Saturday, May 3, 2014

What is Real Food All About and Where Does Paleo Fit In?

In preparing for my family nutrition class Finding Room On Your Plate: Real Food For Busy Families, I had to come up with my definition of real food. I've always had the idea in my head and could probably give an intelligent answer if asked, but I had never actually written out how I define real food. So, here goes:

  • Real food is any food that is found living in nature - any food that grows from the ground or from a tree, as well as animal foods. 
  • Real food is minimally processed and as close to its natural state as possible. 
  • Real food nourishes our bodies, provides us with energy and protects us from disease. 
  • Real food does more than keep us alive - it helps us to thrive!

Cooking up some healthy, whole foods!
To make it even more simple, we are talking about fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, meat, eggs and dairy. These foods provide us with important nutrients that you just can't get from refined foods. Aside from the basic nutrients, fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices give us phytonutrients, which do everything from regulating blood sugar to acting as cancer-fighting antioxidants. Animal foods give us the complete range of essential fatty acids that cannot be obtained from other food sources. Whole grains, which are given a bad rap in the Paleo world, can also be a good source of phytonutrients. You aren't going to get that from an Oreo cookie, now are you?

Speaking of Oreos...refined foods like cookies, crackers, candy, cereal and chips have been so highly processed that they have been stripped of most their nutrition. Your body has to actually go into its nutrient stores to metabolize these highly refined foods. So, not only do they not provide nutrition, they are actually stealing the nutrients you have built up in your body while pumping you full of both natural and artificial sweeteners, colors and flavors. Those really aren't things I want to be putting into my body.

A typical grocery haul.

I'm not saying that any type of processing is bad and you should only eat foods right after you pluck them out of the ground. Salsa, tomato sauce and even Lara Bars go through some type of processing before they make it to the grocery store, and you will definitely find those in my cart! The focus should be on food quality, looking for foods with the least amount of ingredients possible, knowing about proper preparation and pretty much always avoiding refined sugar, vegetable and seed oils, msg, hydrogenated fats and anything artificial.

While it may initially seem confusing or overwhelming to learn to read food labels and avoid refined foods, once you get the hang of it you can take a quick glance at a food label and know whether or not it is something you want to eat. Just today, I picked up a jar of roasted red peppers, which I would not expect to have any weird additives, but the third ingredient listed was sugar. Back on the shelf they went!

You definitely want to pay attention to the whole foods you purchase, as well. We all know by now the importance of buying organic produce that hasn't been sprayed with chemical pesticides and herbicides. Organic food can be expensive, though, and you may not feel like you have it in your budget to spend the extra money. I usually tell people to focus on purchasing organic varieties of the Dirty Dozen first and foremost. There is even an app so you can easily pull up the list at the grocery store. If you prefer to buy all organic, I think that is great! But, I don't want for anyone to feel that this has to be all or nothing. Do what you can with your resources. Any step you take toward introducing more real foods to your family is a step in the right direction. I recently attended Jillian Michaels' Maximize Your Life Tour and she said something so smart that I have never heard anyone else say before. If you can't afford to buy organic, just avoid the Dirty Dozen altogether. Focus on the Clean Fifteen, which are the fruits and vegetables with the least pesticide residues, which generally means the conventional varieties are safer.
A tasty meal made with pasture-raised, grass-fed ground beef.
When it comes to meat, eggs and dairy, grass-fed and/or pasture-raised, organic varieties are going to be the best of the best. Bonus points if you can find a local source. Again, though, it can get expensive. We buy our eggs and some cheaper cuts of meat like ground beef and lamb, sausage and pork loin from Grass Corp, a local farm that delivers to our farmers' market. They even sell raw milk, cheese and yogurt. If you do drink cow's milk, I always recommend raw, as long as you can get it from a trusted source. Like other refined foods, once milk has been pasteurized and homogenized, both the good and the bad bacteria have been killed off and the nutrients have been changed from their original state. At the very least, look for organic dairy without added hormones. Fermented forms of dairy, such as cheese and yogurt, have all that good bacteria so if you can't find or afford raw versions, you will still be getting the probiotic benefits. At the grocery store, I purchase wild-caught seafood when it is on sale. Some of our other meats are often conventional, though. I hope to continue to move toward all pasture-raised, but as a mostly stay-at-home mom it isn't in our budget right now. I feel great, though, about the direction we are going and the efforts we are making.
Nope...not my plate!
When it comes to grains, I recommend avoiding wheat and other gluten-containing grains, and looking for organic grains that haven't been genetically modified, like quinoa and whole oats. If you do choose to eat grains, don't let grains replace other more nutrient-dense foods, such as fruits and vegetables. Grains were not meant to be heavily refined or eaten in the amounts that are typically included in a Standard American Diet. I definitely don't subscribe to the "Choose My Plate" theory where grains should be a part of every meal, but you better believe I'll be enjoying my bibimbap with a scoop of white rice underneath all those vegetables and fermented goodies. I'm talking once or twice a week here as a compliment to your meal. Label reading and proper preparation are huge if you do choose to include grains. Most store-bought breads have sugar, seed oils and preservatives and are best avoided, but you can seek out sprouted or gluten-free varieties that meet the criteria I listed above and will have much lower anti-nutrient levels. You can even soak and sprout your own grains to make homemade bread or flour at home. Mmm...waffles!

So much bibimbap goodness!
I keep talking about grains and dairy, so you may be wondering where Paleo fits in to all of this? When we first started following a Paleo diet foods like dairy, potatoes, grain and legumes were off the menu. As time passes, though, my thoughts on these foods have shifted. Is eating beans and corn worse than eating a Big Mac? I think not. I have a definite "love-hate" relationship with the Paleo label because it seems to mean something different for everybody, which is why my definition of Paleo has changed a bit. The way I feel is that a strict Paleo diet may be a good starting place to find out how awesome you can feel when you remove all of the processed crap from your diet. From there, I think you should play around with it and make real food work for you. If you feel that you have more energy and perform better physically with certain foods that you once thought were off limits, then why would you avoid them altogether? On the other hand, if certain foods give you digestive distress, allergy symptoms or zap your energy, then you can feel good about removing them from your diet and knowing it isn't something you want to eat. Adding back in foods to see how they make you feel can help you to be more in tune with your body. We are all unique individuals with a unique biochemical makeup, so it doesn't make sense that we would all eat the exact same diet. Life would be super boring if we were all the same, right? ;)

I really want to know your thoughts on this. Do you follow a strict Paleo diet? Do you consider yourself "Paleo" even if you don't? Leave me a comment and let me know!