Home » "An inconvenient challenge: Eat 'real food' for a month"

"An inconvenient challenge: Eat 'real food' for a month"

WARNING: Stepping on my RD soapbox!!!

This post is regarding CNN’s article entitled, “An Inconvenient Challenge: Eat ‘Real Food’ for a Month.” This article stemmed from a challenge one blogger posed to her readers, asking them to commit to eating ONLY “real food” for a month.

Simple enough, right?


Nourished Kitchen author, Jennifer McGruther (neither chef nor dietitian), defined “real food” in a way which includes:

consuming nothing from a box (i.e. noodles, flour, etc.)
no skimmed milk or pasteurized dairy
no sugar
no refined (iodized) salt
cultivating your own yogurt
milling your own flour
rendering your own lard to avoid processed oils

Sure, okay. When I find time for a full-time job committed to creating “real food” (amidst this thing I called “life”), I’ll possibly entertain this idea. The bigger issue being the extremist approach McGruther takes. I “get” the sustainable, unprocessed, and balanced intake McGruther supports…but it’s just not feasible for most all Americans.

As a dietitian, when I encounter a patient who consumes a fruit or vegetable “outside of the box” (think parsnips, papaya, and dates), I consider this a victory. Or if they eat red meat less than 4 times a week — a victory. Or if they know where trans fat comes from — a victory. Or what foods contain fiber — a victory. These people are far and few between, sadly. And “our” reality as American’s is not found in rendering our own lard to avoid processed oils!! While the nutrition-savvy blogosphere and trendy kitchen gadgets are the reality of many of McGruther’s readers (and my own), this is a far cry from THE reality of our nation. Think obesity epidemic and type 2 diabetes, not nutritional yeast and Greek yogurt 😉

Furthermore, the safety and accessibility of these “real food” practices have to be considered. Oh, and cost. And time. Four HUGE barriers in leading a “real food” lifestyle.

My biggest “beef” (grass fed, of course) with McGruther is that her stance on “real food” diminishes efforts which fall short of 100% “real foods” (by her definition). Efforts to eat more fruits and vegetables, include whole grains, and increase healthy fats in the diet should never be discredited, even if they are not completely all-natural and “real”. [I officially hate the word “real” as much as “clean”!!]

Kassandra Mier, a Canadian “real food” challenger, stated that her efforts to eat 100% “real” were time-consuming. She was also quoted in saying, “I felt like a slave in the kitchen.”

I tend to side with a dietitian and author (and Chicago resident!), Dawn Jackson-Blatner, who explained that while limiting processed foods can be rewarding because it encourages people to eat more fruits and vegetables, it is important not to demonize all processed foods. You know, a thing called “moderation”.

Unlike McGruther, I will continue to support the masses of non-extremists in an effort to achieve balance, health, and happiness…all-in-one.

Question: What are your thoughts on this “real food” challenge and lifestyle? Do you feel that such extreme opinions make health and nutrition an elusive goal?

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  1. March 8, 2010 / 4:49 am

    I agree that this challenge would require a lot of time and thought. When I did the skinny bitch/vegan eating challenge for 30 days last summer, it took so much more time for me to plan out and prepare everything I ate. That being said, I did it knowing that it would not be a permanent lifestyle change, but would force me to incorporate many foods (primarily fruits and veggies) that I would have never tried otherwise.

    Now, I have of course gone back to eating “normal”, but my plan worked because I incorporate lots of healthy foods, like fruits, veggies, tofu, etc. into my diet that I wouldn’t have given a chance before.

    Of course, after a few months living abroad, I’ll try just about anything now. My most recent edible adventure: scorpions on a stick!

  2. March 8, 2010 / 8:45 am

    I don’t know if it’s me being lazy or unrealistic, but it seems like it would take so much more effort than it’s worth. Some days, I don’t have time to think about things like that!

  3. March 8, 2010 / 8:55 am

    Nicole, please step up on that RD Soapbox as much as you want. I love hearing your opinion and thoughts on topics such as these as you are the trained “expert”.
    I think everything in moderation is ok. I also think getting so picky about what is called “real” as in you have to make your own yogurt or lard or whatever is another thing in this nation that sets individuals up for disordered eating. It is very much a black and white outlook and no gray. Something that I have learned through my recovery is we have to live in the gray or else we will drive ourselves mad.
    We live in a day and age where we have the convienence to go to the store and buy yogurt or butter or milk, etc. so that we can spend more time doing things we enjoy or just need to do (work).
    My own way of eating is to try and eat a very plant based diet and incorporate other foods with ingredients I can pronounce and with short ingredient lists. That is more eating “real” to me.
    Sorry for the long reply, your post just made me think 🙂

    • Nicole
      March 8, 2010 / 3:03 pm

      No, please always chime in! I think you struck an important point with the rampant ED’s and how such extreme measures can spur disordered eating in people. Great point!

  4. March 8, 2010 / 10:34 am

    I agree with you. This is a great idea in theory but it is not feasible for most. We have bigger issues that need to be looked at.
    I do agree that I would recommend eating less processed foods but you have to start with small changes.

  5. March 8, 2010 / 10:56 am

    There is NO way I could find time to make my own yogurt or pasta or rendering my own lard!!!!
    I am with you: balance is the key! Going so extreme would never work for me.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this subject!

  6. March 8, 2010 / 11:14 am

    Nothing bother’s me more than extremists!! I just don’t understand…

    The problem is they are all over the blogosphere!

    We need to think in realistic terms… her challenge may sound intriguing… but I can see people stopping it after a few days.

  7. March 8, 2010 / 11:23 am

    You are so on the mark. The only people who could do this are those who are already on the right path nutrition-wise. For everyday Americans, this is totally unrealistic. I’m talking about people who think putting a salad together is too time consuming compared to takeout. I’d say I’m a really healthy eater, but if I had to make my own yogurt in order to eat it, I’d rather not eat it. I think sometimes these food purists want an ideal for all Americans when we really need to focus on basics. It’s amazing how many people don’t even understand portion sizes or that iceberg and cucumbers with Ranch dressing isn’t a healthy meal. People like Alice Waters have good ideas, but to the average American those ideas sound preachy and so out of touch with real life. Go tell a single mother who’s living paycheck to paycheck and working two jobs that somewhere between getting off job No. 1 and the 10 minutes she has before starting job No. 2 she needs to make her own lard to cook them dinner.

  8. March 8, 2010 / 11:25 am

    I agree with you! I think that things like canned beans, or milk, or even pasta can all be part of a healthy diet and shouldn’t be demonized because they are “processed”!

  9. March 8, 2010 / 11:33 am

    I think things like this are extremely discouraging to the lay person who does not know that much about nutrition. When said person hears that eating “real” food means making their own yogurt, I would think that automatically he/she would think that it was too difficult and time consuming.

  10. March 8, 2010 / 11:47 am

    I read Nourished Kitchen and Jennifer posts some pretty interesting information as well as good-looking recipes (though I’ve never made any).

    Her blog is all about “real” food and I think that most of her followers are healthy and educated in proper nutrition. While this challenge is still a stretch for them it’s unlikely that Jennifer is posing the challenge to those who’s dietary staple comes from a drive-thru window.

    I don’t think I could ever get to that level of “real” food consumption, but kudos to those who do. It’s extremist like this that can help move the population in the right direction if their ideas take off.

  11. March 8, 2010 / 12:04 pm

    it’s so black and white! i don’t believe that healthy eating means being such a purist, i think it means eating in a way that honors your body by not putting a ton of junky processed things into it…by giving it the nutrients it needs in a form it recognizes! i agree with the concept behind this challenge, but not strict rules it mandated

  12. March 8, 2010 / 12:13 pm

    I would agree with the person who said “I was a slave to my kitchen”. I have done detox that had encouraged eating only “real” food but there were still things that I could eat that were easy to make and find.

    You did such a great job making your points here. Great post!

  13. March 8, 2010 / 12:47 pm

    I must say I am 100% with you. I agree with every single word you have on this post. I think most mainstream dietitians do think this way too and maybe it is because we are the only people who have worked with the “real world” population and we understand what is realistic for the majority of people out there. Oh, and we know how to read labs and a medical history, which is more than I can say for people working in health food stores “prescribing” foods and supplements to people. Once again, all natural does not equal healthy…as I always remind people both lead and arsenic are natural too.

    I have students say that we should eat how our ancestors did because they didn’t have the problem with obesity and chronic diseases like we do, but then again, they worked labor jobs (not desk jobs) and they did not have an average life span anywhere near where we are at now. Not to mention, eating some foods raw (like milk), um we now know how to prevent food borne illness, and I am sure many more people died in the old days from food borne illness than they are dying from it now. Times are different because we advance, and honestly we learn from our mistakes (or those of generations past), and our future generations will do things differently from us, but we have knowledge now, so we should use it.

  14. March 8, 2010 / 12:51 pm

    I think this makes living a healthy life look like more trouble than it really is. Cultivating your own yogurt? Half the families in America would be better just buying yogurt.

    • March 8, 2010 / 1:12 pm

      I agree with this completely. There are already so many excuses out there not to eat healthy, and this just seems to be fueling that fire! You don’t have to be a slave to your kitchen to eat healthy, and your diet doesn’t have to be “perfect.” I feel like any perspective that is too extreme isn’t really a healthy or feasible one.

  15. March 8, 2010 / 12:55 pm

    I agree, this doesn’t seem feasible for the majority of Americans.

  16. March 8, 2010 / 1:30 pm

    I saw that article a few days ago on CNN.com and was like woah, that sounds really hard!! There’s no way I would last even one day with those restrictions. Balance is the key!! 🙂

  17. March 8, 2010 / 1:39 pm

    That seems totally extreme. I feel like the average American would read that and be so freaked out that they would stop at the nearest mcdonalds. I think smaller, more realistic steps are a much wiser approach. Things like this will just intimidate people and make them not want to take ANY steps toward a healthy lifestyle.

  18. March 8, 2010 / 1:59 pm

    I love your soapbox stance today! Really some people are just out of touch with reality and what’s going to help the average American. Then again, maybe this person’s goal isn’t to help the average American?

  19. March 8, 2010 / 2:11 pm

    Like a slave in the kitchen, indeed. There is no way that the average American (or world citizen for that matter) could follow such a strict view of real food. That’s insane. I completely agree with your view on the matter. Thanks for bringing up the issue at hand.

  20. March 8, 2010 / 2:35 pm

    Whoa – that is intense! I am pretty proud of the steps I’ve taken in the last year (eating less processed food, mainly) – I can’t imagine cultivating my own yogurt all the time, though…I eat one or two a day!

  21. March 8, 2010 / 3:10 pm

    I have to say I was with the “real food” thing until I saw no sugar, at all and the cultivating my own yogurt and milling my own flour? I mean, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen and on my blog, but I just do not have time to do these things. I think limited foods from a box /processed foods is a step in the right direction, but people need to have realistic goals. I am totally with you!

  22. March 8, 2010 / 3:45 pm

    I totally agree with you…while this sounds so good “in theory” the reality is that is won’t happen.

  23. March 8, 2010 / 3:50 pm

    I don’t know. I think cutting out processed foods is entirely possible. I admire people that can organize their life in a way that they can find time to eat all natural foods. Beating yourself up over having a frozen dinner now and then, of course that isn’t healthy. But ideally, I do believe that we shouldn’t be eating all of this boxed crap.

  24. March 8, 2010 / 4:05 pm

    I can’t stand when people put out these new descriptions of eating healthy. First “clean” foods, then “super powerhouse” foods, and now “real” foods. Sure I think there can be benefits to eating that way, but it is not realistic for our culture. And I would much prefer someone touting the benefits of moderation to our culture instead of once again setting healthy eating up to an unattainable idealistic way of doing things. I think it deters more people from making changes in their diets for fear of failure. Or fear of spending all their waking hours grinding their own wheat. 😉

  25. March 8, 2010 / 4:11 pm

    I don’t think this is the best challenge to teach people to eat healthier. Although, I do think it would be a great experience. Just think about how many food items we take for granite. How cool would it be to make everything you ate! While unrealistic, it would definitely be a cool, back-to-the-earth experience.

  26. March 8, 2010 / 4:47 pm

    I think that challenge is a bit extreme! I would fail on the first day…I need my greek yogurt and pb!

  27. March 8, 2010 / 4:55 pm

    I look at it like I look at vegans or vegetarians(not against….just used as an example) , good for you as I couldn’t do it. I didn’t even get all the way through the post as halfway through I’m like enough of reading this I’m never trying it.

  28. March 8, 2010 / 5:29 pm

    AMEN!!! Hah ;)…No seriously, you are right. I hate this all-or-nothing mentality…honestly, people think it’s the “Answer” but I can almost guarantee you they will not eat that way for life – it may last a few years or 10 even…but it will change. I just don’t think it’s healthy. I’ve seen too many develop do it and develop Eating Disorders – or either have an ED and then go that path…

    It’s only when your not obsessing and REALLY LIVING LIFE that you are not consumed with every bite you are eating…seriously, when I’m super busy at work – I’m not going to freak out about eating a package of oatmeal raisin cookies – nor am I going to freak out about having sugary Hot chocolate or a burger after a day of skiing with friends or out to a concert!!

  29. March 8, 2010 / 6:12 pm

    This challenge sounds like a good idea in theory…but in practice probably not practical for most of us. I completely agree with you — moderation is key (and also probably more sustainable for most of us in the long run).

  30. March 8, 2010 / 7:14 pm

    I have to wonder (and I’ve wondered this about the whole local food movement too). I like parts of it in theory, but if we ONLY ate local, or, more extreme, ONLY ate things that were not at all processed as described here, wouldn’t that be a bad thing for the global economny? *scratching head*

  31. March 8, 2010 / 7:52 pm

    Ridicuolous. I’m not going to press my own olive oil or mill my own flour. Sorry.

    I totally agree with your approach (moderation). I just keep pushing myself to eat more whole grains, more vegetables, and less stuff from a box, but I have a job and a life and sometimes, I like the convenience of buying a bag of dried beans or whole wheat flour.

  32. March 8, 2010 / 8:58 pm

    wow that would be hard and your right it is what is right for each person

  33. March 8, 2010 / 9:42 pm

    Oh my goodness, don’t get me started on the many “extremist” views on food out there. Being so rigid about food and saying that one way is “right” and others are “wrong”, or that we should all be striving for some perfection that is unattainable to nearly everyone, will only discourage people and promote disordered behavior, not to mention undo all the good work that RDs do. Moderation is the way to go, to live a sane lifestyle that belongs to you, not to your “rules”!

  34. March 8, 2010 / 9:57 pm

    I’m absolutely with you on that… and I’m glad you brought it up… there’s something called moderation. What’s the point of eating everything “real” if the effort and finding he time will increase your stress level and hurt you in other ways?

    I don’t think it’s feasible or possible. Who owns or is near a mill to make their own whole wheat flour? And it’s far worse to get whole milk that the processed skim or low fat.

    I would like to know what she does in her kitchen–and as a matter of fact if she does anything else somewhere else!!!

    Drastic changes like this are never sustained and people can lose the bigger picture. I truly believe that taking few steps here and there and incorporating them into your lifestyle fully is the way to go.

  35. March 8, 2010 / 10:11 pm

    Nicole I am completely in agreement with you. This is an extremist point of view. Any steps toward eating a less packaged and processed diet are worth it and admirable. I hate to think that someone would ever put such strict conditions on what it means to eat real food. Your argument was so valid and well-composed. Excellent article and topic!

  36. March 9, 2010 / 9:12 am

    They’ve done “real food” a disservice here. It’s not that hard and certainly doesn’t require making your own yogurt – you just don’t eat yogurt! They need to push the public in baby steps, not make it so scary and intimidating that no one will even consider making a move towards it. This really irks me! I’ve been eating “real food” for over a year and have lost 15 lbs, and I don’t slave away.

  37. March 9, 2010 / 10:10 am

    Great post. I think that challenge is quite silly. I mean come on, is whole wheat meal really that bad when you didn’t mill it yourself?
    We life in a real world and most of us have – as you mentioned it – simply not enough time to make “real” food (as the author said it). I wonder in what kind of bubble she lives…

  38. March 9, 2010 / 2:24 pm

    Thank you for this! I totally agree with you! I feel that eating any fruits and veggies is good for you –“real” or not! Extremism like this will just keep people eating unhealthy food because “real” “clean” food seems so out of reach, but its not! I love your site! =)

  39. March 9, 2010 / 3:47 pm

    “THE reality of our nation” Ughhhhh, what a subject. I am a firm believer in moderation, balance, portion control & mindful behaviors in everything we do in our lives. Sure, it would be great to grow, harvest and cultivate everything from scratch…but hello, we are no longer in hunter/gatherer times. We gotta play by today’s rules.

  40. March 9, 2010 / 5:13 pm

    I find this interesting, because my husband and I are preparing to do a “no-processed” foods challenge (hopefully it will become more than that) and we have been trying to set the limit on what we will consider processed. It is a pretty gray area, but I agree McGruther’s definition is too extreme for me!

  41. March 9, 2010 / 8:15 pm

    This is a really great post! I had read that article about the “real” food challenge and it seemed a bit extreme. I have a problem with extremes of any kind, I think they alienate a lot of people.
    I think you’re right, the blogosphere perceptions of health are not common around the rest of the country.
    Moderation is key!

  42. March 9, 2010 / 8:18 pm

    Oh I forgot to mention also, this challenge reminds me of the Documentary No Impact Man where a family tries to live for a year with 0 net environmental impact. While I found that to be extreme as well, the family did bring up the point that this was not a sustainable lifestyle (i.e. living without a fridge) but it did help point out changes they could permanently make (i.e. composting).
    So if you look at it from an extreme learning perspective I see where it could be a good thing. Just throwing it out there…

  43. March 14, 2010 / 5:55 pm

    Wow by her definition most of us fail and will fail. Its unrealistic in the world we live in, we aren’t living on farms anymore, most of us work outside of the home etc.
    I think all progress towards less processed is a great step. I try to limit myself most of the time to things with less than 5 ingredients, but I’m not going to go out and grind my own flour and make my own pasta, where do we draw the line do I need to milk the cow for my milk to count? I think these black and white thinkers cause people to feel that small changes are not worth the time and they give up and make no changes. EVERY small change is a benefit.
    I love your blog Nicole, you really speak to me, step up on that soap box any time you want 🙂

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