Real Food Defined (The Rules)

Real food basically means anything not highly processed (like artificial additives) and containing only five or fewer whole ingredients. It means mostly avoiding ingredients you would not cook with at home.

Here are the seven rules we followed during our original 100 Days of Real Food pledge:

  1. No refined grains (such as white flour or white rice); only 100 percent whole grain. Items containing wheat must say WHOLE wheat…not just “wheat” by itself.
  2. No refined or artificial sweeteners (such as sugar, any form of corn syrup, cane juice, or the artificial stuff like Splenda); only honey and pure maple syrup in moderation.
  3. Nothing out of a package that contains more than five ingredients.
  4. No factory-farmed meat; only locally raised meat products.
  5. No deep-fried foods.
  6. No fast food.
  7. Beverages to include only water, milk, occasional all-natural juices, naturally sweetened coffee and tea, and (to help the adults keep their sanity) wine and beer in moderation!

I promise, there’s still food left after eliminating everything mentioned in our rules!

What you CAN eat:

  • Whole foods that are more a product of nature than a product of industry
  • Lots of fruits and vegetables (we recommend that you shop for these at your local farmers’ market)
  • Dairy products like milk, unsweetened yogurt, eggs, and cheese
  • 100% whole-wheat and whole-grains (find a local bakery for approved sandwich bread and check the Understanding Grains post for more info)
  • Seafood (wild-caught is the optimal choice over farm-raised)
  • Only locally raised meats such as pork, beef, and chicken (preferably in moderation)
  • Snacks like dried fruit, seeds, nuts and popcorn
  • Also, check out the Recipes & Resources page for a more detailed list of meal options including links to recipes

2,534 thoughts on “Real Food Defined (The Rules)”

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  1. I have recently been diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer at a relatively young age. I have had surgery and I am presently on chemotherapy which makes me very sick and nauseated most of the time.
    I have always eaten nutritiously but now, more than ever, I am trying to eat only clean, whole foods. Do you have any suggestions for someone in my situation?

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hello Janine. I’m so sorry to hear about your health challenge. We are unable to dispense that type of advice and have to refer you to your doctors. Have you considered seeing a doctor that practices integrative medicine? They typically have a much more solid nutrition background and incorporate it as well as tradition medicine into their treatments. On a personal note, I highly recommend Kris Carr’s books, Crazy Sexy Cancer and Crazy Sexy Kitchen: Wishing you only the best of everything.

  2. Hi there! My family just started this challenge, but we were wondering about the cereal Grape-Nuts. I was wondering if the cereal qualifies as real food? In the ingredients list it lists malted barley flour. Is that considered whole grain? And do the vitamins and minerals count as ingredients? Thanks for your help.

  3. I have just found this thread after spending a few weeks wondering what life would be like just using natural ingredients for cooking rather than anything processed. It started when I couldn’t sleep one night and was trying to imagine supermarkets with no processed food (I was bored). I have become extremely bored with food recently and need to find a way to enjoy it again. I’m also trying to get fit and eat more healthily. I think I’m going to spend a long time researching this site to find the inspiration I need.
    Many thanks

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Jessica. Lisa doesn’t typically use evaporated milk. If you do, use one that is organic and be sure it doesn’t have carrageenan.

  4. I was wondering how best to handle restaurant situations. My family likes to go out to eat once a week and I can’t really read labels on restaurant food.


    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Beth. Lisa looks for farm to table restaurants, restaurants that serve local foods, and is not afraid to ask specifically about ingredients used. As a general rule, the Leakes are pretty picky about where they eat out. :)

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Barbara. Use the 5 ingredient rule as well as the 100% whole grain rule to determine what crackers will work. Lisa buys 100% whole wheat matzo, or Ak Mak, and sometimes the original Crunch Master cracker. Mary’s Gone Crackers is another brand with a good ingredient list.

  5. hi, and thank you for your hard and pleasant work. i am 76old male with dibeties taken insulin need to watch carbs. and everything else. how many carbs will be ok. a day. to get off isulin. i need help. thank you danny

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Danny. While real food is absolutely great for your health, we can only advise on how to leave processed food behind. ;) Consult with your doctor on how you can make “going unprocessed” work best for your needs.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi there. Lisa uses Enjoy Life brand chocolate chips and King Arthur whole wheat flour. Some readers like to use whole wheat pastry flour.

  6. I am wondering why white rice is a no no when I have met folks from all over the world at my job where rice is a staple? Just curious or is it just for us Americans because we have a obesity issue?

  7. Hello all! I’m giving this a try. I’m 46 and have recently been diagnosed with high blood pressure, I’m 30lbs over weight, and now may also need a hysterectomy :-(
    Needless to say, I have to change some of my habits. I’ve been reading a lot about what we put into our bodies and I’m just sad. How can food, our life source, be such a problem? Processed foods are everywhere, tastes yummy, but unfortunately, so bad.

    Good luck all!

  8. Would you please clarify for me – I was shopping at Whole Foods last night & reading labels like a demon! I saw some pretzel sticks called “organic” – all the ingredients were whole grain, approved, no sugar, etc, etc but there were about 10 of them. Does the 5 ingredient rule supercede other rules, or was it an OK food because ingredients were within the rules? I didn’t buy them! LOL. We’ve only been doing this a couple of months and still learning. Thank you for your help!

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi. The 5 ingredient rule is the line in the sand we draw for choosing the great majority of any processed foods we would buy. That is not to say that there are no items in our pantry that have more. If the ingredient list includes a longer list of whole grains, nut seeds, spices, etc., that might be an example of an exception to the rule. You do not have to be 100% – 100% of the time. :)

  9. Mike weixlmann

    Hi, we ( my wife and I ) have cut out all sugar and prosessed foods about two months ago and any bad oils , we have both losses 15 pounds am 6 foot and now weigh 170 what a difference , I started by seeing a foodbabe website my wife had breast cancel but now she is cancer free it is hard to find things made without soy , which us well your friend mike and Joan

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi. You can use any combination of seasonings just be sure they don’t have preservatives added.

  10. Hello. I went to my family doctor today and he said I have to eliminate from my diet white flour, breads, potatoes, cakes, cookies, sweets, sugars, pasta and corn. I can have greens, vegetables, fruit, salmon, and chicken. I receive a monthly distribution of canned goods, spaghetti, and frozen chicken from the local Food bank. I don’t have any other options. What can I do to get healthy? All Blessings to you! -Patricia

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Patricia. Are you saying you have no budget for food outside of what the food bank provides?

      1. Hi Amy,
        Yes, I have no food budget. Fortunately I do receive a monthly box of canned (dead) or boxed foods from the food bank. This usually comes with frozen quartered chicken. Since I have to eliminate so many foods now and I don’t receive fresh foods I’m not sure what to do. Thank you for help.
        All Blessings to You.

      2. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

        Hi again. Can you speak with the food bank directly about your food needs per your doctor? I am assuming this is about diabetes? I know food banks might not have a ton of flexibility but a little communication can go a long way. You have to be your No. 1 advocate. You might find that you also have access to other resources and hunger organizations. Also, have checked into SNAP benefits? It is okay to ask for help.

  11. My husband and I just watched “Fed Up” (how scary!) and are going shopping today to start this new lifestyle! We have an 11 month old and, this sounds crazy, but I’m more concerned about how to get his meals prepped and fell lost about this process. Any recommendations? Thanks

    1. Hi Jessica

      Your child will follow your lead. Offer and eat lots of fruits and vegetables and don’t worry if he/she doesn’t eat it right away, keep offering and eating. My 2 year old son’s favorite saying right now at meal time is “I don’t like it” before he has even put it in his mouth. We have a “no thank you bite” rule in our house…you have to put it in your mouth and chew before you can say no thank you. Sometimes he spits it out and sometimes he will say, this is good! :) I try not to get to excited about his choices…keep offering the good stuff and you and your child will be fine!

  12. I am excited to start this challenge with my husband! I have a question about the “five ingredients or less” rule: Do separate herb/spices count as individual ingredients? For example, if a product lists “onion powder, garlic powder, dried parsley, dried oregano” does those count as four of the five ingredients allowed? Thanks!

  13. The only thing I’m really concerned about is locally-raised meats. Would organic, grass-fed meat be an acceptable alternative?

  14. I love this site! All the resources, links, and tools makes all this manageable and possible! You just have one teeny thing to fix: eggs are not dairy! You keep listing eggs under the dairy section and they just are not. Dairy is a product of the memory glands of mammals. They are not even from a milk-producing animal.

  15. I am going to do this starting…tomorrow. Really, tomorrow! What about oils though? ps I eat plant based-any one else have any ideas on how to live without earth balance?

  16. My question is, what about seasoning? I know whole and natural foods are best but I’m a seasoning kind of person, if it don’t have flavor I’m not eating. So are seasonings ok or are they not? And which ones can we use? Thank you.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Lacey. Herbs and spices fresh and dried are all good. Just be careful with labels as some spices, especially blends, will have unwanted additives.

  17. When you say sweeteners in Moderation, meat in moderation, how many times per week/or grams (or oz) per meal would “moderation” be?


    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi there. The RDA on sugar is no more than 6 teaspoons per day. With meats, one of the ways to think about it is that they should be a compliment to a meal and not the focus of it.

  18. I have been drinking unsweetened organic soy milk instead of cows milk. Are there any reasons I should reconsider?

    1. I eat gluten free as well. There are a number of GF flours out there that work fairly well. My favorite is GF Mama’s coconut and rice blend. When you try to substitute GF flour for other flours substitute ounce for ounce not cup for cup. America’s Test Kitchen has a GF cookbook out that gives you a wealth of information about cooking GF as well as some delicious recipies. Just keep trying different ones and you will find you own favorite.

  19. I have allergies to dairy products and going to stick with my rice milk and unsweetened almond milk for now if that is allowed

  20. A question about the point regarding the use of sweeteners. The acceptable sources listed aren’t useful for someone with diabetes. (Agave, honey, maple syrup, etc ALL raise blood sugar levels.) Any other suggestions for sweetening up my morning coffee without the splash of artificial stuff I’m currently using? Thank you!

    1. Wendy,
      I have found xylitol is low on the gylcemic index and a GREAT tasting, natural sweetener (no aftertaste like stevia). However, it is not safe for dogs to consume, so be aware of that!!!

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Candy. We understand that the rules have to be adjusted for allergies and sensitivities. Look for gluten free pasta and breads made with whole grains.

  21. My daughter may suffer ADHA/ADD will find out more in few days but people have suggested to change her diet and i was wondering if fallowing the 100 day food plain might help with some of this any info is helpful

    1. no junk food
      no tv
      no cellphone, tablet

      go outside and play
      take up art – drawing, painting
      learn to listen to and play music
      read books
      go for long walks

    2. This diet would help because processed food can cause add/add and it’s just healthier. However the Feindgold diet worked wonderful for my child. It is an elimination diet. We found out my child it was fresh oranges causing behavior problems! I thought I was doing the right thing by giving her fresh fruits. Some fruits have salicytes that are found to increase add/adhd.

    3. I can say from experience that yes she would likely benefit from this type of diet. Also teaching her better eating and dietary habit now will help her to continue with them as she grows older. The worse place for your child to eat is in their own cafeteria.