Why are real foods more than a trend? You’d be hard-pressed to find a nutritionist or dietitian who argues that a refined, processed diet is superior to a whole foods diet, one that’s rich in fruits and vegetables. But even for the kale smoothiest of us health nuts, it’s still near impossible to get all the nutrients we need in our diets through food alone. Unfortunately, only 2% of Americans are eating the definition of a healthful diet.1 So what does “real food” mean for the future of our diets?
Real Food: A Blast from the Past
When it comes to health, today we hear a lot about the move to fresher food and cleaner labels. But the reality is, the move to real food is just a resurgence in something that was important to us already, many years ago.
When vitamins were first discovered, they were isolated from food so we could better identify and study them. As the western world developed, the need to provide better access to nutritious foods, and their inherent vitamins and minerals, developed with it.
Major food companies, like Quaker Foods and Tropicana, started out with simple missions to take fresh ingredients, like oats and oranges, to the masses, finding ways to package them, ship them and make their good nutrition more readily available. Advances in food technology catapulted companies like these, and many others, to more and more novel food products, eventually landing us where we are today with our modern food system. Today, many of these companies are working to go back to their roots in real, nutritious foods once again.
Why Real Foods Matter
There is a lot of research on what diet is best for health and which foods to eat for optimal health. A few years ago, Dr. David Katz and Stephanie Meller were asked by Annual Reviews, a scientific publisher, to review several diets and elements of diets, including low-fat, low glycemic, low carb, Mediterranean, mixed/balanced (DASH), Paleolithic, and vegan. Katz and Meller’s findings concluded that while there isn’t one best diet, there are patterns in eating habits, clear common elements, that are proven to be beneficial for health. “The weight of evidence strongly supports a theme of healthful eating while allowing for variations on that theme. A diet of minimally-processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants, is decisively associated with health promotion.”2 The important phrase here is “minimally-processed foods close to nature” – this is what some refer to as real food, or whole foods. Whole foods are foods from plants, and they are unprocessed or unrefined and free from additives or other artificial substances. In some cases, a whole food can be as minimally processed or refined as possible, but it is still free from additives or artificial substances.
Fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains and legumes are whole foods. When they are not processed, or minimally processed, they retain much of their complete profile of beneficial phytochemicals and nutrients, plus fiber. Sometimes when a food is processed, it can be stripped of its fiber, phytochemicals and nutrients. Here are a few reasons why whole foods are important:
- Phytochemicals: Whole foods contain phytochemicals (phytonutrients), which are biologically active plant-food components. Phytonutrients can be powerful antioxidants like lycopene, a red-colored carotenoid found mainly in tomatoes, and anthocyanins, which gives berries like blueberries their deep blue color.3
- Essential Nutrients: Whole foods are nutrient-rich, offering us a simple, easy way to get more nutrients into our diets. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the average American doesn’t eat a diet rich in essential nutrients related to good health, noting that this has become a public health concern. Americans under consume the recommended amounts of potassium, dietary fiber, calcium and vitamin D. By eating whole foods, you can increase your consumption of essential nutrients.4
- Fiber and Whole Grains: Many minimally-processed foods are rich in fiber, helping to keep your GI tract on track and providing cardiovascular and weight management benefits. Plus, whole grains retain vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, which help promote overall health.
- Good Fats and Protein: Processed foods tend to contain more trans fats and saturated fats, the not-so-healthy fats, while whole foods tend to have more of the good-for-you fats like omega-3s, essential fatty acids from plants or fish, plus monosaturated fat from plants. ‘Good fats’ and the protein found in whole foods can help increase satiety, that feeling of fullness. The peptides send signals to the brain and gut that lead to the suppression of MORs (Mu-opioid receptors), resulting in the curbing of appetite. Additionally, protein stimulates the production of the hormone that signals satiety, cholecystokinin (CCK).
Bridging Real Food Gaps with Real Food Supplements
People have been told for decades to get their nutrients from food and to eat many servings daily of fruits and vegetables. However, the reality is that this isn’t entirely possible given typical diets, lifestyles and nutrient-depleted soil. Supplementing your diet with vitamins and minerals can help bridge nutrient gaps.
And if you’re determined to get as much of your daily nutritional intake from real food as possible, you likely want a vitamin and mineral supplement that delivers something that looks as close to what you put on your plate as possible, too.
Until recently, it wasn’t as easy as just going out and buying a real food multivitamin. However, as more research is conducted on nutrient-dense foods, and harvesting and concentration technologies have vastly improved, it is now possible to do just that: buy a multivitamin that isn’t synthetic, and is sourced right from real foods. Let’s break down the key things to look for when buying a real food supplement.
The 5 Things to Look for When Buying a Real Food Supplement
- Hone-In on Real Food Ingredients
If you try sticking to a real food diet, chances are you want the supplements you put in your body to look like what you put on your plate. Look for supplements that source their ingredients from real foods. Think things like quinoa sprouts, cranberry extract and basil. You may hear the term “ingredient synergy” when you hear about real food supplements. This is because many advocates for real food supplements support them due to the fact that their nutrients are often combined as they would be in natural foods, so your body can easily use and absorb them similarly.
- Go Yeast-Free
If you were asked to choose between eating a handful of yeast, or a handful of quinoa sprouts, which would you choose? Chances are, you’d say quinoa sprouts, and we tend to agree. Some products derive their vitamins or minerals through a yeast fermentation process, and while this is a natural process, some argue it negates the real food basis. Look for products without yeast or fermentation, and for ones that derive their nutrition straight from the real food source instead.
- Aim for Transparency
If you’re looking for real foods, you should find just that: ingredient lists consisting of real foods. Look for products without proprietary blends or ingredients – there should be nothing to hide here.
- Know the Source
Just as we care about where and how our food is sourced, we should care about how the food that goes into our supplements is sourced. Look for real food supplements sourced through reputable or sustainable agricultural processes by looking for things on the label like organic, non-GMO or sustainable sourcing.
- Check for Clean Labels
Real food means real labels. Look for products without fillers, additives or stability-enhancing salt additives, such as acetate, bitartrate, chloride, gluconate, hydrochloride, nitrate and succinate. Real food doesn’t have to mean unquantifiable nutrient amounts either. Look for products that still quantify the vitamins and minerals you’re getting from real food. If you’re just consuming dehydrated food pill products, you can’t be sure what vitamin and mineral amount, or benefit, you’re actually receiving.
Real food matters, and it’s important to eat a nutrient-rich diet filled with whole foods. Everyone’s diets have nutrient gaps from time to time, sometimes due to food availability, diet choices, under consumption, and even modern life getting in the way of our best intentions – like Taco Tuesday followed by Wings Wednesday! In all of these cases, real food vitamin and mineral supplements can help fill those nutrient gaps.
To learn more about what real food supplements may be right for you, check out Swanson Health’s Real Food Formulas.
Shane has over 20 years of consumer products research and development experience in leading teams in innovation, product development and medical science. He is passionate about improving people’s lives through the latest technologies and scientific research in wellness and health. As a city dweller, he likes to walk everywhere rather than drive and fits in a split regimen between weight training and cardiovascular exercise to keep boredom at bay.
1 The NPD Group/National Eating Trends® (NET®); 5 Years Ending Feb 2011(Accessed 1/2/2018)
2 D.L. Katz and S. Meller Can We Say What Diet Is Best for Health? Annual Review of Public Health 2014 35:1, 83-103 http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-032013-182351 (Accessed 12/19/2017)
3 Elaine Magee, MPH, RD The Whole Foods Diet WebMD.com https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/the-whole-foods-diet#2 (Accessed 12/20/2017)
4 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/chapter-1/ (Accessed 12/20/2017)