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, ever since ready-to-eat foods became popular in the 20th century, many people have been eating them as a dominant part of their diet.
While processed foods may be more convenient in some ways, it's hard to argue that they have made us healthier or happier.
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 high quality of life.
Here are 21 reasons to eat real food.
Unprocessed animal and plant foods contain the vitamins and minerals you need for optimal health.
And just a single Brazil nut provides all the selenium you need for an entire day (6).
There are many other examples of this. In fact, most real foods are good sources of vitamins, minerals and other beneficial nutrients.
Unlike supplements, it's nearly impossible to overdose on most nutrients from unprocessed food.
Generally speaking, real food is low in sugar and isn't very sweet.
Even though fruit contains sugar, it's also high in water and fiber, so it's much less concentrated than sugar in soda and processed foods.
Real food is packed with antioxidants and nutrients that support heart health, including magnesium and healthy fats.
The world population is steadily growing, and with this growth comes increased demand for food.
However, producing food to feed several billion people is taking a huge toll on the environment. This is mainly due to increased fuel needs, greenhouse gases and packaging that ends up in landfills.
On the other hand, developing sustainable systems based on real food may help improve the health of our planet by reducing energy needs and decreasing the amount of non-biodegradable waste humans produce (11).
Foods such as avocados, chia seeds, flaxseeds and blackberries are particularly high in healthy fiber, along with beans and legumes.
Getting fiber as it naturally occurs in real food is much better than taking a fiber 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 with diabetes and people who are at risk of developing the disease.
In one 12-week study, people with diabetes or prediabetes followed a paleolithic diet containing fresh meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, eggs and nuts. They experienced a 26% reduction in blood sugar levels (15).
In addition to promoting better overall health, eating real food nourishes and helps protect your skin from the inside out.
What's more, switching from a Western diet high in processed foods to one based on real food may help prevent or reduce acne (20).
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.
Eating the same foods over and over can get old. It's also healthier to include many different foods in your diet.
There are hundreds of different real food options, including a wide variety of meat, fish, dairy, vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, whole grains and seeds.
Make a point of regularly trying some real foods you've never eaten that look or sound interesting, such as kiwi, chia seeds, organ meats, kefir or quinoa.
You might just find a few new favorites.
It's said that real food is more expensive than processed food, and in some ways this is true.
A 2013 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, in the long run, this difference is minimal compared with the cost of managing chronic lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and obesity.
For instance, a 2012 study found that people with diabetes spend 2.3 times more on medical supplies and health care than people who don't have diabetes (24).
So real food is more expensive in the short-term, but way cheaper in the long run -- because junk food costs you twice.
Unlike trans fats and processed fats found in vegetable oils and spreads, most naturally occurring fats are incredibly healthy.
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 for a number of chronic diseases.
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, but their levels are generally much lower than in plants.
Eating real food may be beneficial for your gut microbiome, 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 and provide other health benefits.
Real food prebiotics include garlic, asparagus and cocoa. For an extensive list of prebiotic foods, read this article.
A high intake of processed and fast foods has been linked to overeating, particularly in those who are overweight (36).
By contrast, real food doesn't contain the sugars and flavorings found in processed foods that help drive overeating.
Healthy teeth may be another benefit of a real food lifestyle that's low in sugars and refined carbs.
Sugar and refined carbs promote dental decay by providing food for the plaque-causing bacteria that live in your mouth. The combination of sugar and acid in soda is especially likely to cause decay (37, 38).
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 due to radiation treatment for cancer (39, 40).
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 (41).
A diet based on real food may also help reduce cravings for sweets, such as cake, cookies and candy.
Once your body adjusts to eating whole, unprocessed foods, cravings for sugary foods could become infrequent and even disappear altogether.
When you limit or avoid processed foods and high-sugar foods, eventually your taste buds adapt and learn to appreciate real food more.
In addition to improving your own health and well-being, eating real food can help the people you care about stay healthy as well.
Leading by example can help encourage better eating habits for your family members.
It's also a good way to help your kids learn about good nutrition.
A dieting mentality isn't good over the long term. It makes you focus on the number on the scale too much.
Nutrition is about way more than just dieting. It is also about feeling good, having enough energy and being healthy.
Focusing on real food instead of dieting can be a much healthier, more sustainable and enjoyable way to live.
Instead of focusing too much on weight loss, let weight loss come as a natural side effect of a better diet and improved metabolic health.
Purchasing produce from farmers' markets, along with meat and dairy products from local farms, supports the people who grow food in your community.
In addition, these are often much fresher and less processed than the foods you get at the supermarket.
In addition to all of the other reasons to eat real food, it truly 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.
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