answer comes from the past.
Pollan has written and spoken on the subject for over a decade. He presents a healthy eating manifesto that is based on the type of food and habits we would find generations ago. Our technological advances have amazing benefits, yet in the area of food, may be harmful.
Our generation values speed and relies on convenience. The food industry has evolved to satisfy our need for instant gratification and fast/processed food has become the cornerstone of the average diet. Unfortunately, consuming processed foods like these has direct health consequences.
Adding real food into our diets is essential for our long-term health. Here are 10 of my favorite rules that Pollan has put forth for eating simple, real foods:
1. As close to raw as possible
Eating food as close to the source as possible is ideal. Many people adopt a raw food diet, avoiding processes that reduce nutrients before the food is consumed. It makes sense that if we are going to look to the past for our food choices, hunter-gatherers would be an ideal role model.
The key to long-term dietary changes is to make them slowly. Adopting a highly restrictive diet all at once is not advised because it’s complicated and more likely to leave you feeling deprived. Eating food should be an enjoyable experience, not something that makes you feel guilty.
While it is important to break the habit of fast food, raw may not be a practical choice for you. It is unnecessary to make ALL your food from scratch. Not everyone has the time or energy to make yogurt, cheese, and bread in their home. Some kitchens are simply not equipped with the tools necessary. Does this mean that those people should not eat their favorite foods because they’re not homemade? Absolutely not! These traditional foods are important, and offer valuable nutrients, they’re also delicious. Instead of excluding any food that is made by others, consider this question when deciding whether you should eat something or not:
“If I had enough time and the right tools, could I make this at home?”
If your answer is yes, then that food is close enough to raw to be considered real. You should investigate its source and ingredients, then enjoy it. Be thankful for those that are able to make the real food we love convenient for us.
2. Read labels
Food labels have evolved into long lists of complex, multi-syllable words that are difficult to decipher. The basic guideline for labels is, if you don’t understand what is in it, it isn’t real food. The list of ingredients on a label should be recognizable, and not more than 5 items long. Also, avoid any foods that claim to be “nonfat” or “light” since this is a sign that it contains additives.
3. It must rot
If a food item can sit in your pantry for more than a week without changing, it isn’t real. Real food rots. It changes color, grows mold, and starts to smell. These changes are important, since they indicate a presence of nutrients and an absence of chemical preservatives.
4. Investigate sources
Foods such as meat and grains are not easily made at home. They also have a more complicated journey from farm to table than produce. This makes it important to investigate your sources. Read labels on grains to ensure they are whole and made with a minimum amount of ingredients. If you find something on the label you don't recognize, look it up.
Your source for meat should be forthcoming about the food their animals are fed and their living conditions. Many times this information can be found on the label and by a quick virtual visit to their farm's website. Farms that are certified organic are easily recognized as providing a quality source of real food to their animals, and in turn, produce meat that is healthier than the average from an industrial farm. If you have concerns or would like to know more, speak with the butcher at your local grocery store.
5. Mostly plants
A diet that includes a variety of fruits and vegetables is shown to have incredible health benefits. Though the recommended daily amount is 5 servings, more is always better when it comes to plants.
Plants are affected by the soil in which they grow. Consider the source when purchasing produce; choose organic whenever possible.
6. Eat local
Our ancestors ate what was available in their area while it was in season. Besides canning and curing, once a type of food was out of season, it wasn’t eaten. This method of rotating crops and having a varied diet had definite health benefits. The “slow food” movement is an example of the increased awareness that eating close to home and as natural as possible is best.
Along your real food journey, you may want to explore growing your own foods. Starting with a simple herb garden is a great way to get hands on, and make a difference with your choices. Gardening food can be as simple as a container of tomatoes on your patio, or as elaborate as a quarter-acre plot. Enjoy the process of seed to table.
7. Skip the sweetener
Instead of chemical sweeteners, find ways to get natural sweeteners directly from nature. Try honey, agave, and 100% maple syrup as an alternative.
8. Shop the perimeter of the store
In most grocery stores, the middle aisles are home to processed foods. This leaves the outer edges for the produce, dairy, bakery, and meat departments. Skipping the cereal and cookie aisles reduces the chances that you’ll end up with anything but real food in your cart.
Keep in mind that there are some exceptions to this rule. Stores with health food departments commonly place them towards the edges of the layout of the store. The location of food also does not mean you should skip reading labels. A great example of the importance of label reading is yogurt. Even though yogurt is usually located on the edge of the store, a quick read of the label can reveal a surprising amount of high fructose corn syrup.
9. Cook your own
Have a favorite food item? If sourdough bread is your idea of the perfect toast, consider making your own. The DIY route is also a great way to get high quality dairy products. The process can be complicated but provides amazing results. The best part is you are rewarded with your favorite foods and a list of ingredients that YOU chose.
10. Plan ahead
Eating real food requires preparation. You may find yourself taking extra time in the store aisles, simply reading labels. Over time, you will find high-quality sources that are reliable. Planning ahead also eliminates the temptation to grab something processed out of convenience. It’s not always possible to prepare a meal from scratch, especially if you travel. Packing snacks is a great example of planning ahead to keep real food simple.
Above all, remember Michael Pollan’s advice: “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.”