How to Be Healthy Series Learn to Eat Real Food

The Internet is filled with advice on how to be healthy. Some of it is true, a lot of it isn’t. Most of it ignores the core components of physical health in favor of recommending the latest “super” food or juice “cleanse”. These aren’t the tried and true methods that have allowed people to lead healthy lives for decades.

I’ll give it to you straight. If you want to be healthy, focus on building these habits: eating real food, exercising consistently, and getting enough sleep.

A common misconception is that if you want to be healthy, the first place to look is the gym. People flock there every New Year, hop on the treadmills, and try to burn off the holiday weight. Exercise is extremely valuable to a healthy lifestyle, but it’s not the most important.

The best way to change your body is to change what you put into it. As many studies have shown, weight loss due to exercise alone is often minimal and is easily undone by bad eating habits. Even if you work out every day, you can’t improve your body if it lacks the proper nutrients to work with. If you want to make progress, work on your diet first.

So what does healthy eating look like? Well, if the goal of putting food into our mouths is to gain the nutrients we need to function, it follows that a healthy eater would find foods that contain those nutrients (real food) and avoid the harmful foods that have found their way into our diets (unnatural food).

What is Real Food?

Real food contains the nutrients we need. It’s the food health experts agree should form the staple of our diet: meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. Here’s how a leading fitness expert describes healthy eating as part of his “Fitness in 100 Words”:

“Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.”

– Greg Glassman, CrossFit CEO and Founder

If you’ve ever looked at the now-retired food pyramid, you might be wondering why grains are left out of that statement. Nutritionists categorize grains (think bread products, pasta, rice) as a starch, along with legumes (beans, peas, etc.) and foods like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and corn.

Starches are complex carbohydrates, and while appetizing, they’re low in nutrients and can have similar effects to sugar. Eating lots of starch raises blood sugar levels and its addictive qualities can easily lead to weight gain. Enjoy starches, but enjoy them in small amounts.

Dairy isn’t on Glassman’s list, but it can be beneficial (for the lactose tolerant). When you buy dairy, pay attention to the products you buy. Independent, science-based website Authority Nutrition says low-fat dairy has few benefits and is “often loaded with sugar.” Instead, they recommend dairy that is “grass-fed/pasture-raised and full-fat.”

Learn to love your veggies

Most Americans have no problem eating enough meat, but researchers found that merely 9% of Americans eat enough vegetables and only 13% eat the recommended amount of fruit.

Only 9% of Americans eat enough vegetables — the most important item in a healthy diet

Fruits are delicious — there’s no excuse you shouldn’t be eating adequate amounts.

Vegetables, on the other hand, can be an acquired taste. Since they should make up the bulk of your diet, it’s good to find ways to enjoy them. Here’s a few tips:

It doesn’t have to be organic to be healthy

When asked about the biggest thing one can do for one’s health Dr. Mark Harman, one of the most trusted experts in health, answered “just eat real food. Doesn’t have to be expensive, doesn’t have to be organic.”

Organic is one of those terms you hear a lot but its meaning is often confused. Dietitian Mary Jane Brown, PhD, of Authority Nutrition says this: “Organic foods have been grown or farmed without the use of artificial chemicals, hormones, antibiotics or genetically modified organisms.” This is opposed to so-called conventional foods which are grown or produced without that list of chemical additives.

Does that make organic food better? There’s a lot of debate over this, but it’s difficult to pinpoint hard evidence that conventional foods are damaging to our health. This is because long-term nutrition studies have so many variables, leading to results that are often inconclusive.

So yes, organic food is likely better for you because it isn’t genetically modified or produced with artificial chemicals. If you can afford it, buy organic. But what’s most important is that you eat real food, organic or otherwise.

Harmful Foods

Unfortunately, the common American diet is filled with harmful foods that have made their way into our grocery stores and restaurants, namely sugar and processed foods.

1) Sugar, in its many forms

There are two main kinds of sugar: added sugar (bad) and naturally-occurring sugar (fine), the latter being found in fruits and vegetables. Added sugar is the problematic one.

“Added sugar is the single worst ingredient in the modern diet. It provides calories with no added nutrients and can damage your metabolism in the long run. Eating too much sugar is linked to weight gain and various diseases like obesity, type II diabetes and heart disease.”

- Authority Nutrition

Ideally, sugar should be avoided because it has no helpful function, only harmful. The World Health Organization states the maximum amount of sugar you should have in a day is 5% of your total energy intake, or about 25 grams (6 teaspoons) a day for the average person.

This is far less than the average amount of sugar adults in the U.S. consume each day: 84 grams by men and 60 by women (National Center for Health Statistics). That means we’re eating roughly 3x the maximum amount we should be.

Where is all this sugar coming from?

In the modern diet, sugar is everywhere. Not just in the obvious sweet foods, but even in places you might not expect: fruit juice, salad dressing, sauces, bread, frozen meals, peanut butter. Cereal, granola bars, yogurt — they are loaded with sugar.

Matters are made worse in that food companies hide sugar in their ingredient list by calling it other names. In fact, there are 61 names for sugar, including agave nectar, cane juice, corn syrup, dehydrated cane juice, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fruit juice concentrate, honey, high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin — you get the point. Even products that advertise “no added sugar” often use artificial sweeteners, like Aspartame, which are just as bad or worse than sugar.

Sugar Stacks
How much sugar are you eating?

Replace sugary foods with healthy alternatives

Next time you’re at the store, be sure to check nutrition labels to see how much sugar is in a product. Take into account that this number is just for one serving size, which is kept intentionally small to make the sugar count seem low. And remember: try to stay under 25 grams of sugar a day.

Replace these With these
Soda and energy drinks Fresh fruit juices, coffee, tea, water
High sugar baked goods Fresh or dried fruit, nuts
Ice cream, high sugar yogurts Homemade smoothies
Most cereals Homemade granola, oatmeal, fruit, eggs

If you want to learn more about how scary sugar is, check out these articles and videos:

2) Processed Foods

Processed foods are “foods that have been chemically processed and made solely from refined ingredients and artificial substances” (Authority Nutrition). Essentially, they’re the opposite of real food.

Basically every boxed, bottled, or canned good at the store is processed. Most frozen goods, salad dressings, condiments, granola bars, cereals, snacks, and more are processed.

There are many reasons processed foods are bad: they’re high in sugar and artificial ingredients (like preservatives and colorants), are chemically engineered to make your taste buds want more (leading to overconsumption), low in nutrients, and high in processed vegetable oils and trans fats. To learn more about the dangers of processed foods, read Authority Nutrition’s excellent guide.

To avoid processed foods, skip the inner aisles (generally where processed foods are located) and shop the outskirts of the grocery store, where you’ll find the fresh foods. If you need to buy a processed good, check the nutrition label first. Generally the fewer and more recognizable the ingredients are, the better the product.

3) Fast Food

Convenient? Sure. Tasty? Yeah, it’s chemically engineered to be. Cheap? Oh yeah. Actually good for your body, providing the nutrients you need, and fulfilling the reason we eat food? Not even close.

I wish it was obvious, but many don’t realize just how bad fast food is for our bodies. I’ve actually been told by someone that McDonalds is cheap “and it’s healthy too.”

Fast foods are highly processed and provide very little needed nutrition. They’re loaded with carbohydrates, added sugar, bad fats, and sodium. Fast food is the bane of healthy eating. Avoid it as much as possible.

People generally choose fast food because it’s, well, fast. Avoiding fast food by making your own meals takes more time and preparation, but there are ways to make it more convenient:

Making the Switch to Real Food

Avoiding sugar, processed foods, and fast food is a big adjustment to your diet. You can make it easier by following a meal plan based on diets that actually work. Check the Authority Nutrition meal plans for healthy options like the Paleo or Mediterranean diet.

If you haven’t picked up cooking yet, now’s the time. Learning to cook for yourself rather than eating out or buying meals from the store is one of the biggest steps to healthy eating. It’ll save you a good chunk of change if you do it right, and it’s a fun activity to do with family and friends.

Enjoy the benefits of eating real food! Your body will function as it is meant to, better protecting itself against disease, giving you more energy, helping you sleep better and feel better.

Part 2 of the How to Be Healthy series will be out in a few days.