I was a paleo person once upon a time. And it had its benefits, mostly in retraining my palate to appreciate healthier foods (I no longer crave sugary cereals). But ultimately, I chafed against the arbitrary-seeming rules, especially since I don't have any food intolerances. Like most people, I want to eat healthfully without thinking about it all the dang time.
Turns out, there's a plan for that. And I don't mean "clean eating." That's a trendy but nebulous term, says nutritionist Keri Glassman. "For some people it might mean, 'I'm not eating fast food, or fried food.' Or, 'I'm eating only raw, vegan food prepared at home.'" Clean eating has also been defined as restricting certain kinds of fats, or nixing meats—all those capital-R rules I had sworn off after paleo. Some critics have accused clean eating of judginess (with its implication that other choices are "dirty"), and others worry that the rigidness can lead to disordered eating.
Instead, what I decided to try was a similar but more concrete way of eating called "real food," which focuses on whole, minimally processed ingredients but doesn't outlaw entire food groups. Think of it as the varied omnivorous diet we used to consume before the food industry started transforming potatoes into chips and meats into cold cuts. Or as Michael Pollan puts it in his seminal book In Defense of Food, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
The real food movement has been building for several years, gathering followers (#RealFood has 4 million Insta posts) and blogs, like 100 Days of Real Food (1.6 million likes on Facebook). By late 2016, "real food" surpassed "clean eating" as a search term. And more important, it has solid science behind it. When nutrition expert Dr David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Centre, compared a slew of diets, he pulled out the best elements of all of them—minimal intake of highly processed foods and added sugars, and a focus on whole plant foods while allowing quality animal products—and proclaimed those "the best" for health. In other words, he says, "real food."
Eating this way most of the time can lead to weight loss, better ability to handle stress, and clearer skin, according to Katz and many other nutrition experts. That's because you'll slash your intake of some of the biggest health-and weight-sabotaging culprits—refined carbs, sugars, and trans fats—that drive hormonal imbalances, spike blood sugar, and increase inflammation, says nutritionist Ali Mille, author of Naturally Nourished.
You're also upping your intake of blood sugar-balancing fiber, energizing B vitamins, mood-stabilizing minerals like magnesium, and anti-inflammatory antioxidants—nutrients often stripped away in processing and refining. And results may come quickly: A recent study found that nine days on a meal plan low in fructose (the sugar in soda, juices, and many processed foods) cut levels of liver fat by 20 percent.
That's all great news—if you don't mind cooking frequently and, an even bigger if, you can stick with it, often tricky for those accustomed to hyper-palatable, highly seasoned foods packed with sugar and salt (a.k.a. the typical American diet). But there are lots of delicious things you can eat, starting with anything straight from nature (vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains like quinoa, meats, and fish), along with minimally processed foods with whole-food ingredients—say, a bar that lists just dried fruit, nuts, and seeds on its label.
Also, most foods that have been consumed for thousands of years—kefir, sauerkraut, yogurt, kombucha, tofu, and yes, even bread, if it contains only whole ingredients—are considered real foods, says Miller. What else? The occasional treat, as in desserts and alcohol, says Glassman; just skip the artificial sweeteners and mixers.
On the not-real side, you should avoid partially hydrogenated (trans) fats, refined grains, added sugars (except for a whole foods-based dessert now and then), chemical preservatives and additives, and artificial colours, flavours, and sweeteners. Here's an example: Brown rice is real, containing only grains of rice. Most boxed or bagged "rice pilaf" mixes are not, because they contain additives like disodium guanylate, a flavour enhancer similar to MSG, or maltodextrin, a highly processed starch.
Could "real food" be the plan I was looking for? According to Glassman, many people find the first week the most challenging, as your taste buds adjust to more subtle, natural flavors—but once you make it that far, you have a pretty good chance of sticking with it long-term. So I decided to put it to the test by launching my own seven-day challenge. Turn the page to find out what I ate, and how it felt.
Breakfast: Two fried eggs over mixed greens with olive oil and sea salt; coffee
Snack: Raw pumpkin seeds; ginger tea
Lunch: Salad of spinach, purple cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, butternut squash, chicken, and pumpkin seeds, topped with olive oil and balsamic vinegar
Dinner: Wild-caught salmon cooked in olive oil; mixed greens with oil and vinegar; roasted sweet potatoes and brussels sprouts
Dessert: A spoonful of natural chunky peanut butter
Notes: Mid-morning I was jonesing for sugar, and though the pumpkin seeds and tea were way less delectable than my usual granola, they did quell my cravings. I dove into my roasted veggies at dinner and then—gah!—noticed that the balsamic vinegar I've been using has "caramel color" in it. Reading labels is clearly key, even on healthy-seeming foods.
Breakfast: Smoothie made with plain full-fat yogurt, banana, oats, cinnamon
Lunch: Quinoa in broth; salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and feta, topped with olive oil and balsamic vinegar; ginger kombucha
Snack: Apple and walnuts; chai tea
Dinner: Lettuce-boat tacos made with ground beef, mushrooms, red pepper, onions, and chili powder; side of carrots
Notes: I was starving this morning when walking my dog, maybe because I couldn't do my usual mindless munching yesterday—cookies or tortilla chips at work were off-limits. Could this diet be the ultimate quit-snacking solution?
Breakfast: Oatmeal with homemade cashew milk, natural peanut butter, cinnamon, and banana; coffee
Lunch: Mixed greens with leftover sweet potatoes and brussels sprouts, feta, and sunflower seeds, topped with olive oil and balsamic vinegar
Snack: Sunflower seeds
Dinner: Organic roast chicken; sauteed kale; roasted acorn squash with grass-fed butter
Notes: I made my own cashew milk for the week, per Keri Glassman's promise that it's super easy—and it was! Just soak the nuts overnight (using three cups of water to one cup of cashews), then puree in a blender. You get a creamy beverage, additive-free, that's perfect in coffee and poured over oats. Even so, at breakfast I was cranky and craving a giant doughnut.
Breakfast: Plain full-fat yogurt with raspberries and walnuts; coffee with homemade cashew milk
Lunch: Salad of mixed greens with quinoa, chicken, cucumber, and tomato, topped with olive oil and apple cider vinegar; apple
Dinner: Quinoa drizzled with olive oil, topped with salmon, sauteed kale, and onions
Dessert: Handful of walnuts
Notes: I'm less bloated, despite being premenstrual—shocker! Maybe because I can't do my usual stress-eating (sorry, apple fritter), but surprisingly, I'm not feeling deprived.
Breakfast: Two scrambled eggs topped with half an avocado and feta; organic salsa; mixed greens with olive oil and sea salt
Lunch: Salad of mixed greens, quinoa, chicken, apples, and walnuts, topped with olive oil and apple cider vinegar
Dinner: Homemade butternut squash soup (made with squash, onions, apple, curry and ginger powders, coconut milk, chicken broth) topped with toasted squash seeds and leftover chicken
Notes: Today's breakfast kicked ass and I felt like I had superpowers—thanks, protein and healthy fats! But time is my biggest obstacle, because most real food has to be prepared. I'm wearing out on cooking.
Breakfast: Smoothie made with spinach, plain full-fat yogurt, pear, ginger root
Lunch: Takeout salad of mixed greens, peas, lentils, cucumbers, pumpkin seeds, cabbage, green olives, and avocado, topped with a sour cream-based dressing; plain seltzer
Dinner: Scallops; fava beans; butternut squash puree; a glass of cabernet
Notes: A hectic day, but I felt less anxious than usual. Is it the diet? I went out for dinner and wasn't even tempted by dessert. In a weird, reverse-psychology way, the fact that most R.D.s say high-quality desserts are allowed is helping me to not eat them.
Breakfast: Chia pudding with sunflower seeds, raisins, blueberries, and homemade cashew milk; coffee
Lunch: Salad of mixed greens, cucumbers, carrots, avocado, and sunflower seeds, topped with olive oil and apple cider vinegar
Dinner: Organic pork chop; sauteed apples and onions; roasted sweet potato
Dessert: Scoop of peanut butter; ginger tea
Notes: I just got my period, but without my typical debilitating cramps—either a coincidence, or cutting down on the processed crap and alcohol is helping. Also, I weighed myself today and I was down two pounds, which was a pleasant surprise!
For me, this approach is a good mixture of structure and freedom, allowing for a lot of variety and meal options (unlike my paleo diet). I won't say I'll never eat a slice of pizza again, but bottom line, I feel awesome eating this way. One drawback: so much cooking. But I've broken out my slow cooker to streamline my dinners. Overall, I'm sold.
This article originally appeared on Women's Health US