I’m a fan of simplicity. So when I came across this little acronym, I was sold. JERF is short for Just Eat Real Food. While the principle is easy enough, poke around a bit and you inevitably come around to this: how exactly do we define food? And how exactly do we define ‘real’ food?
When I was a kid, food was defined as anything from SpaghettiOs to Pop Tarts. Our cupboards and freezer were stocked with boxes and cans of prepackaged goods. If we ran out, there was a McDonald’s not too far away. And while those items were sold in food stores, and could on some level qualify as food (they were edible, contained calories, and even had some minor nutrient value), none of them seemed authentic.
Fast forward to the food culture of today, and the landscape is quite different. There is a new awareness of what food actually is, versus processed food products. As we move away from boxes and preservatives, new questions come with new choices. Organic or conventional? Traditional or gluten-free? Raw milk from grass-fed cows, or the standard variety?
This new dialogue is great, and for foodies, can foster hours of debate. What about the masses, and yes, even the folks who pick up a few organic tomatoes at the farmers market? How much of what they (or any of us) is eating, is actually real food? And how exactly do we define it?
“For me, food is defined as substances that provide nutrients to fuel, maintain and repair our tissues,” says Deb Froehlich, a Colorado-based health and wellness coach with an M.S. in exercise science.
She says it’s not entirely our fault that we have trouble choosing real food over other options out there. “Our food today is purposely engineered to satisfy all our hot buttons – fat, sweet and salt,” she says. “So when people go out shopping for food, they go for what’s easy and what satisfies the three big pleasure centers in the brain.”
At least for me that’s the case. While I genuinely enjoy grilled meat and vegetables more than any person should, throw a thickly frosted cupcake in my path while I’m shopping, and my brain goes a little haywire. It locks onto the fat-sugar combo, and I have to reboot to get back to the task at hand: namely, shopping for real food. Which again, brings us back to definitions of exactly what that is.
Food writer Michael Pollan, whose book “In Defense of Food” provides an in-depth exploration on the topic, says (and I’m paraphrasing here) that food is the plants, animals, and fungi we eat. But process any of those elements too much, and they no longer qualify as food and become a food product or substance..
At what point does food, such as a chicken breast, cease being food? When does processing transform it into a pseudo-food? And what about supplements, like soy drinks and energy bars?
Take my beloved LaraBars. Yes, it’s a bar, and it comes in a package, but unlike most packaged food out there, it only contains five ingredients: dates, unsweetened coconut, almonds, cashews, and extra virgin coconut oil. For now, it goes in my real food toolbox, but others might disagree that a “power bar” qualifies as food rather than a process food product, albeit a healthy one.
Perhaps that’s the takeaway here. Based on culture, personal preference and taste, all of us define food differently. What’s important is that we strive to eat more food and fewer processed food products.
That’s where JERF comes in. It’s a simple, easy to remember acronym that can come to the rescue when we lose our way in the food decision abyss. I first came across it on Froehlich’s website, but there are Pinterest pages and plenty of blogs dedicated to the subject.
Here’s the challenge: Can you forego overly processed food products, especially snacks and treats, and go JERF for 7-10 seven days?
New York Times Motherlode columnist K. J. Dell’Antonia is trying to do just that for her and her entire family. She’s vowed to eliminate all prepackaged foods for a week. You can read about her adventures in the real food world by clicking here.
While your own version of JERF might vary, unexpected doors could open.
“Since I picked up on it, I not only feel pretty darn good, but I’m also about the leanest I’ve ever been,” says Froehlich, who has experimented with a number of dietary protocols in the past. “I don’t count calories or measure macronutrient ratios anymore, and that has saved me a lot of time and stress.”
Tom Trevino is a writer, artist and wellness coach based out of San Antonio. His column, “The Feed,” covers anything and everything related to health and wellness. He holds a B.A. from the University of Texas at San Antonio, with certification and training from the Cooper Institute. He has a fondness for dogs, NPR, the New York Times, and anything on two wheels. When he’s not writing, training, or cooking, you can find him wandering the aisles of Central Market.