Walk to the edges of the grocery store, and you’ll find food that our ancestors would likely recognize: fresh food like apples, carrots, fish and eggs.
The rest of the grocery store is filled with food that our ancestors probably wouldn’t recognize: ultra-processed foods like chips and soda formulated in industrial laboratories. Researchers have linked ultra-processed food consumption to increased risk of mortality, heart disease, cancer, depression and more.
To avoid health risks, nutrition experts often recommend sticking to the perimeter of the grocery store and purchasing real food. But what exactly is real food?
Real food is food from nature in its whole, unprocessed state.
“Real food is anything that came out of the ground or from animals that ate anything that came out of the ground,” said Dr. Robert Lustig, professor of pediatric endocrinology at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and author of “Metabolical.”
On the plant side, real food includes vegetables, fruit, nuts, grains and legumes. On the animal side, it includes eggs, dairy, seafood and meat.
Sounds simple? That’s because it is. Until real food is processed by the food industry, it contains simple, single ingredients recognizable for what they are.
Of course, it’s not always so black and white. There are different levels of food processing, as outlined by Dr. Carlos Monteiro and colleagues in the Nova Food Classification System. Unprocessed and minimally processed foods lie at one end of the spectrum. They include fruits and vegetables, grains, eggs and meat — what we refer to as “real food.”
Ultra-processed foods lie at the other end of the spectrum. They are manufactured from large quantities of starches, sugars and oils combined with many additives to make the food more palatable. Ultra-processed foods include packaged snacks, sugary drinks, instant soups, frozen meals, mass-produced breads — and most of the other products lining today’s grocery store shelves. According to Monteiro and other experts, ultra-processed foods are the real problem.
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