Real food is whole, single-ingredient food.
It is mostly unprocessed, free of chemical additives, and rich in nutrients.
In essence, it's the type of food human beings ate exclusively for thousands of years.
However, since processed foods became popular in the 20th century, the Western diet has shifted toward ready-to-eat meals.
While processed foods are convenient, they also harm your health. In fact, following a diet based on real food may be one of the most important things you can do to maintain good health and a high quality of life.
Here are 21 reasons to eat real food.
Unprocessed animal and plant foods provide the vitamins and minerals you need for optimal health.
And a single Brazil nut provides all the selenium you need for an entire day (6).
In fact, most whole foods are good sources of vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial nutrients.
Some research suggests that eating sugary foods can increase your risk of obesity, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, and heart disease (, , ).
Generally speaking, real food is lower in sugar than many processed foods.
Even though fruit contains sugar, it's also high in water and fiber, making it much healthier than soda and processed foods.
Real food is packed with antioxidants and nutrients that support heart health, including magnesium and healthy fats.
Eating a diet rich in nutritious, unprocessed foods may also help reduce inflammation, which is considered one of the major drivers of heart disease (10).
The world population is steadily growing, and with this growth comes increased demand for food.
However, producing food for billions of people has an environmental toll.
This is partly due to the destruction of rainforests for agricultural land, increased fuel needs, pesticide use, greenhouse gases, and packaging that ends up in landfills.
Developing sustainable agriculture based on real food may help improve the health of the planet by reducing energy needs and decreasing the amount of non-biodegradable waste that humans produce ().
Fiber provides many health benefits, including boosting digestive function, metabolic health, and feelings of fullness (, , ).
Foods like avocados, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and blackberries are particularly high in healthy fiber, alongside beans and legumes.
Consuming fiber through whole foods is much better than taking a supplement or eating processed food with added fiber.
According to the International Diabetes Federation, more than 400 million people have diabetes worldwide.
That number is expected to surpass 600 million within the next 25 years.
Eating a diet high in fibrous plants and unprocessed animal foods may help reduce blood sugar levels in people who have or are at risk for diabetes.
In one 12-week study, people with diabetes or prediabetes followed a paleolithic diet combining fresh meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, eggs, and nuts. They experienced a 26% reduction in blood sugar levels ().
In addition to promoting better overall health, real food nourishes and helps protect your skin.
For instance, dark chocolate and avocados have been shown to protect skin against sun damage (, ).
Studies suggest that eating more vegetables, fish, beans, and olive oil may help reduce wrinkling, loss of elasticity, and other age-related skin changes (, ).
What's more, switching from a Western diet high in processed foods to one based on real food may help prevent or reduce acne ().
Blood triglyceride levels are strongly influenced by food intake.
Because triglycerides tend to go up when you eat sugar and refined carbs, it's best to minimize these foods or cut them out of your diet altogether.
In addition, including unprocessed foods like fatty fish, lean meats, vegetables, and nuts has been shown to significantly reduce triglyceride levels (, ).
Eating the same foods over and over can get old. It's healthier to include diverse foods in your diet.
Hundreds of different real food options exist, including a wide variety of meat, fish, dairy, vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, whole grains, and seeds.
Make a point of regularly trying new foods. Some unique options include chayote squash, chia seeds, organ meats, kefir, and quinoa.
It's said that real food is more expensive than processed food.
In some ways, this adage holds true. An analysis of 27 studies from 10 countries found that eating healthier food costs about $1.56 more than processed food per 2,000 calories (23).
However, this difference is minimal compared to the cost of managing chronic lifestyle diseases, such as diabetes and obesity.
For instance, one study noted that people with diabetes spend 2.3 times more on medical supplies and health care than those who don't have this condition ().
Thus, real food costs less in the long run because it’s more likely to keep you healthy, minimizing your medical costs.
Unlike the trans and processed fats found in vegetable oils and spreads, most naturally occurring fats are healthy.
For example, extra virgin olive oil is a great source of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat that promotes heart health ().
Coconut oil contains medium-chain triglycerides, which may increase fat burning and assist with weight loss (, ).
What’s more, long-chain omega-3 fatty acids help fight inflammation and protect heart health. Fatty fish, such as salmon, herring and sardines, are excellent sources (, ).
Other real foods that are high in healthy fats include avocados, nuts, seeds, and whole-milk dairy.
Making real food part of your lifestyle may help reduce your risk of disease.
Eating patterns — like the Mediterranean diet — based on whole, unprocessed foods have been shown to reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome (, ).
In addition, several large observational studies link a balanced diet heavy in fruits and vegetables to a decreased risk of cancer and heart disease (, ).
Antioxidants are compounds that help fight free radicals, which are unstable molecules that can damage your body's cells.
They are found in all real foods, especially plant foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, and legumes. Fresh, unprocessed animal foods also contain antioxidants — though in much lower levels.
For instance, egg yolks offer lutein and zeaxanthin, which help protect against eye diseases like cataracts and macular degeneration (, ).
Eating real food may be beneficial for your gut microbiome, which refers to the bacteria that live in your digestive tract.
Indeed, many real foods function as prebiotics — food that your gut bacteria ferment into short-chain fatty acids. In addition to promoting gut health, these fatty acids may improve blood sugar control.
Real food sources of prebiotics include garlic, asparagus, and cocoa.
A high intake of processed and fast foods has been linked to overeating, particularly in those who are overweight ().
By contrast, real food doesn't harbor the sugars and flavorings that load down processed foods and may drive overeating.
Healthy teeth may be another benefit of real foods.
The sugar and refined carbs in the Western diet promote dental decay by feeding the plaque-causing bacteria that live in your mouth. The combination of sugar and acid in soda is especially likely to cause decay (, ).
Cheese seems to help prevent cavities by increasing pH and hardening tooth enamel. One study found that eating cheese dramatically improved enamel strength in people with limited saliva production (, ).
Green tea has also been shown to protect tooth enamel. One study found rinsing with green tea significantly reduced the amount of erosion that occurred when people drank soda and brushed their teeth vigorously ().
A diet based on real food may also help reduce cravings for sweets like cakes, cookies, and candy.
Once your body adjusts to eating whole, unprocessed foods, cravings for sugary foods could become infrequent and even disappear altogether. Your taste buds eventually adapt to appreciate real food.
In addition to improving your own health and well-being, eating real food can help the people you care about stay healthy.
Leading by example can encourage your friends and family to adopt better eating habits. It's also a good way to help your kids learn about good nutrition.
A dieting mentality may be harmful because it limits your focus to your weight.
In fact, good nutrition is about much more than losing weight. It’s also about having enough energy and feeling healthy.
Focusing on real food instead of dieting can be a much more sustainable and enjoyable way to live. Instead of forcing weight loss, let weight loss come as a natural side effect of a better diet and improved metabolic health.
Purchasing produce, meat, and dairy from farmers markets supports the people who grow food in your community.
In addition, local farms often provide much fresher and less processed food than supermarkets.
On top of everything else, real food tastes delicious.
The amazing flavor of fresh, unprocessed food is undeniable.
Once your taste buds have adjusted to real food, processed junk food simply can't compare.