What is "Real Food?" Dietitians Weigh In
For the past few years, you've likely heard how vital it is to feed our children and ourselves more so-called "real food." Adding to—if not starting—the conversation, popular food writer Michael Pollan weighs in on all things food in his bestselling book, Food Rules. In it, he defines "real food" as "plants, animals and fungi people have been eating for generations." Pollan also refers to most new products offered in supermarkets each year as "edible food-like substances" and describes such foods as "highly processed concoctions designed by food scientists, consisting mostly of ingredients derived from corn and soy that no normal person keeps in the pantry, and that contain chemical additives with which the body has not been long acquainted."
Although many parents and experts alike may agree with Pollan's point of view, there's no formal, universally accepted definition for "real food." Even if there were, it's likely parents who want to feed themselves and their growing children better would go about doing so in different ways. Still, I thought it would be fun to take to Facebook and Twitter and ask my registered dietitian colleagues what they think "real food" really is.
According to Marty Yadrick, "real food" is anything edible. Sheryl Lozicki thinks of "real food" as food that is minimally processed and nourishing. Alexandra Lautenschläger concurs, adding that "real foods" have few ingredients.
Janet Bond Brill, PhD thinks of "real food" as food that is eaten the way Mother Nature intended it to be eaten—for example, an apple rather than apple pie. And Maggie Green says, "If "real food" means it's tangible, then all food is real. If "real food" means it's not processed, that excludes foods like olive oil and butter." According to Lauren Slayton, "For many parents, "real food" is food they serve their children—it doesn't come from a package or from a factory."
Regan Jones concedes that that term "real food" means different things to different people (something that came across loud and clear when I posted the question on Facebook and on twitter in the first place). According to Jones, "In it's truest sense, "real food" represents foods that we recognize in their most basic, natural form—how they grew from the ground, what animal produced the milk, or even the tree on which the fruit grew. But busy, modern day lives mean we don't/can't eat at that most basic root level—so for my purposes, "real foods" are foods that have been processed in a way to allow for convenience (like peeling or grinding) and safety (like pasteurization)." The co-creator of HealthyAperture.com, an image-based recipe discovery platform—and the only site of its kind moderated by registered dietitians and solely focused on healthy food blogs—Jones says, "While we (at HealthyAperture.com) don't shun all advances by food manufacturers, we do like to focus on ingredients that are easy to recognize and understand."
Supermarket dietitian Leah McGrath thinks terms like "real food," "whole food" and "clean eating" are elitist and simply give certain foods and eaters undeserved status. To McGrath, "real food" is anything we can safely consume. Rebecca Scritchfield also takes issue with the term "real food." In her opinion, it's a term that's full of judgment. That said, Scritchfield thinks of "real food" as food you can make in your kitchen, even if you don't. "I can make homemade corn tortillas in my kitchen for fish tacos or migas, but I can also buy them. I can also make chocolate chip cookies with real butter and sugar and don't need to use applesauce or other "replacements" to call it real. Like Scritchfield, Danielle Omar thinks of "real food" as food that she can make or grow myself. She says, "I can make yogurt, but I can't make Cool Whip or Velveeta cheese."
Roseanne Rust believes that trendy and simple terms like "real food" that get pitched to and by the media as sound bites never explain the whole picture. She's also tired of simple "X is bad" statements and "Avoid X challenges." According to Rust, "Food and eating is personal. "Real" is not what matters. What matters are healthy eating behaviors and patterns."
However you define "real food," the bottom line is clear—at least to me. Most of us don't own and run a farm, or grow most (if any) of our own foods. If we can produce some of our own food via a garden, or rely on a local farmer's market for fresh, locally grown produce, fantastic! But if that's not possible—or we haven't yet made time for it (guilty as charged), following a few simple rules can help us feed and nourish our families without making ourselves crazy.
Eating foods—mostly plants, as suggested by Michael Pollan and so many of us registered dietitians—and choosing mostly foods that are made with minimal amounts of solid fats and added sugars (SoFAs) that provide empty calories can certainly help. Eating a dietary pattern consistent with MyPlate and keeping portion sizes of foods that don't neatly fit into any recognizable food group can also help. (For example, foods like low fat chocolate milk or Hershey Kisses can be included as part of kids' daily SoFA calories if that's how they'd like to spend those extra calories).
How do you define "real food?"
Image of healthy lifestyle concept via shutterstock.