My experience over the past 20 years as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist working in a variety of settings has revealed to me that despite the many differences in health issues, lifestyles, schedules, and food preferences that each client is facing, there is a common underlying theme. One that I repeatedly highlight and try to weave into every single conversation:
EAT MORE REAL FOOD.
No matter what the diagnosis or goal may be, this is a common denominator in every encounter I experience. Some are doing better than others at baseline, but almost everyone needs a reminder to move in this direction, as it is one of the most fundamental steps that can be taken when trying to make adjustments and improvements in eating habits to accomplish health goals.
The Internet has become a constant source of information, and anybody can write a book about nutrition based on their own personal experiences without having received any education in nutrition. I have found that so often, people are confused about what to eat, what NOT to eat, and everything in between. There’s a great deal of conflicting information out there, which can paralyze people from being able to make choices that are right for them. It doesn’t need to be this difficult!
One of my favorite resources – and one that I highly recommend for an easy read to get back to the basics of eating real food – is Michael Pollan’s Food Rules. This book highlights 64 steps to an uncomplicated approach to eating well. No serious restrictions or bans on certain foods or food groups! It’s simply a practical approach that truly makes sense when considering the culture and diets of our ancestors that were predominantly living healthier lives compared to those of us following a traditional Western Diet.
Here are just a few steps to get you started on your journey to eating more REAL FOOD.
When reading a food label, choose foods that contain no more than 5 ingredients.
In general, the longer the list of ingredients, the more processed a food likely is.
Leaning towards foods in their most “natural state” is always the best choice. (i.e. fresh produce, unseasoned nuts and seeds don’t even need a label, so these will be winners every time).
*Note: this doesn’t apply to a “recipe” which could include a long list of real foods.
Avoid foods that need to be unwrapped or have come off an assembly line.
While there are exceptions to this rule (Epic Bars, individually packaged nuts, cheese sticks), in general, this will help eliminate processed inflammatory foods that have too much prevalence in the Standard American Diet.
When in doubt, defer back to step 1. This will help you determine if your packaged snack is real or not.
Avoid foods that are heavily marketed with label claims such as “Low Fat,” “Lite,” “No added Sugar,” and “All Natural.”
This just names a few, but generally speaking these types of foods have been processed and altered in unhealthy ways. For example, when fat is removed from a food, sugar and/or salt is added to compensate for flavor.
Additionally, for a food to have a label claim, it must also be coming in a package, which should always be a red flag. "All Natural” and “Natural Flavoring” on a package or an ingredient list is not a label claim that is regulated in any way, and all too often, people are enticed by these words and think they’re making a better choice. When in doubt, revert to Step 1!
Even “Organic” and “Gluten Free” labeling doesn’t make a food healthy. There are hundreds of cookies, crackers, and other processed foods that carry these label claims and still don’t meet the definition of Real Food.
Shop the Perimeter of the Grocery Store
While this is not a fool proof strategy, it is a good rule of thumb. The center aisles and end-caps will often be where the most processed foods are located, while fresh produce, lean meats, dairy and frozen vegetables and fruit will be more in the perimeter.
By avoiding the middle aisles, you will also save time from having to read long ingredient lists on food labels!
Eat only foods that contain ingredients that you recognize and are close to their original form in nature.
This will naturally help you eliminate all foods that contain additives such as High fructose corn syrup, food dye and other non-food substances.
While we can all make improvements in moving towards a mostly “Real Food” eating pattern, this is not to say that there can be no exceptions to the rule. The main idea is to focus on real food the majority of the time, and allow a little wiggle room for some of the foods that fall outside the scope of real food.
Allyson Balzuweit has 20 years of experience as a Registered Dietitian, working in a variety of settings providing nutrition counseling and education to individuals and groups with a multitude of nutrition needs. She enjoys helping others embrace a healthy and realistic approach to eating through a positive and solution-based approach.
Allyson received a BS in Nutritional Sciences from the University of Connecticut in 1996. After completing her dietetic internship at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, she relocated to the Washington DC area, where she began working as a clinical dietitian, and eventually transitioned to outpatient counseling for several years. She is certified in Adult, Child and Adolescent weight management. After moving to Atlanta in 2005, Allyson has worked with private clients with a variety of nutrition related health issues, consulted for local fitness clubs, and has spent the last 5 years in public health, specifically focusing on patients with HIV and compromised immune status.