Ever pick up a health magazine advocating the use of fat free, modified, or other substitutes of a real thing in their recipes? The advice of many a diet tip is to essentially forgo real food in favor of something supposedly healthier, but definitely less in some way—at least psychologically. Because your mind recognizes you are limiting something.

And it’s not happy.

The hope is that the sacrifice of flavor and richness will manifest a reward of better health and thinner waistline. Then why is it that we are not becoming any slimmer?

Don’t trick your mind

Margarine instead of butter, skim milk instead of whole, whole wheat English muffins instead of a piece of fresh baguette, sorbet instead of ice cream, chicken breast instead of wings…

What if you really like ice cream and hate sorbet? And you happen to know that butter is a hundred times healthier for you than margarine? And that eating a slice of bread made up of a few easily recognized ingredients—flour, water, yeast, salt—is intuitively healthier than eating a muffin out of a plastic packet that contains over a dozen unpronounceable constituents?

There’s nothing wrong with sorbet per se. But there is—with margarine. Trying to package it, good and bad, under the skinny umbrella sends the wrong message and tarnishes the concept and value of food.

Look, if you want ice cream, get real ice cream—just don’t get a large. A kiddie-size is plenty in today’s portion sizes. If you love the sizzle of butter on your steak, put it on—but then don’t eat a pound of steak. That’s how the French are able to eat their fabulously rich cuisine without gaining weight. They eat way less of everything. As the author of French Women Don’t Get Fat Mireille Guillano points out, “salmon is a wonderful health food, but if you need half a pound just to feel content, you need too much”.

Eat better protein

Variety is the spice of life. Healthy protein is more than just a chicken breast. There is a variety of excellent choices readily available nowadays, such as: wild salmon vs. farm-raised—just notice the color!, grass-fed beef, buffalo steaks, whole red snapper, wild shrimp, Alaskan crab legs…you get the idea. Spend a little more and buy a little less—the flavor will provide the satisfaction.

Cook It

Learn to cook your food—not only is it healthier and fresher, it’s much cheaper. You control what to put in your meal and how much salt and sugar it will contain. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Take stir-fries, for example. All it takes it chopping some veggies and a protein of choice and sautéing it all together. Or baking a chicken breast—just stick in the oven and wait for it. It’s the original set it and forget it concept. And when in doubt, you can sauté or boil pretty much anything.

Learn about it

For most of human evolution, we have been able to figure out what to eat without experts telling us how. But now that so much our food comes packaged, modified, and transformed, it’s not so straightforward.

Michael Pollan offers the following simple advice when it comes to eating in his manifesto In Defense of Food: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. By “food” he means “the sort of food your grandparents would recognize as food in the supermarket”.

Food is more than just sustenance. It gives you energy and life. Pay it its due attention.

–Julia Timakhovich

Leave your comments!

What “Real Food” substitutes do you try and avoid?