“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” This is the mantra Michael Pollan uses in his book, In Defense of Food, to explain what people should eat. It’s a helpful summary, but it’s not exactly thorough because he goes on for hundreds of pages to explain what he means by this. Different people use different guidelines when they are trying to follow a “real food” diet, but here are some general principles:
1) Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Don’t worry about which ones are better for you, just eat lots of them.
2) Focus on whole grains. If grains are highly processed, they lose a lot of their nutritional value. See Lisa Leake’s helpful explanation of the various types of grain. For those of us with gluten intolerance, brown rice flour and almond meal are good alternatives for baking. Also, single-ingredient brown rice cakes and brown rice crisp cereal are options.
3) Eat foods that are as close to their natural source as possible. For example, steel cut oats are better for you than rolled oats, and rolled oats are better than quick oats. They are all better than the pre-flavored packets of oatmeal.
4) Make as much as you can from scratch. As long as you aren’t leaning on white flour and sugar, homemade foods will almost always be better for you than prepared foods that you buy at the store.
5) When buying a food item, choose the least processed version possible with the fewest number of ingredients. For example, if you are shopping for peanuts, you’re better off buying a package that only lists “peanuts” in the list of ingredients. Look at a package of Planters Dry Roasted Peanuts and you’ll notice they have 13 ingredients, including sugar, gelatin, corn syrup, and maltodextrin. Who needs all that on a peanut?
6) Avoid buying food that has chemicals or added sugar in its list of ingredients.
7) If you eat meat, don’t eat a lot of it, and buy the local, grass-fed version.
When describing their food choices, many people lean on the cliché, “Everything in moderation.” I’m not a big fan of this expression. I like the principle behind it, as it directs people away from extremes. However, what I don’t like about this expression is that I think it’s so vague that it gives people permission to eat processed food every day, just not every meal every day. Someone could use this expression to justify eating at McDonald’s three times a week. They’re not going every day, so that’s moderation, right? I don’t think everything should be eaten in moderation. There are many things that should only be eaten on occasion (i.e. less than once a week).