October’s Challenge: Real Food

This month’s challenge comes from my dashing and daring older sister, Jessica.

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Jessica is a bit of a stickler when it comes to feeding herself and her family. She insists on buying organic as much as possible, avoiding food additives (such as artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives), and she categorically rejects foods made with GMOs, hormones, steroids, and excessive antibiotics. She’s really passionate about her food habits – I’ve seen her school people about food on more than one occasion – but she’s not necessarily dogmatic about them – I’ve also seen her eat Cheetos from time to time – but as a general rule of thumb, she tries to keep her food as clean and natural as possible.

So, when I asked my sister to think of a challenge for me, it came as little surprise that her challenge would be about food. But even more specifically, her challenge is about REAL food – meaning food that is (at some point) alive, close to the earth, minimally processed, non-artificial, and…well…real. Basically, if people were able to eat it in the 1700s, it’s probably a real food. So for the month of October, I can ONLY eat REAL FOODS.

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The Rules

(translation: what can’t you eat?)

Before I get into what I can’t eat, let’s talk about what I can eat. Throughout the challenge I’ll be using a cool blog for inspiration and clarification: 100 Days of Real Food. They have a really handy infographic on what real food is, which I’ve reproduced here.

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essica wants me to follow these guidelines, but she also wants me to step it up a notch. She wants me to make all my food organic as much as possible and keep in mind where my food is coming from so that I can try to eat as locally as possible. She said to me, “The challenge is not just about you learning more about your food and what kinds of food you’re eating, it’s also about seeing how your food affects the environment and trying to be as green as possible with your eating.” The local part is going to be difficult – especially when it comes to meet and dairy. But luckily, I live in San Diego, which is a veritable mecca of farmers’ markets! So for the challenge, I’ll be shopping at Farmers’ Markets as much as possible, noting where my food comes from as much as possible, and stopping by a local butcher. Yikes!

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Here’s what’s off-limits: refined grains (such as white/enriched flour), refined sugars (white sugar/corn syrup), artificial sweeteners (duh!), nothing out of a package that has more than 5 ingredients, no fast food, no fried food. In addition, Jessica wants me to be sure that I don’t consume GMO products, which means avoiding foods containing corn and soy (and their various derivatives) unless they are certified organic.

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In addition to these general rules, I’ll be using Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food as my guiding compass throughout the challenge. His motto for healthy eating is: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Throughout the book, Pollan stresses that our food system is intricately connected to the Earth as well as all of our social customs surrounding what eating is and how it should occur. The farther our food gets from it’s natural connection to the Earth, the less nutritious and more hazardous it becomes. And, of course, we cannot change our food habits unless we also interrogate the social contexts surrounding our food habits. Pollan sets out some useful guidelines that he argues can equip a person to change their food habits while in the midst of a social food system that is incompatible with eating healthfully and naturally. Here are his suggestions that can apply to me during this month:

  • Don’t eat food that your great grandmother (or great great grandmother) wouldn’t recognize as food
  • Avoid food products (this means anything that isn’t a whole, natural food) that have ingredients that are:
    • Unfamiliar
    • Difficult to Pronounce
    • More than 5 in number
    • That include high fructose corn syrup
  • Avoid food products that make health claims
  • Shop the peripheries of the supermarket, stay out of the middle
  • Shop at farmers’ markets as much as possible
  • Eat mostly plants, especially leaves
  • You are what what you eat eats too
    • Meaning, it’s not just enough to avoid corn and soybeans if I want to avoid GMOs, I also need to look at the food that my food eats. Were the cows and chickens that supply my meat, eggs, and dairy fed corn (which they can’t digest and thus makes them more likely to get sick, thus the need for preventative antibiotics)? Are the plants I’m eating raised in synthetic fertilizers full of nitrates or sprayed with pesticides? Since all food is part of a system, I need to see my food as connected in a chain. I need to not only pay attention to the food, but also the earlier links in the chain!
  • Eat like an omnivore
  • Eat well grown food from healthy soils
  • Eat wild foods when you can
  • Eat as if you come from a traditional food culture (like French, Italians, Japanese, rural Chinese, etc)
  • Have a glass of wine with dinner (woo-hoo!!)
  • Be willing to pay more for quality food
  • Eat meals
  • Eat all your meals at a table
  • Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does (i.e. no gas station food!)
  • Try not to eat alone
  • Consult your gut
  • Eat slowly
  • Cook and prepare your own food

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I know, it’s a lot.

This is all a bit overwhelming. But, I have confidence that I’ll be able to do it. I’ve been eating real food for 5 days now, and I’ve already learned a lot of lessons, like:

  • Shopping for groceries takes forever when you are reading every single label.
  • This lifestyle is NOT cheap (more on this later).
  • This lifestyle takes a lot of time and patience.
  • This is HARD – there are so many things in the grocery store that are NOT food!
  • Eating out is basically impossible.
  • When eating only real food, I’m eating less sugar overall.

I’ll get into these lessons, as well as my meal and snack strategies, in the next few days. I’m only 5 days into this challenge, and already it is quite difficult. But, I know it will be worth it at the end of the month. Stay tuned! 

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