What Do You Mean Real Food?

The most significant mindset change I make with clients isn’t on a bench. Nor is it in a squat rack. It isn’t while having them do sprints on the bike or treadmill. In fact, it isn’t even on the gym floor.

The hardest mindset change is trying to convince a person that most of what they understand about nutrition is at best misguided, with some things being just plain wrong. I start off with a simple statement. “Everything I teach you about nutrition will be basically centered around you eating real food, with an emphasis on nutrient density.”

“What do you mean real food?” they’ll often ask. This is of course the very question I want them to ask. Not just that they would ask me this while we’re sitting there together, but that they would start to ponder this question often in the days to come. The unpacking of this idea truly happens over several conversations, over several weeks. For our purposes here, I’ll try and break down the concept into topics.

DEAD OR ALIVE(or none of the above)
Eating real food starts with thinking about where food comes from. Was my food once alive? This didn’t have to be a consideration until about 100 years ago. Did that bag of Cheetos grow in a field? I know. That question is ridiculous. But really, where did the ingredients that were used to make that snack come from? Now the question’s not so ridiculous, is it. The processing of food is nothing new, but the scope of what is considered “edible” and accepted as healthy substitutes for the plants and animals that have been consumed for thousands of years, has gotten out of hand. The less mystery food, the better.

NUTRIENT DENSE(or nutrient dunce?)
Nutrient density is a measure of the micronutrients found in a particular food. The more micronutrients found, the more nutrient dense a food is. Some primo examples of nutrient dense foods include salmon, kale, seaweed, garlic, walnuts, brazil nuts, shellfish, organ meat, sardines, blueberries, egg yolks, bone broth, and cocoa. Some examples of nutrient deficient foods include things like soda, iceberg lettuce, most frozen pre made meals, most common breads and pastas, and the entire menu at Taco Bell (sorry Ben). You’ll notice that most of the foods that champion nutrient density list I’ve included need to be prepared, which brings me to my next topic.

If you’re independently wealthy and can hired a service to make your meals for you, kudos to you. For the rest of you, time to start “adulting” and learn how to cook. Why? Assuming the same ingredients, there does not exist a pre made food that is as healthy as what you can cook at home. This is because the process of preparing food depletes nutrient content. At the same time a variety of awesomely terrible things are added in the processing of food. Some common items include: sugar(in its multitude of forms), preservatives(so your lean-cuisine doesn’t resemble a chia pet), artificial colors and flavors(you’ll never guess what part of the beaver is used), and salt (enough to rival the Dead Sea).

A balanced macronutrient profile is as important as the micronutrient content in the food we eat. There are two considerations when considering macronutrient proportions. Genetics and activity level. Genetics help determine how an individual breaks down fats versus carbohydrates, and as a result, what proportion of each of these energy sources their body desires to run optimally. Similarly, each individual has a different required minimum for protein intake, and better assimilates protein from different sources.

If you learn to listen to what your body is trying to tell you, making healthy eating choices gets a lot easier. One of my favorite debates is on whether gluten is good or bad. The question is fine, but is grossly oversimplified. The question should be, does my body digest gluten well? The change in the question is subtle, but important. You may not digest gluten well. Someone else might digest it just fine. Once again, let’s begin with genetics. Everyone has a different ancestral background. If you have German ancestry for instance, you are likely to thrive with a high fat diet. If on the other hand you come from the Oromo people of Ethiopia, you would likely thrive under a high fiber high carbohydrate diet. When the exact same diet protocol is prescribed for every person, only some will thrive. Those that don’t fit the prescribed generalized diet will only find themselves getting frustrated.

If you’ve already started the journey to better understand nutrition, you may notice that all of the above concepts fit into the the “paleo” nutrition idea. The basic premise being that since we evolved from the Paleolithic people, we should pattern our eating habits after the kind of diet they ate(namely, eat real food). While I reject the premise, I am a huge fan of 98% of the diet that is recommended out of this premise(I guess you could say I saved the baby, and threw out the bath water). Because of this I happily accept the label “paleo trainer” or “paleo nutrition coach”. The label isn’t important, just the result.
Though it’s admittedly complex, nutrition comprehension isn’t unattainable. It can be learned. And if you’re interested, I’d love to help you learn.