Whenever someone asks me what my biggest tip for eating healthfully is, my answer is always to eat real food. Some people may be confused by this because isn't all food "real"? So let me clarify. We live in a world of convenience, which in some instances can be beneficial, but for the most part it takes a serious toll on our health. The average person in the U.S. relies heavily on processed food because let's face it - it's really easy, and it’s really cheap. There are so many pre-prepared meals where all you have to do is stick something in the microwave for a minute, and voila! Dinner is served. You can drive through a fast food restaurant and get a burger and fries in less than five minutes and at a very low cost. You can grab a bag of chips and soda and have a quick and effortless snack. These things are easy. Unfortunately they are also the biggest culprits to our country's growing epidemic of chronic diseases. It all goes back to nutrition.
Real food on the other hand does take a little more time to prepare and can be a bit more expensive. However, I promise you that the added cost is well worth it. While processed food is full of empty calories with few if any vitamins and minerals, real food is full of micronutrients, antioxidants, is less calorically dense, and doesn't have all the nasty chemicals that processed foods are saturated with. Did you know that your body is actually biologically incapable of breaking down some of the things that are added to many processed foods (one example of this is trans fats, which are artificially made)?
I am fortunate enough to be in Sicily, Italy this summer studying nutrition, so I am surrounded by fresh, local, seasonal, REAL food. It is truly remarkable to compare the way that Sicilians shop for food versus how we do it back in the States. They rarely go to big grocery stores, but instead visit the farmers market almost daily. Their markets here are full of fresh produce, seafood, meat, and baked goods. While I was walking through the market there was actually a couple of people riding through on bikes bringing the freshly caught fish from the docks up to their booth to sell. There were so many types of food there that I have never seen before and more varieties of things like tomatoes and zucchini than you can possibly imagine.
At the seafood section of the market, the man working there was showing us all the different types of fish he had, which included to my surprise several live octopuses that kept crawling all over the counter (I'm not gonna lie, that one creeped me out!).
At the butcher shop they were showing us all the newly slaughtered meat that they still had hanging on the hooks in the back. The point is that everything was fresh and natural. I never saw any artificially made food or anything with added chemicals. That doesn't mean that these foods don’t exist in Italy, just that they are not nearly as common as they are in the US.
My roommate and I are currently learning another significant difference between the food here and the food back home. Just two days ago, we bought some tomatoes, strawberries, peaches, asparagus, carrots, cheese, and few other things. Back home, any of these foods would have lasted at least a week before going bad. Unfortunately we had to throw about half of it away today because they had already started to mold. Why is this? It's not because we got "bad" food. In fact it's quite the opposite. In the US, almost all the food you see at the grocery store is picked long before they are ripe (which can decrease the nutritional content), and on top of that they are full of chemical preservatives. They last a long time because after you buy them you usually have to wait a few more days before they have ripened the perfect amount. In Italy however, the produce is not picked until they are ready to be eaten, which not only significantly increases the quality and flavor, but it also allows them to develop all of its nutrients. They also don't have all the artificial preservatives that the food back home is full of. So the fact that the food here goes bad quickly is not a bad thing at all, but is actually indicative of the freshness and naturalness of the food.
I know that it is nearly impossible to completely cut out all processed foods, especially because so many foods claim to be natural but are really not (more on that in a future post), but it is critical to make sure that you are primarily filling your body with wholesome, nutrient-rich foods that don't have all the added sugars and artificial ingredients that your body doesn't know how to process. My recommendation is that whenever you can, you should buy your produce and meat from farmers markets or other local sources where I can guarantee they will be a lot fresher and much healthier. You should also get back into the kitchen and prepare your own meals so that you know exactly what is going into your food, and you are therefore in control of what you are putting into your body. I speak from personal experience when I say that if you shift your diet towards natural foods and decrease the amount of processed, "fake" food, you will have a lot more energy and feel much better because you are giving your body the things you were made to consume, not things made in a laboratory.