What is a Real Foods diet?
A real foods diet can take a variety of forms including vegetarian, vegan, Paleo, flexitarian, raw foods, etc but the one characteristic all real foods diets share is a focus on eating food in its most natural form. This means consuming food as it is found in nature- not food that has been packaged or significantly altered from its natural state. Examples of whole foods include fruits and vegetables, chicken, beef, lamb, eggs, fish, beans, whole grains like brown rice, amaranth, millet or quinoa and nuts and seeds. Foods to be avoided would be anything in a package that contains ingredients you don’t recognize or food that has been significantly changed from how you find it in nature. This simple way to eat allows you to reap the benefits of all the vitamins and minerals nature packs into her bounty while avoiding exposure to the unknown additives and preservatives found in packaged food. Organic fruits and vegetables and grass fed, organic meats and eggs are ideal but may not always be possible due to cost or availability. Focus on eating foods of a variety of different colors. Each color represents valuable different phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals which give antiaging benefits reduce inflammation and protect genes from damage.
The Building Blocks of a Real Foods diet.
All food is divided into three main categories referred to as macro nutrients. These are carbohydrates, fats or proteins. These categories are not mutually exclusive as some food qualifies as more than one category. All three categories are necessary for healthy bodily function. There is endless debate about how much of each category you should eat but in reality, every body is different so what is the right ratio for one person might not be right for the next. Trial and error and listening to your body are important to find the right combination for you.
Carbohydrates are the first macro nutrient necessary for optimal health. Carbs are the body’s main source of fuel and can be found in fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, legumes, pasta, crackers, cookies and natural sweeteners. In the body, carbohydrates are broken down into a molecule called glucose, which is either used immediately for energy or stored in the liver or muscles for later use. There are three main types of carbohydrates. Simple sugars are broken down quickly, producing a rapid increase in blood sugar levels. Simple sugars include foods such as table sugar, honey, maple syrup, candy and cakes. They can also be found in milk products, fruits and vegetables. In contrast, complex carbohydrates take longer to break down and process in the body because of their structure. Complex carbohydrates include such foods as brown rice, whole grains and beans. Fiber is another important component of carbohydrates. It is the indigestible part of plant foods that works it way through our digestive system, absorbing water along the way and easing bowel movements.
In general, simple carbohydrates like added sugar are to be avoided. Fruit, a source of simple carbohydrates, is usually best limited to 1-3 servings a day. People with a history of diabetes, blood sugar issues, yeast infections or other sugar related problems do best to limit their intake of fruits. Absorption of fruit sugar (fructose) can be slowed by consuming fruit with an added fat like nuts or added fiber. Your carbohydrate needs are best met through enjoying whole fruits, veggies, whole grains such as brown rice, amaranth, oatmeal, quinoa, sprouted whole grain breads, beans and legumes. Starchy vegetables like yams, sweet potatoes, squash and other root vegetables are also excellent choices but may need to be limited. Enjoy an unlimited amount of leafy and crunchy vegetables like spinach, kale, greens, broccoli, green beans and cauliflower. These are loaded with the vitamins and minerals your body needs to thrive. Try to eat a minimum of 4 servings of vegetables a day. A serving size is ½ cup of cooked veggies and 1 cup of raw. See serving size chart for specific servings.
Try to reduce or eliminate all refined carbohydrates like cookies, juices, crackers, pasta, white bread, white rice, candy and soda.
Fat is another of the macro nutrients necessary for survival. Fat is an essential nutrient necessary for normal body function. It supplies energy, is necessary for absorption of fat soluble vitamins, protects our organs and forms the structure of cell membranes. Fat is broken down into fatty acids, which can travel in the blood and be captured by hungry cells. Contrary to popular belief, eating fat does not make you fat. Over consumption of carbohydrates and protein leads to excess body fat. Dietary fats are found primary in animal products like meat and dairy but can also be found in some fruits like avocados and in oils, nuts and seeds.
There are 3 different types of fat. Saturated fat is solid at room temperature and includes fat from animal products, cheese and butter. It can also be found in some tropical oils like coconut and palm oil. Saturated fat is generally a more stable fat, meaning it is less likely to turn rancid during processing or exposure to heat. This stability makes it an excellent choice for high heat cooking. However, some research suggests that saturated fat make contribute to other health conditions so moderation is important. Unsaturated fats are naturally liquid at room temperature. Examples of unsaturated fat include olive oil, canola oil, the oils in nuts and seeds and the oils in fish and in avocados. Unsaturated fats generally come from vegetarian sources. These fats are less shelf stable and need to be stored away from exposure to heat and sunlight and used in a timely manner. They should be avoided for high heat cooking. The final type of fat, trans fats, should be avoided at all times. Trans fats are normally liquid at room temperature, but have been chemically modified to be solid at room temperature through the process of hydrogenation. Trans fats are used in food manufacturing to improve the shelf life of various food items, and to enhance taste and texture. Trans fats have been shown to raise LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) and lower HDL (the “good” cholesterol).
Essential fatty acids are very important to include in your diet. The body can’t produce them so it must obtain them from food. Fatty acids are necessary for numerous normal body functions, such as controlling blood clotting and building cell membranes in the brain. Omega-3 fatty acids are also associated with many health benefits, including protection against heart disease and possibly stroke. Omega-3’s and Omega-6 fatty acids can be found in a variety of foods. Foods high in Omega-3 include fatty fish like salmon or tuna, chia seeds, nuts (especially walnuts), flax seeds, flaxseed oil, and leafy vegetables. Most people consume plenty of Omega-6 without trying by eating vegetable oils such as corn oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, as well as poultry and eggs. Focus on adding more Omega-3 sources to your diet to balance your ratio of Omega-3 to Omega- 6 fats.
Many oils have been damaged during extraction by high heat or have been exposed to chemicals. Focus on buying cold pressed organic oils in small containers you will use in a timely manner. Organic nuts and seeds, butter from grass fed cows and avocados are all excellent sources of high quality fats. Most people need about 3-6 servings of fat a day. A serving is 8 grams of total fat. See serving size chart for real life examples of servings.
The final important macro nutrient, protein, is broken down by the body into amino acids that are then used to build new proteins with specific functions, such as catalyzing chemical reactions, facilitating communication between different cells, or transporting biological molecules around the body. Proteins are the building block of hair, skin, nails and organs. Protein can be obtained through both animal and plant sources. However, most plant proteins do not contain all of the necessary amino acids to form a “complete” protein so they must be combined with protein from multiple plant sources. Protein can be found in nuts, seeds, yogurt, legumes, beans, meat, fish, eggs and milk products. Most people need about 4-6 servings of protein a day depending on size and activity level. A serving size is 15 grams of protein and is equal to about 3-4 oz of animal protein or about 6 oz of vegetarian protein like beans. See serving size chart for specific examples of servings.
Other foods which can be important to add to a real foods diet include fermented foods such as kimichi, sauerkraut, kefir and yogurt, herbal teas, natural condiments, herbs and spices and fresh broths and vegetable juices.
Eating a real foods diet is an important first step to vibrant health but having an optimally functioning digestion system is just as important. It has been said, “You aren’t what you eat but what you digest and absorb.”