How To Dramatically Improve Your Health With A Real Food Diet
What is real food?
Have you heard influencers or health practitioners (including me) throw around the term “real food diet” and you have no clue what they are actually talking about?
You are not alone. My website is called realfoodplan.com. I recently taught a live training series in my free FB Group on the topic of “How to Successfully Start and Stick with a Real Food Diet, Even If You’re Overwhelmed and Have No Time.”
I thought everyone in my audience knew what I meant by real food diet. I forgot that just a few years ago, before I discovered functional nutrition and made simple diet and lifestyle changes that completely transformed my health, I also had no idea what this term meant.
Luckily, I was reminded of that when a question came up during the first live training video in the series asking me to explain what is real food and what exactly I mean by a “real food diet.”
So What Is Real Food?
The short answer to the question “What is real food” is an eating style that focuses on eating whole, unprocessed foods in their proper forms as they exist in nature.
It means moving towards eating less of a modern, refined diet and eating a diet that’s more in alignment with how our ancestors ate, or how we evolved.
Before you get scared away thinking a real food diet means a life of deprivation and boring food, think again. The truth is, eating this way can be both simple AND delicious.
Learning how to eat this way and the REAL reasons for doing so may not be as obvious as it seems, but that’s what I am here to teach you.
Why Is This So Important?
When done right, adopting this real food eating style may be just what you need to completely transform your health and go back to feeling that more confident, vibrant, energetic person you know you’ve always truly been.
Even more importantly, these relatively simple diet and lifestyle changes can even be the key to help you SAVE your health.
A real food diet can help you avoid continued weight gain, inflammation and an overall downward spiral of feeling like your health is falling apart…or worse, being susceptible to premature death from the top chronic diseases or virus complications.
To understand why that is, you must realize something…
We’ve Been Misled About What It Truly Takes To Be Healthy
Almost all our lives, we have been taught that staying healthy comes down to a simple equation: calories in, calories out.
Manage your weight, exercise, eat your fruits and veggies. Done and done.
Yes, those actions can be important actions and indicators to track whether or not you are taking care of your health. But the truth is, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
I learned that health is about SO.MUCH.MORE than just how many calories we eat or burn or eating certain “clean eating” foods long thought of as “heart healthy.”
And the scary part is, some of the same things you may have been doing to improve your health from this “tip of the iceberg” view may actually be making the real problem worse.
Your Body Is An Interconnected System...
And All Parts Need To Function Properly To Be Healthy
Enter the world of functional health and nutrition. Instead of only focusing on surface level indicators like calories and weight on the scale, we look at what’s going on beneath the surface.
With this more holistic view of health, weight gain is not the problem in and of itself. Weight gain is also NOT simply a result of eating too many calories or not exercising (although those factors certainly can contribute).
Weight gain is ultimately a sign of overall health being out of balance. Specifically it’s often an indicator of inflammation, improper function and imbalances in certain foundational body systems.
If you’re struggling with recent weight gain as well as the symptoms that tend to go along with it (such as feeling tired all the time, sluggish, bloated, heightened stress and anxiety, brain fog, the list goes on)…
This is a good sign that it’s time to focus on restoring proper function in these top areas.
And real food is the first step.
To really understand why that is, let’s look at the main areas of improper function we typically see…
What Causes Health To Be Out Of Balance?
This can be a complicated topic. There is even an entire category of doctors known as functional medicine practitioners that use advanced lab testing and other assessment techniques to really drill down on this for each individual.
That being said, there are a few key areas that come up almost every single time.
These are the areas that almost everyone needs to focus on, ideally FIRST before diving into some of the more advanced functional medicine work if needed.
1) Excess consumption of toxins in the diet
This includes foods that are obviously “bad for you.” But it also includes foods you may have always thought were healthy.
The truth is, the majority of the foods we eat all the time in the modern diet have actually only been around for a relatively very short amount of time in human history. And the forms we eat them in now are drastically different than that of our ancestors.
All plant foods contain natural chemicals or toxins that serve as the plant’s natural protective mechanism.
However, certain of these toxins are more insidious than others and can really wreak havoc on our health, especially when combined with other sources of toxicity or inflammation we encounter in modern life.
Excess consumption of toxins in the diet can lead to:
- An irritated and damaged gut lining, also known as “leaky gut” or intestinal permeability. This sets off a pattern of chronic inflammation and improper digestive function.
- Essential minerals in the foods we eat bind to these plant chemicals or toxins, which means they are unavailable for our body to absorb and use.
- Both of these factors set the stage to inhibit the digestion and absorption of essential nutrients, including protein.
When we cannot optimally digest and absorb protein, it is very difficult to maintain stable energy levels, regulate our appetite or achieve an optimal weight and body composition.
And again, these visible effects (i.e. weight gain, energy slumps, cravings) are only the tip of the iceberg. The truth is this pattern is devastating for the proper function of almost all organs and body systems.
A real food diet focuses on removing the top inflammatory foods and food toxins for this reason.
We will get to the specific foods in a bit 🙂
2) Sugar spikes and constant “blood sugar emergencies”
Partially due to the pattern above (impaired absorption of protein and fats) and also due to what foods we actually eat, our blood sugar and metabolism can easily get out of whack.
Sugar is extremely inflammatory. Consumption of sugar and foods that quickly break down into sugar (like refined and processed carbs) has skyrocketed in recent decades.
Our brain, central nervous system and various organs work hard to keep the amount of glucose in our blood within a tightly controlled range.
When we consume meals and snacks that are high in sugar or refined carbohydrates, we cause blood sugar to quickly spike and then crash. This threatens to put us outside the narrow range of blood glucose levels that the body works to maintain.
The brain sees this as an emergency
The good news is the body has emergency measures in place to almost immediately bring blood sugar back to the correct range.
(Assuming we don’t already have a disease like diabetes or insulin resistance in which these mechanisms no longer work properly).
The bad news is, even if our blood sugar is “normal” on lab tests and we don’t have diabetes or pre-diabetes, if we eat this way we still constantly tax those emergency mechanisms.
This causes a cascade of inflammation and suboptimal function in other key areas, such as our HPA Axis, adrenal glands, thyroid, and hormones that regulate hunger, metabolism and stress.
The pattern above again sets the stage for those “tip of the iceberg” negative symptoms, and for our underlying health to be out of balance.
Eating a real food diet with the right balance of properly prepared whole food sources of fats, proteins and carbohydrates is the first step to get us out of this toxic pattern.
3) Stress and constantly being in "survival mode"
Let’s face it. We’re all stressed out. If you’re reading this, it’s very likely you work in a high-stress job and you’ve been stressed for as long as you can remember.
When we are stressed, we go into a “fight or flight” response. This is also known as activating the sympathetic nervous system.
It’s the opposite of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the “rest and digest” state.
We are not designed to constantly be in “fight or flight.” And when we are, we literally cannot rest and digest (at least not optimally).
Stress is a vicious cycle. It is one of the main contributors to the very same gut and digestive dysfunction we talked about in #1 above. It causes us to make less than ideal food choices, which contributes to the sugar spikes in #2 above.
Being in a constant state of stress majorly taxes the body systems that play a role in regulating the stress response, especially the adrenals. This can make it even more difficult for our bodies to optimally deal with sugar spikes and crashes and regulate hunger hormones and metabolism.
Stress is not just emotional, psychological or “all in your head"
Other factors that cause stress in the body (even if we don’t perceive it as “stressful”) can include:
- Not drinking enough water (mild dehydration)
- Not getting enough sleep (or poor sleep hygiene, such as excessive blue light from screen use at night)
- Constant blood sugar emergencies (spikes, crashes and struggling to stay in the normal blood glucose range)
- Eating foods that cause inflammation and toxicity
- And more!
I hope you can see from the list above that stress is not completely out of your control.
It’s difficult to wave a magic wand and get rid of the stress that comes from your demanding job, difficult boss, and other demands of modern life.
Stress is like a bucket. Is yours overflowing?
If our stress bucket is already overflowing from some of the less obvious factors on the list above, we become less resilient to stress. Then the slightest little thing can be enough to set us off.
Yes, at some point it’s important to work directly on mindset, psychological stress and emotional factors. There are some simple habits you can implement to make big progress in this area, even if you can’t get rid of all sources of stress in your life.
But I would argue that a real food diet is a very important starting point in this area as well.
It’s difficult to get stress under control from the emotional side if we’re constantly filling our stress bucket with physical stressors.
Through something known as the gut-brain axis, making dietary changes that improve our gut health can actually make us more resilient to stress and less anxious, less irritable and more.
Changing eating habits also tends to be the “low hanging fruit.”
Those habits I alluded to that can help you overcome emotional or psychological stress may be simple, but not always easy to get yourself to actually do them.
In my experience and most of my clients, we find it is actually much easier to work on changing how we eat than diving deep into emotional factors, at least at first.
So How Do We Bring Health Back Into Balance?
Hopefully by now it’s becoming clear that health can be out of balance due to these underlying issues happening beneath the surface. Yes, even if you look healthy and your doctor says your lab tests are normal.
The goal is not just absence of serious diseases like diabetes, but for our health to actually function optimally. We want to make sure we are not on the pathway to developing any of those diseases down the line.
It’s not just about the number on the scale or fitting into your favorite clothes or having a “beach ready” body.
If you’re reading this, those may be some of your goals. But you’re really focused on true HEALTH, not merely aesthetic factors.
Real Food Is The First Step
As I alluded to earlier, the first step on this journey to restoring health from a holistic or functional level is to change the way we eat.
This means move away from modern, processed, inflammatory foods that wreak havoc on the health. At the same time, move toward a diet that is more in alignment with how we as humans have always eaten, up until a few decades ago.
When I say “real food diet” what I really mean is eating primarily foods that are:
- Properly prepared and properly sourced (free of toxins or processing methods that our bodies do not recognize)
- Foods that are naturally loaded with all the beneficial nutrients we need (nutrient dense, bioavailable forms)
- Foods that exist in their whole form, as found in nature (not processed or refined)
What Is Real Food? Other Ways To Say The Same Thing
In other words, real food means a properly prepared, nutrient dense, whole food diet. But I’m sure you’ll agree that “real food” is just a little easier to say than all that 🙂
You may hear different terms or buzzwords to refer to this eating style, including:
The list could go on and on with various diets promoted in different books written by MDs, more specific variations of the above diets, gluten free, dairy free, grain free, fill-in-the-blanks free.
Is Real Food The Same As Paleo?
Technically speaking, no.
It’s possible to eat a diet that meets the definition above (properly prepared, nutrient dense, whole foods diet) while including foods that are not strictly “Paleo.”
It’s also possible to eat a Paleo diet that is not a real food diet…if you load up on Paleo-friendly versions of processed and refined foods and packaged foods.
That being said, you will often see me use the terms Paleo and real food interchangeably.
This is partially because a nutrient dense, real food version of Paleo has been hands down one of the most helpful tools on my own health journey. It’s also because the Paleo template is very well-backed by science.
Wait! Before You Get Scared Away...
Notice that I said “Paleo template” above. That’s because diets are not religions. I don’t believe anyone is well-served in the long run by taking an overly dogmatic approach to diets.
The goal is to use the Paleo template as a starting point or framework. This can help you feel better fast, while over time determining your own personal boundaries and customized version of a real food diet to follow for the long term.
While you will often see me and others recommend an initial reset period with relatively strict eliminations of certain foods, that type of diet has a specific time and place as a therapeutic tool. There is definitely room for flexibility.
And remember, as I mentioned earlier… A real food diet does NOT equal a life of deprivation and boring, flavorless food.
It’s actually quite the opposite. Eating this way truly can be both simple AND delicious.
Which Specific Real Food Diet Is Best?
There is no easy answer to this question. The truth is, we are all bio-individual.
Sometimes, it requires trial-and-error with a few different variations to land on what is best for your individual needs.
It is far more common for me to see people get hung up on choosing a diet and use it as an excuse not to get started.
Getting started with any real food diet is far more likely to bring you benefits vs. spending a ton of time researching diets and getting stuck in analysis paralysis.
I encourage you not to get too hung up on finding the single best or one right diet.
What I am about to outline below will help you get started right on any real food diet.
In the end it doesn’t really matter which specific diet or protocol you follow, if any. What matters is that you move towards real food and away from modern inflammatory foods.
So Where Do You Even Start?
Start With “The Big 3”
If you’re brand new to this eating style, it’s easy to look into the diets mentioned above and get completely lost in studying the various food lists.
You may even get so overwhelmed and think it’s impossible for you to eat that way, and give up before you even start.
Please don’t do that!
Instead, I want to encourage you to start with the “Big 3.”
These are the top 3 modern foods that wreak havoc in the body and contribute to the inflammatory patterns described above:
This includes most bread, pasta, baked goods, pastries, cookies, etc., as well as some whole grains that contain gluten.
Don’t panic…there are gluten free versions of the above foods you can swap to while you work on making this transition.
For best results in the long term you will want to swap the above foods with whole food forms of carbohydrates instead of just replacing the usual refined foods with gluten free versions.
Most of the real food diets listed above also avoid certain other categories of carbohydrates that mimic the effect of gluten in the body.
However, one step at a time. Even just going gluten free while you work towards eating more of a real food diet can result in huge health benefits.
2) Industrial Seed Oils
This includes most vegetable oils such as canola, cottonseed oil, corn oil, and soybean oil.
These are a modern invention requiring extensive use of chemicals and high heat processing to extract the oils from these seeds.
This results in oils that are anything but heart healthy and actually inflammatory.
It may be difficult to avoid these oils entirely (i.e. if you ever eat out at restaurants, you are likely ingesting these).
But it’s one of the easiest swaps to make for your home cooked meals.
3) Refined Sugar
We talked above about how excess consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates causes those sugar spikes and “blood sugar emergencies.”
There are many other issues with sugar and its effects on health. Refined sugar in particular is high in calories and especially inflammatory.
Not only does it not supply the body with nutrients, it actually depletes key minerals, interferes with nutrient absorption and suppresses the immune system.
Our body perceives sugar as a toxin and needs to fight extra hard just to restore balance in the midst of constant intake.
Technically, all forms of sugar can have this effect. But refined sugar is an especially top priority to get out first.
“What The Heck Am I Supposed To Eat On A Real Food Diet?!”
While you are working to cut back on or cut out the “Big 3” listed above, it’s important to also focus on eating the right foods (not just what you’re cutting out).
For best results, focus on building meals with roughly balanced macronutrient ratios that focus on the following core ingredients:
- Quality proteins, including plenty of highly bioavailable, properly raised animal proteins
- Lower glycemic whole food carb sources, including liberal amounts of non-starchy vegetables as well as some starchy vegetables or whole grains/legumes to meet your personal carb needs.
- Healthy traditional fats used to cook those proteins and vegetables, or as a garnish/dressing. This can include some plant-based oils in their proper form (e.g. extra virgin olive oil) as well as animal fats from properly raised animals.
Those are the basic meal components you will want to get very comfortable with. Start there.
What About Superfoods?
Beyond the basics, you will eventually want to start learning to incorporate certain “superfoods.” These are foods that are especially nutrient dense or have gut nourishing and other therapeutic properties.
Examples are fermented foods, bone broth, organ meats, and more.
But don’t get scared off by these foods. Over time it will make sense to work them in and you will feel ready.
Keep in mind you can feel incredible on a more basic version of a real food diet without superfoods, before you’re ready to incorporate these more advanced foods.
What About Snacks?
If you are used to snacking throughout the day, try to make your snacks fit roughly the same formula, or at least have a balance of protein/fat/carbohydrates.
Get comfortable with basic real food cooking techniques and learn to love the way these simple yet nutrient dense, naturally flavorful foods taste.
The more you can work up to 2 or 3 balanced, substantial meals fitting this formula, the less likely you are to need snacks or processed foods to get through the day.
What About “Paleo,” Gluten-Free or Grain-Free Packaged Foods?
Resist the temptation to replace your usual meals/snacks with gluten free or grain free versions of the same packaged/refined foods.
It’s OK to include some of these “better option” packaged foods as needed when you’re just getting started. Whatever it takes to get away from even more inflammatory versions.
But just remember that over time, the more you eat real food, the better you will likely feel.
“OK But Really...Where Do I Start?”
My hope is that now you have a more solid understanding of what is real food and what a real food diet looks like in practice.
It’s likely that this eating style is very different than the way you are eating now.
I get it, it’s a big change. And no one expects you to get there overnight. It’s a process.
Success with a real food diet (or any type of health changes, for that matter) really boils down to one magic ingredient:
Habits may not be sexy. But they are probably THE most important ingredient to success on this health journey.
Start with baby steps.
Small, incremental changes are often better than a complete overhaul that you can’t keep up with.
This really is the best way to avoid the all-too-common cycle of an all-or-nothing mindset, which leads to:
- Negative thinking
- Saying “screw it” and throwing in the towel if you make one small slip-up
- Then beating yourself up about it and repeating the yo-yo diet cycle
Start with small changes until they become habitual and you’re ready to take on more
It can eventually be very helpful to participate in a challenge to work on changing multiple habits at once (such as a group reset or RESTART).
But it’s best to start with one small habit, build some momentum then go from there.
If you’re currently eating a Standard American Diet, a great starting point can be to start to master the basic cooking methods to put together more real food meals.
That’s why I created this FREE Carb Swappers Guide to help you get started.
This free guide will give you everything you need to take that first small step and build ONE single healthy habit immediately…
(I’m serious, you can start this today or tomorrow)
While also going deeper and learning about these real food, functional nutrition topics over time…
So you can get truly prepared and set up for more habit-building and the sustainable, lasting deep changes you so deeply crave for your health.