May 8, 2019

The “Real Food” Movement Is a Real Challenge to the American Diet

Written by Garret Weigel | Food Safety

In our previous post about Slow Food, we noted that this international food initiative is part of what might be called the broader Alternative Food Movement that has gained momentum in the last 15 years. “Alternative Food” is the global term covering all food activities that wish to disrupt some aspect of the food industry status quo – for the better.


Linked closely to Slow Food, the Real Food movement shares many of the same goals, such as advocating for food that is:

  • Organic (as found in nature)
  • Whole (minimally processed)
  • Traditional (withstanding the test of time)


Whereas Slow Food is rooted in a formal organization requiring membership, Real Food is more of a state of mind that anyone can adopt. In short, people committed to Real Food focus primarily on its natural purity and health benefits as a general principle and dietary practice.


“Real Food” vs. “Edible Foodlike Substances”

In defining what makes Real Food “real,” it’s probably easier to first define what makes “unreal” food a fake substitute. In his 2008 bestselling book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan coined a catchy phrase to characterize the typical contemporary American diet: “edible foodlike substances.” What Pollan is specifically referring to are the industrially processed food products that have taken over our supermarkets in the last 50 years. These “edible foodlike substances” include:m

  • Packaged and prepared foods made with chemical additives and artificial flavors or colors
  • Refined grains that remove the bran and germ in foods such as white bread, white rice, and white pasta
  • Refined sugars, including cane sugar, beet sugar, and corn syrup (especially high fructose)
  • Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, which may have the same metabolic effects as refined sugars
  • Hydrogenated oils (i.e., trans fats)
  • Genetically modified foods, especially corn and soybeans that appear in the vast majority of processed foods
  • Unnatural foods, such as nonfat yogurt, orange juice with added calcium, or “natural” flavorings made from wood chips


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Pollan claims that these industrial foods are no longer the products of nature but of food science. Instead, he proposes an alternative way of eating informed by the traditions and ecology of real, organically grown, unprocessed food. Essentially, the diet he recommends comes down to seven simple words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”


In his follow-up book, Food Rules, Pollan builds on this basic advice with 64 straightforward directions for eating wisely. Some of the more memorable rules include:

  • Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
  • Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce.
  • Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.
  • Eat only foods that will eventually rot.
  • Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks.


What’s on the Real Food Menu?

Two of the pioneers of Real Food are Nina Planck and Lisa Leake. In 2004 Planck published Real Food: What to Eat and Why, the book that first popularized the term “real food.” Since then, she has written a set of cookbooks with recipes that use only “real food” ingredients.


Lisa Leake hosts the popular food blog, 100 Days of Real Food, based on her family’s experiment eliminating all processed food and refined ingredients from their diet for 100 consecutive days. Today, she challenges her subscribers to take a 10 Day Pledge to eat only real foods chosen from the following list:

  • All fruits & vegetables as long as they are local, organic, and seasonal
  • Meat and poultry (including eggs) that are grass-fed, pastured, or humanely-raised without hormones or antibiotics
  • Wild-caught seafood as opposed to farm-raised
  • Dairy that is full-fat, grass-fed, pasture-raised, unpasteurized, and unsweetened
  • 100% whole grains, preferably ancient breeds such as quinoa
  • Beans that are purchased dry or in BPA-free cans only
  • Seeds & nuts that are raw, unsalted, and unsweetened
  • Oils & fats that are unrefined, virgin, or cold-pressed
  • Sweeteners that are unrefined and raw, such as honey or maple syrup


For more details, you can read Leake’s ground rules for the pledge.


The Real Food Challenge

Although the Real Food Movement remains relatively unorganized, since 2008, the Real Food Challenge has been training and mobilizing college students to lead campaigns to create a healthy, fair, and green food system on their campuses. Two of the principles guiding the initiative:


The Real Food Principle

Real food is a holistic term to describe food that thoroughly nourishes consumers, producers, communities, and the earth – all aspects of a food system that sustains the people, livelihoods, and communities around the world. This principle recognizes that both the food system and the food movement are complex and made up of several distinct sectors.


The Mission Principle

This principle affirms that the Real Food Challenge is part of a larger alternative food movement, which itself is one facet of a global movement towards a just and sustainable world. The impact of food does not stop at the consumer and is not isolated to a single country.


real food challenge

The principles of the Real Food Movement. Source:


Like Pollan, Planck, and Leake, the Real Food Challenge leaders have published their own set of real food standards. These guidelines spell out the objectives of the organization and precisely delineate what qualifies a product as Real Food – one that is community-based, local, ecologically sound, fair, and humane.


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