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9 Steps to Perfect Health – #3: Eat Real Food


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This content is part of an article series.

Check out the series here

In the first article of this series we talked about the negative impact of 4 common food toxins: wheat, industrial seed oil, fructose and processed soy. In the second article we discussed which fats, carbohydrates and proteins are the best source of fuel for your body. In this article we’re going to importance of eating real food.

“Real food” is:

  • Whole, unprocessed and unrefined
  • pasture-raised (a.k.a. grass-fed) and wild
  • local, seasonal and organic

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Whole, unprocessed, and unrefined: if it comes in a bag or a box, don’t eat it!

The introduction of industrial food processing has without a doubt had the most detrimental effect on our health of any other factor in the last few hundred years – and possibly in the entire history of humankind.

Food refining has brought us all four of the food toxins destroying our health: white flour, white sugar & HFCS, industrial seed oils and processed soy products. It has also brought us chemical additives and preservatives, some with known negative effects and others with effects still unknown.

New research is revealing the harm these newfangled processed foods have on us almost every day. Just yesterday a study was published demonstrating that emulsifiers used in packaged foods ranging from mayonnaise to bread to ice cream increase intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”) and cause a chain reaction of inflammation and autoimmune disease.

Another study showed that diet soda consumption increases your risk of stroke and causes kidney damage, possibly because of the phosphoric acid used as an acidifying agent to give colas their tangy flavor.

To avoid the harm caused by processed and refined foods, a good general rule is “if it comes in a bag or a box, don’t eat it.

Of course not all foods that come in bags and boxes are harmful, so this isn’t meant to be taken literally. It’s just a helpful guideline. Butter is often packaged in a box, and Trader Joe’s (for some strange reason) packages vegetables in sealed plastic bags. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat butter and vegetables.

But in general, if you follow this guideline, you’ll avoid most common food toxins. And that’s more than half the battle.

Pasture-raised animal products and wild-caught fish: as nature intended

While the reasons to eat pasture-raised animal products and wild-caught fish span social, political, economic and nutritional considerations, I’m only going to focus on nutritional factors here. For a more comprehensive discussion, check out Eat Wild.

Several studies have been done comparing the nutrient content of pasture-raised (PR) and grain-fed (confinement animal feeding operations, or CAFO) animal products. PR animal products are superior to CAFO in 2 primary respects: they have a better fatty acid profile, and higher levels of vitamins and other micronutrients.

Omega-6 ratio
If you remember from Step #1: Don’t Eat Toxins, for optimal health we want to consume a roughly equal amount of omega-6 (n-6) and omega-3 (n-6) fats. This ratio, referred to as the n-6 ratio, should be as close to 1 as possible. Studies have shown that grain-feeding animals depletes their omega-3 levels, thus raising the n-6:n-3 ratio. The following chart from Eatwild depicts the effect of grain-feeding on the omega-3 levels of cows:

omega-3 levels of cows

Ducket and colleagues studied the omega-3 and omega-6 content of both pasture-raised and grain-fed animal products. They found that grass-fed beef had an n-6 ratio of 1.65, whereas grain-finished beef was 4.84. They also found that grass-feeding decreased total fat content by 43%.

Rule and colleagues found an even more significant difference. They looked at the n-6 ratio of several different types of meat, ranging from pasture-raised bison and beef to wild elk to chicken. They found the following ratios:

  • Range-fed bison: 2.09
  • Feedlot bison: 7.22
  • Range-fed beef: 2.13
  • Feedlot beef: 6.28
  • Elk: 3.14
  • Chicken breast: 18.5

What is apparent from both Ducket and Rule’s studies is that pasture-raised beef has approximately three times the amount of omega-3 than grain-fed beef, and is much closer to the ideal n-6 ratio of 1.

In fact, grass-fed beef has a superior n-6 ratio to even wild elk. This means that grass-fed beef falls within evolutionary norms for the fatty acid content of animals that humans have eaten throughout our history. Grain-fed beef does not.

Another interesting thing to note, which I mentioned in Step #2: Nourish Your Body, is the high n-6 ratio of chicken. In fact, it has about 14 times more n-6 than pasture-raised beef. This is why I recommend eating mostly beef, lamb and pork, and limiting chicken to the occasional meal (assuming you like it, that is). And when you do eat chicken, it’s best to choose skinless breast and cook it in a healthy traditional fat like butter or coconut oil, because the dark meat with skin has the highest concentration of n-6 fat.

Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)
Meat, fat and dairy from pasture-raised animals are the richest source of another type of good fat, called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).

CLA may have anti-cancer properties, even in very small amounts. In animal studies, CLA at less than one-tenth of one percent (0.1%) of total calories prevents tumor growth. In a Finnish study on humans, women who had the highest levels of CLA in their diet had a 60 percent lower risk of breast cancer than those with the lowest levels. In another human study, those with the highest levels of CLA in their tissues had a 50 percent lower risk of heart attack than those with the lowest levels.

Pasture-raised animal products are the richest known source of CLA in the diet, and are significantly higher in CLA than grain-fed animal products. When ruminant animals like cows and sheep are raised on fresh pasture alone, their products contain from 3-5 times more CLA than products from animals fed grain.

Minerals, vitamins and micronutrients
The Ducket study I mentioned above also found that pasture-raised animal products have much higher levels of several vitamins and minerals, including:

  • 288% greater vitamin E content
  • 54% greater beta-carotene content
  • Twice as much riboflavin (vitamin B2)
  • Three times as much thiamin (vitamin B1)
  • 30% more calcium
  • 5% more magnesium

Grass-fed products also have a lot more selenium than grain-fed products. Selenium plays an important role in thyroid function, has antioxidant effects and protects the body against mercury toxicity. Grass-fed bison has 4 times more selenium than grain-fed bison.

Pasture-raised eggs
We see a similar difference between eggs from hens raised on pasture, and those raised in confinement. Pasture-raised hens contain as much as 10 times more omega-3 than eggs from factory hens. Pastured eggs are higher in B12 and folate. They also have higher levels of fat-soluble antioxidants like vitamin E and a denser concentration of vitamin A.

Wild-caught fish

Farmed fish contain excess omega-6 compared to wild-caught fish. Tests conducted in 2005 show that wild-caught salmon contain 10 times more n-3 than n-6, whereas farmed salmon have less than 4 times the amount of n-3 than n-6.

Another study found that consuming standard farmed salmon, raised on diets high in n-6, raises blood levels of inflammatory chemicals linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer.

Wild salmon also contains 4 times as much vitamin D than farmed salmon, which is especially important since up to 50% of Americans are deficient in this important vitamin.

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Organic, local and seasonal: more nutrients, fewer chemicals

More nutrients
Organic plant foods contain, on average, 25 percent higher concentrations of 11 nutrients than their conventional counterparts. In particular, they tend to be higher in important polyphenols and antioxidants like vitamin C, vitamin E and quercetin.

Even more relevant in determining nutrient content is where your produce comes from, and in particular, how long it’s been out of the ground before you eat it. Most of the produce sold at large supermarket chains is grown hundreds – if not thousands – of miles away, in places like California, Florida and Mexico. This is especially true when you’re eating foods that are out of season in your local area (like a banana in mid-winter in New York).

A typical carrot, for example, has traveled 1,838 miles to reach your dinner table. Days – maybe more than a week – have passed since it was picked, packaged and trucked to the store, where it can sit on the shelves even longer.

The problem with this is that food starts to change as soon as it’s harvested and its nutrient content begins to deteriorate. Total vitamin C content of red peppers, tomatoes, apricots, peaches and papayas has been shown to be higher when these crops are picked ripe from the plant. This study compared the Vitamin C content of supermarket broccoli in May (in season) and supermarket broccoli in the Fall (shipped from another country). The result? The out-of-season broccoli had only half the vitamin C of the seasonal broccoli.

Without exposure to light (photosynthesis), many vegetables lose their nutrient value. If you buy vegetables from the supermarket that were picked a week ago, transported to the store in a dark truck, and then stored in the middle of a pile in the produce section, and then you put them in your dark refrigerator for several more days before eating them, chances are they’ve lost much of their nutrient value. A study at Penn State University found that spinach lost 47% of its folate after 8 days.

This is why buying your produce at local farmer’s markets, or even better, picking it from your backyard garden, are better options than buying conventional produce shipped from hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Fruits and vegetables from local farms are usually stored within one or two days of picking, which means their nutrient content will be higher. And as anyone who’s eaten a fresh tomato right off the vine will tell you, local produce tastes so much better than conventional produce it might as well be considered a completely different food.

Fewer chemicals
Another important benefit of organic produce, of course, is that it’s grown without pesticides, herbicides and other harmful chemicals that have been shown to cause health problems – especially in vulnerable populations like children. A study published in the journal Pediatrics concluded that children exposed to organophosphate pesticides at levels typically found in conventional produce are more likely to develop attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

A panel of scientists convened by President Obama to study the effect of environmental toxins on cancer released a report in 2010 urging Americans to eat organic produce grown without pesticides, fertilizers or other chemicals. The report states that the U.S. government has grossly underestimated the number of cancers caused by environmental toxins.

The report especially highlights the risk of toxins in conventionally grown foods to unborn children. Exposure to harmful chemicals during this critical period can set a child up for lifelong endocrine disruption, hormone imbalances and other problems.

Supporting local economies and preserving resources
Aside from having more nutrients and fewer chemicals, there are other non-nutritional reasons to eat local produce. These were summarized well in Cornell University’s Northeast Regional Food Guide:

Community food systems promote more food-related enterprises in proximity to food production, marketing, and consumption. Such systems enhance agricultural diversity, strengthen local economies (including farm-based businesses), protect farmland, and increase the viability of farming as a livelihood. Local food systems mean less long-distance shipment of the produce we enjoy, which means decreased use of nonrenewable fossil fuels for food distribution, lower emission of resulting pollutants, and less wear on transcontinental highways.

I’ve also found that forming relationships with the people that grow my food leads to a greater sense of community and connection. In an increasingly technophilic, hyperactive world, that is especially welcome.

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Join the conversation

  1. chris,

    have you ever seen any data on pastured chickens n-6 vs. conventional?

    and even further…what are chickens supposed to eat anyway? i have looked for this info before and we’ve entertained keeping chickens (laying). i’ve just often wondered what a “natural” diet for chickens actually is. you see your organic eggs labeled “vegetarian diet” which can include grain and soy. but, if birds can actually eat and digest grains…is it alright if the chickens laying your eggs eat grains? i know joel salatin let’s them scratch around after the cows and eat bugs and worms etc…but i’m sure their feed is supplemented (we’ve been to his farm and still don’t know for sure). i’m assuming most pastured chickens are still fed some supplemental feed (we buy local local pastured eggs). let me wrap this up…what should chickens eat and have you seen any data comparing pastured and conventional?

    great post. great series. pay the farmer or pay the pharmaceutical company?

  2. Chris, if you want to guide people to eat free-range chicken, and not typical commercial chicken, that’s up to you to give that specific advice. You didn’t do that. You only compared “chicken” with two differently raised “beefs”.

    I pointed out that chicken is always delivered with the skin and that’s how people usually eat it, so that’s how the omega-6 content is measured.

    You are continually skewing things in a very dangerous direction. Notice how, in your earlier article you admitted that a 2 to 1 n-6 to n-3 ratio was normal, but now you are PUSHING people to TRY for a 1 to 1 ratio. Can you give us any example of an animal, raised in a natural environment, such as a squirrel, black bird, etc. that has a 1 to 1 ratio in its meat (muscle)? If not, why are you pushing humans to have such an abnormal goal. Right here in this article you are admitting that bison and elk are over 2 to 1. And we are talking muscle when we are talking the meat that is measured. Organs and fat tissue always have higher n-6 to n-3 ratios, and nerve and skin tissue have WAY higher. Human muscle has 6.5 times as much n-6 as n-3. Human organs have about a 4 to 1 ratio. We are talking about an essential fatty acid here. The body can’t manufacture it. It must eat it and successfully distribute it to the cells. How in the world, either logically or by scientific evidence can you expect people to believe that magically they are going to maintain the proper proportions of omega-6 in their bodies if they don’t eat it, either as food or as supplements?

    I would say that you, with the instrument of this “Healthy Skeptic” newsletter at your disposal, are the one is extremely out on a limb with respect to misinforming the population, and who should heed the advice: “You can ignore that if you’d like, but don’t advise others….” as you counseled me above.

    I am always welcoming your replies. I think you have a great idea with this newsletter, and I would like to see it continue. However, I will not stand aside and let people be guided in the wrong direction. As long as you allow me to post on this forum, I will continue to point out where I think you are misleading. And you should be happy you have skeptics in your audience as well as in your office. Its what allows people finally be content with issues: hearing a full discussion.

    I agree with everything else in this article. I’m not trying to take you apart for some vicious reason. I only take issue when you talk about omega-6 as though its something to be avoided, when there has never been any proof that omega-6 in its natural state (arriving in our stomachs from fresh meat, eggs, vegetables, nuts, etc.) is bad for the human body in ANY quantity. All studies done using omega-6 have used commercial vegetable oils as far as I know. And that is an item that we both agree should be avoided like the plague. Right? So please don’t prejudice people against omega-6. Or else show proof that, say, eating free-range chicken will produce poorer health than range-fed beef. If you can’t do that, please don’t slam healthy sources of omega-6. Humans have been eating whatever meats and vegetables and dairy they so desired for thousands of years. Only in the last 70 years have humans had the modern diseases. It can’t be the omega-6. Its the processing.

  3. Haven’t studies shown that frequent red meat consumption increases cancer risk? All you hear is eat more fruit and veggies and cut back on red meat.

  4. and regarding the whole ingredient lists thingy… i don’t really figure it to be that cut and dry. when i peek at the ingredients, if i wouldn’t eat each item in there, then that means i have now identified a certain ingredient that doesn’t qualify. then i have to determine how badly it doesn’t qualify and how far down it rests in on my list of no-nos.

    save for a situation where i would literally die if i didn’t eat something (haven’t quite run across that type of situation just yet), here is a short list of ingredient list ‘no-nos’ (in no real order):

    hydrogenation, partial or full
    high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup
    agave syrup, agave nectar
    any vegetable (seed) oil
    monosodium glutamate (msg)
    BHA/BHT/TBHQ (preservatives)
    soy (regardless of form)
    grain, especially wheat
    artificial sweetners like aspartame and saccharine
    cornstarch (GMO)

    that doesn’t contain everything, but staying away from those items would at least give most folk a running start toward better health. then just follow the other things chris is teaching in this series and you will definitely be on the right track.

  5. Glenn: you continue to miss a very important point. The chicken that most people are eating is not remotely “what nature gives us”. It’s raised in confinement on feed full of corn and soy, which raises its n-6 content significantly. As I’ve pointed out, dark meat chicken has 18x the amount of n-6 than even grain-fed beef. That’s a fact. You can ignore that if you’d like, but don’t advise others to based on the misguided notion that “since chicken is natural, it must be okay.”

    • Is the n-6 ratio any better in chickens not raised in confinement but free range and not fed grains?

  6. Good guidance, DancinPete. By using the “list of ingredients” rule, it includes things in bottles, cans, and other packaging! It all may be avoided if the ingredients are listed and include other than what you really want. I say “may” here, because most of us can get fresh food year around, and many of us can get it locally grown year around. All of us can eat dried beans or produce sprouts.

    Also, I would add, if we avoid the packaged foods AND avoid eating in restaurants, and don’t consume vegetable oils, or don’t consume the ones that are the cheap commercial ones, the whole issue of omega-6 oils, and “omega balancing” just goes away. We’ve always done fine with the balance of omegas that nature gives us. Its the commercial processing of oils that ruins them.

    And a bit of clarification. Chris mentions how “rich” chicken is in omega-6. This is quite misleading. Chicken is the only meat he mentions where we eat the skin. Skin is well known to have hardly any omega-3 content but loads of omega-6. Don’t be afraid of chicken. If you have become obsessed with reducing omega-6 intake though, thanks to the pervasive fish-oil propaganda, just remove the skin. Human skin has 1000 times as much parent omega-6 as it has omega-3. If you want healthy skin, you better make sure you don’t reduce your omega-6 intake too much! Just cutting the boxed, bagged, bottled foods, and staying away from restaurant food, especially the fried foods, will take care of your health and you can, in my mind, forget about balancing. That’s just a thing the sellers of omega-3 supplements try to get you to do. Unnecessary complexity!

    • What do you chicken is the only animal that we eat the skin? I am from Bulgaria (Eastern Europe) and we do eat pork skin. It is one of my favourite dishes! There are many other countries where people eat pig’s skin, ears, etc.
      Chris, what do you think of eating pig’s skin and fat? Are they ok to eat on a regular basis?

  7. Bill: you’re right, frozen fruits and vegetables are a good alternative. In some cases, they have a higher nutrient content than conventional produce because they’ve been frozen soon after being picked, and the nutrient content is preserved.

    Patty: yes, bone broth is a great way to stretch the food budget. Also, using cheaper cuts of meat (like brisket, rump, offal, etc.) and braising or slow-cooking is another way of controlling costs.

  8. re: “if it comes in a bag or a box, don’t eat it.”
    Hi Chris,

    I like to tell people that a good rule of thumb is that the list of ingedients should be no different than the name of the item you’re buying. ie: a bag of carrots’ ingredient list should be carrots. a carton of butter, contains only butter, a bag of doritos’ ingredient list has many things on it that are not naturally occuring.

  9. happy,
    i think you actually addressed it correctly to steve. he was the one asking about practicality.

  10. Another way to stretch your food budget is to purchase bones and make bone broth. Excellent base for any kind of soup. Organ meats and eggs are pretty inexpensive, even when grass-fed / pastured.

    I enjoyed your presentation of the information Chris.

  11. steve,

    it’s not chris’s fault you’re broke or unwilling to do what it takes to eat healthy foods. you can buy grass fed beef on multiple sites on the internet. just eat your bologna sandwich on white bread with vegetable oil dressing and a 32oz soda at your business lunch meeting. i can’t even imagine typing up a comment like the one you typed and clicking send. if you can’t hack it, stop whining. jeez.

  12. Thanks Jo. Farmer’s Choice looks like it could be just what I have been looking for! I am going to also look locally for some quality butchers.

    Chris is right, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

    Fantastic blog by the way…

  13. You didn’t mention frozen vegetables. I steam frozen spinach, brocolli, brussel sprouts and leeks on a daily basis. The cost of frozen is about one third of fresh. I thought that frozen retained most of the nutrients. The steamed veg are briefly stir fried in copious amounts of pastured butter and EVOO. The only regular fresh veg I eat constantly are garlic, onions and chillie peppers.

    Also on the wild fish, I eat mainly imported frozen mussels, tinned sardines and mackerel in brine, 70% of the time, with lamb’s liver and lamb’s heart on a weekly basis. These are the most cost effective sources of omega 3 rich protein. I don’t buy canned tuna because in general the processing removes the omega 3.

    I’m also from England and grass fed beef, apart from offal is too expensive for me, excepting special occasions.

  14. To the UK poster, Welsh or NZ lamb are good grass fed options. Buy frozen for cheaper options. My local butcher sources all his meat from free range sources. If you can find a butcher locally go and ask him/her if it is also grass fed. Also, I order meat from a butcher who delivers free range. Again, contact them to clarify the grass fed status. The company is called Farmer’s Choice and they have details on their website about the farms the animals come from and the living conditions. I note that the beef is grass fed in summer but silage and corn fed in winter.

  15. Steve: does something need to be “new” to be worthwhile? That’s an interesting concept. I also work, live in an urban environment and don’t have unlimited supplies of money. Yet I eat mostly pasture-raised animal products.

    Certainly some people can’t afford to buy grass-fed meat; but for many others, it’s a question of priorities. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. If you choose not to make it a priority, that’s your prerogative. But don’t complain about the “practicality” of the advice. I’m simply telling you what the research shows: that pasture-raised animal products are more nutrient-dense than grain-fed products. It’s up to you what to do with that information.

    • I realize that I’m coming to this article quite late but I need to respond to this because few people understand…

      I appreciate your articles but, sorry, I get a little perturbed with people who obviously make more money than I do (and no, I don’t have and can’t afford cable television or a new computer and the car I get to work in has 180,000 miles on it, up from the previous one that had a quarter million.) who make broad statements like, “I… don’t have unlimited supplies of money. Yet I eat mostly pasture-raised animal products.” It is not a matter of priorities for some people. And I don’t know of anyone who would claim to have ‘unlimited supplies of money’. As Steve is saying, GIVEN A VERY LOW INCOME, what are the best trade-offs, healthwise? We are simply trying our best to figure that out and you come across as being rather self-righteous with your statement, “But don’t complain about the “practicality” of the advice… It’s up to you what to do with that information.”

      We’re not stupid! We already know that. We’re simply trying to balance optimum health advise against having SOME of life’s pleasures when we can’t even expect to have a relaxing, recuperative vacation… EVER!

      Sorry for the rant but I had to make a point.

      • I struggle with this as I have a family of three hungry boys and an enormous husband to feed. Much as I would LOVE to buy organic meat – as much for the animal welfare perspective as for the health benefits, it is simply impossible for me to spend $34 a kilo for chicken ( which is what organic chicken costs here in Western Australia, wholesale !)

        I get around this by buying bulk Harvey Beef Rump at $5 a kilo – its not organic, but its grass fed. I also buy free range chicken – but the cheaper bits like drumsticks or whole chooks. I cannot afford organic eggs, but again I buy local, free range ones for @ $6 a carton.

        I make my own yoghurt with an EAsiyo maker – that’s half the price of buying yoghurt.

        I have friends who are in “Cow Clubs” where 8 or 10 of them get together and buy a whole cow’s worth of meat. Mind you, you need a freezer for this one.

        In the end, I suppose I compromise by not buying the very-bestest, but instead the best of what I can actually afford 🙂

        I think the other part of this equation is that veggies are MUCH cheaper than meat – that’s what I’m working on at the moment with, irony of ironies, vegan cookbooks :)) Vegans have so many interesting ways to prepare veggies, so I am working with Gluten free vegan cookbooks and also books like “Mostly Raw” which have tonnes of interesting ways to prepare vegetable meals. I just ignore the irrelevant bit ie: any grains such as quinoa or rice….

        The other thing that’s worth following up on are the Zero Carbers particularly Charles Washington (just Google his name and “Zero Carb” – you’ll find him 🙂

        Charles has a bit of a bee in his bonnet about the whole meat business, and eats “supermarket meat” as a point of principle. Whether or not you agree with Zero Carbing, on the whole I feel that it is better to eat what meat, and fermented dairy, and veggies you can afford, rather than eat the SAD in any way, shape or form.

        Its nice to know what the best stuff is, and why its the best – and by golly if I win the Lotto it will be free range, grass fed, organic animals all the way; but otherwise – no. Just what I can afford within the outlines of the diet; because that’s a 1000 times better than eating puffed-wheat-sugar-colour-deathbombs !

  16. this advise is really nothing new and exits all over the internet. As the previous question, what recommendations on a practical level do you make for those who cannot access grass fed, or pastured products either because of cost, or other reasons. Many of us work in urban environments, attend business lunch meetings or dinners and grass fed/pasture products are not available. A practical approach towards a healthy lifestyle would be more beneficial then the 10 commandments of nutrition

  17. What would you suggest for people who either cannot afford or source grass fed meat?

    Where I live in the UK, it’s incredibly difficult to get hold of.