Back to basics: Eating real food

Here’s the deal

At some point or another you’ve likely either already tried or thought of dabbling in some type of structured approach to your nutrition to maximize performance during workouts (feel better, faster, stronger) and/or to improve body image (typically through leaning out or “toning”). When I talk to people in this boat, they are usually in search of answers to questions like: How much do I eat everyday? How many carbs should I be eating? Which protein powder should I use?

So, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is: it’s not even nearly as complicated as you think it may be to eat better. The bad news is: it’s also not cookie-cutter, black and white, eat this not that, meal plan on a silver platter laid out for you either. And while you’re already a little apprehensive, I’ll get this out of the way: it won’t be easy at first. Up to this point you’ve likely taught your body to run on fake sugars, simple carbohydrates and too much of everything. Breaking that cycle can cause withdrawal symptoms, commonly in the form of cravings. But, they do go away. Food is a substance we consume for energy; you are in control, not food.

The “secret”

You may have heard before that the secret is: there is no secret. To achieve better athletic performance, feel better all-day long, sleep better, live longer, get sick less often, lose excess body fat, have prettier skin and every other marketable benefit you can think of: eat real food.

Real food in this capacity is defined as things you can grow or kill. This is not to be confused with a Paleolithic approach, a method that although follows a similar framework, is more exclusive and theory-based.

It can be overwhelming to start anything new; especially something that impacts your daily activities, mood and size of your jeans. But, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Keeping your plan simple and goal in mind will set you up for success. When I made the biggest physical transformation of my life to date, my phone background read: “I know what happens when I quit, I want to see what happens when I don’t.”

This real food system is applicable for quite literally everybody. Overweight, fit, old and young persons alike all benefit from a balanced, nutrient-dense diet. It isn’t just about changing body composition, it’s about feeling better, improving quality of life and establishing longer, healthier lives. As a side note: sure, this may seem like the slower way to achieve your desired results when compared to methods like a crash diet or steroid use. Although you want to follow something that will give you health benefits and be sustainable long term. Without getting too personal or off track, after my last crash diet I put 20lbs on in 6 days. You read that correctly. And get this: I wasn’t eating an abundance of carbs, sweets and the entire kitchen pantry during that rapid weight gain. When I increased my water intake to healthy levels and consumed food that was anything other than malnourished portions of lean fish and greens, my body freaked out.

For example, eggs are real food. Bagels or the weird glossy deli meat at Subway aren’t real food. Gluten-free soy-free dairy-free low carb high protein some fiber crackers, aren’t either (I’ll cover health halos/marketing in a post soon). 

It’s all about balance

Now I’ve given you these examples, but some of you will still pick up peanut butter and rice cakes at the grocery store without stopping to think about it. There’s nothing wrong with peanut butter, that is when “peanuts” are the only ingredient listed. (Next time you’re at the store try to find a jar that only lists peanuts: it’s a challenge!) Becoming familiar with nutrition labels to identify ingredients will be important for you to be successful in this new real food endeavor. I still remember the first time I ditched bread and started wrapping lettuce, tomato and cucumber in turkey for bread-less sandwich type snack. Just for kicks I read the label on the turkey: sodium phosphates, nitrates, corn syrup, citric acid, water, maltodextrin, the list goes on. What? I thought turkey was just turkey, and I thought wrong.

I think the best part of eating real food, is it’s pretty hard to overeat and when done right, requires little additional expensive vitamin supplements, aside from health condition related issues. Your body will tell you when it’s full, and will stay full longer from wholesome ingredients. I don’t believe in a “this is the only right way for everyone” concept, and I’m a huge advocate of balance and enjoying food that isn’t clean on occasion. However, I think embracing this mindset most of the time is a good tool for success.

Nutrition alone will not make you run faster or expose a 6-pack set of abs, but anyone, especially athletes, will not reach their absolute fullest potential without adequate, nutrition balance. Our bodies were designed to breakdown and use the nutrients that occur naturally in foods the earth provides to us through plants and animals. So whether you are wanting drop pounds or to sharpen your athletic edge, you’ve got nothing to lose (well, except excess body fat and health issues), and a lot to gain, by cleaning up your diet.