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.
For instance, one cup (220 grams) of red bell peppers, broccoli or orange slices contains more than 100% of the RDI for vitamin C (1, 2, 3).
Eggs and liver are especially high in choline, a nutrient that’s essential for proper brain function (4, 5).
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.
Eating a diet rich in nutritious, unprocessed foods may also help reduce inflammation, which is believed to be one of the major drivers of heart disease (10).
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.
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).
Studies suggest that eating more vegetables, fish, beans and olive oil may help reduce wrinkling, loss of elasticity and other age-related skin changes (18, 19).
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).
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.
In addition, including unprocessed foods such as fatty fish, lean meats, vegetables and nuts has been shown to significantly reduce triglyceride levels (21, 22).
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.
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.
For example, extra virgin olive oil is a great source of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat that promotes heart health (25).
Coconut oil contains medium-chain triglycerides, which have been shown to increase fat burning and assist with weight loss (26, 27).
Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids help fight inflammation and protect heart health. Fatty fish, such as salmon, herring and sardines, are excellent sources of these fats (28, 29).
Other real foods that are high in healthy fats include avocados, nuts, seeds and whole-milk dairy.
Eating patterns based on whole, unprocessed foods — including the Mediterranean diet — have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and metabolic syndrome (30, 31).
In addition, several large observational studies link a balanced diet with a high intake of fruits and vegetables to a decreased risk of cancer and heart disease (32, 33).
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.
For instance, egg yolks contain lutein and zeaxanthin, which help protect against eye diseases such as cataracts and macular degeneration (34, 35).
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 m.