Not too long ago, I received a rather lengthy message from a reader, full of questions about nutrition. One of these was “what do you think the best way to eat is?” When she asked this, I hope she wasn’t looking for an answer along the lines of “5 small meals a day”, “don’t eat meat”, “no fruit in the afternoon”, or “steer clear of fats”. Sure, these pieces of dietary advice may have a little or a lot of science and reasoning behind them, but I can’t say I’m a strict follower of any. My own personal answer to this question is pretty simple, but I’ve got a lot to say about it. If you were to ask me this question in person, you’d have a hard time shutting me up!

Coincidentally, not too long after the reader inquired about my opinion on this topic, I stumbled across this article by Dr. Mark Hyman, MD, over at Huffington Post. By the time I was finished reading, I felt the urge to get up and give him a standing ovation – at my desk. I have mad respect for the work Dr. Hyman has done and think the world would be a much better place if we could clone him several times over. I’d also say the same about Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Food Rules. I didn’t just enjoy Dr. Hyman’s article because it was well-written and about food (a topic that you’ve probably come to realize I care a fair bit about). It resonated with me because it reflected my opinions perfectly.

What Dr. Hyman had to say echoes similar points to those preached by Michael Pollan, and all of it seems down to one thing:

Eat real food.

…or as Pollan elaborates, “Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” But what is real food? It doesn’t sound like a concept that we should have a hard time grasping, right? That may have been the case back in the day of our great great grandparents, but judging by the obesity epidemic in North America and the number of processed packaged goods that fly off of the grocery store shelves, it seems the general population is confused as to what constitutes real food. Dr. Hyman writes:

A hundred years ago all food was organic, local, seasonal, fresh or naturally-preserved by ancient methods. All food was food. Now less than 3 percent of our agricultural land is used to grow fruits and vegetables, which should make up 80 percent of our diet. Today there are not even enough fruits and vegetables in this country to allow all Americans to follow the government guidelines to eat five to nine servings a day.

The very fact that we are having a national conversation about what we should eat, that we are struggling with the question about what the best diet is, is symptomatic of how far we have strayed from the natural conditions that gave rise to our species, from the simple act of eating real, whole, fresh food. When it becomes a revolutionary act to eat real food, we are in trouble.

A big A-MEN to that last sentence. Have we become that deluded and brainwashed by advertising and marketing today that we believe ‘food’ that comes in a box with an ingredients panel longer than a 5 year old’s Christmas list to Santa is actually good for us? And if so, how does one go about hunting down the real food in a grocery store?

To me, real food is clean food – as in, the foods that contain no additives, preservatives, E numbers, or other unrecognizable ingredients. To find real food, my approach is to shop at farmers markets, or around the perimeter of the grocery store. Fill the majority of your shopping cart with foods that look the same as they did when they came out of the ground or off the tree (well, minus the dirt of course). That’d be the fruits and vegetables – the dark leafy greens, the bright red berries and tomatoes, the deep purple antioxidant-rich beets, the vibrant yellow and orange citrus, the sweet crunchy orange carrots, and all of the other fabulous finds in the produce section.

I won’t go into every food group because this is already going to be a long post, but when it comes to animal products, I firmly believe that what’s right for me might not be right for you and certainly isn’t right for everybody. I’m not a red meat eater, but I do enjoy a bit of lean chicken breast and turkey. As you can see on my recipes page, I’m a big fish fan and am a big supporter of Whole Foods’ sustainability ranking system (learn more about it here). Animal protein certainly holds its value as a component of a healthy diet, but I don’t think it’s the only solution. There are so many great plant-based protein sources (legumes, beans, unprocessed soy, and whole grains to name a few) that can be easily substituted. I think everyone – even meat eaters – could do with adding more of these to their diets in place of animals, for the benefit of their own health and for sustainability purposes.

Dr. Hyman says it well:

The best advice is to avoid foods with health claims on the label, or better yet avoid foods with labels in the first place.

Unjunk our diet, detoxify our bodies and our minds and we heal. Simply choose foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, healthy oils (olive oil, fish oil, avocado and coconut oil), small amounts of whole grains and beans and lean animal protein including small wild fish, grass fed meat, and farm eggs.

There are no diets, no calorie counting, and no measuring fats, carbs or protein grams. None of that matters if you choose real, whole, fresh, live foods. If you choose quality, the rest takes care of itself.

Again – this very much reflects my thoughts when it comes to food too. However, I can’t help but give a bit of a “yes, but” in response to this last statement above, because choosing quality doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t become obese. I think intuition and eating mindfully also has to be prioritized, because even the healthiest of foods can cause large amounts of weight gain if eaten in excess.

In today’s society, we thrive on multi-tasking. I’ll be the first to admit that single-tasking is hard to do! But when we eat real food AND do it in such a way that it gets our full attention (rather than making eating a passive activity that competes with magazines, newspapers, TV, internet surfing, talking on the phone, and driving), that’s when we’re best able to tune in to the taste of our food and the feeling of fullness. Without mindful eating, it’s very difficult to keep track of how much we’ve actually consumed. You might have the intention of only eating a serving of nuts, but before you know it, OOPS! The whole bag is gone! Make the food the focus, and portion sizing comes naturally. (For more on portion control, check out this Reader’s Request post, and for some mindful eating tips, have a look at this one and this one.)

Mark Hyman sums up with:

A very simple idea can break through the confusion and plant the seeds of a revolution. Our bodies were designed to run on real food. Our natural default state is health. We need to simplify our way of eating.

Eating shouldn’t be a complicated ordeal that involves weigh scales, measuring cups and calculators. Our bodies are really clever. As long as we listen to them and fuel ourselves with real food as opposed to chemicals masquerading as food, the whole process is simple.  And that, is what I think makes “the best” diet.

And now for the announcement!

As many of you know, I’ve been a busy bee working to get my business, Spin 360 Health Coaching, up and running. I’m pleased to announce that it’s now ready for it’s big unveiling. If you want to learn more about how to fit the ‘real food’ philosophy into your life, I’d love to work with you. I’ve also got custom programs available to address other issues including fueling for fitness, healthy weight loss and gain,  goal setting, and stress management. Sound like fun? I think so! Come on over and check it out!