By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Thursday, May 27, 2010; PG14
Packaged guacamole makes the cut.
Pop Tarts, alas, do not.
The difference? The first is "real" food, the second not so much.
That's according to Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough, whose new book, "Real Food Has Curves: How to Get Off Processed Food, Lose Weight, and Love What You Eat" (Gallery), is a guide to what should be a natural, intuitive activity: feeding ourselves.
Connecticut couple Weinstein (a trained chef) and Scarbrough (a former English professor) have written 17 cookbooks together over 11 years and write for Weight Watchers, Cooking Light and, on occasion, The Washington Post. (Weinstein is also known for his book and blog about knitting for men.)
In "Real Food," they walk us through a seven-step process of weaning ourselves from packaged and processed foods, starting by selecting and tasting -- really tasting -- a fresh peach and ending with committing to "treat yourself well" by bettering your breakfast, enjoying midday snacks and relishing dessert.
Along the way, readers learn to view foods in terms of how close they are to "real." In the authors' paradigm, freshly squeezed orange juice is "real," orange juice not made from concentrate "almost real," orange juice from concentrate "barely real" and bottled orange-flavored drink "not real."
Wherever your typical diet falls in this range, the authors suggest you "take one step to the left," closer to the "real" end. "As you go about your day," they write, "think about what's real and what's not, what's almost real food and what's barely so, what's been shellacked with additives, what's wonderful in its natural state."
Eating in this fashion will probably help you lose weight, say the authors, who both shed pounds when they shifted toward "real" food. But it will also make your diet more healthful and satisfying, they promise.
Grocery shopping with the couple, as I got to do last week, is an exercise in discretion and label reading. Just back from a business trip, they needed to restock their larder. Scarbrough assured Weinstein that they still had plenty of homemade granola; what they needed were ingredients to make the week's lineup of vegetable-and-grain-based lunch salads, which include wheat berries, quinoa, roasted corn and red peppers, baby artichokes, cucumbers and celery. (You can find recipes on their blog: http://www.realfoodhascurves.com.)
The two are wary of ingredients such as "flavoring" and "spices," which really don't pin down what you're putting in your mouth. They nixed bottled coleslaw dressing (whose first ingredient is sugar) but approved of pre-sliced, packaged purple onions in the refrigerator section. If you use those onions, Weinstein says, "you are cooking; you're just not chopping."
Tofu makes the grade, but not tofu-based vegetarian chorizo sausage. If your dietary restrictions preclude your eating a certain food, Scarbrough suggests, "don't get something fake instead." If you're gluten intolerant and can't eat a pizza, he says, better to forgo "fake," wheat-free pizza crusts and opt instead for a plate of nachos with ("real") melted cheese.
Weinstein bakes bread at home, but for convenience's sake he buys store-baked bialies. That's in keeping with Scarbrough's advice that "convenience shouldn't be discounted, just examined."
As for the common wisdom that the most healthful food lies along the grocery store's perimeter, Scarbrough asserts that some approved foods can be found among the boxes, bags and cans in the center aisles. Shelf-stable vacuum boxes of milk pass muster, for instance, as do some canned tomatoes and rice.
Still, the grocery shelves are stacked against those seeking "real" food. In the syrup aisle, Scarbrough pointed out that the only "real" sweeteners there, the honey and real maple syrup, are on the top shelf, out of reach. And they are more expensive than the front-and-center pancake toppers whose first ingredients are corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup, with not a drop of maple in the mix.
As we left the store, Scarbrough mentioned that he and Weinstein "almost called the book 'Chocolate Pudding Will Save Your Life.' " To these two, the difference between pudding made at home with a few simple ingredients and the additive-riddled kind in boxes or tubs is emblematic of their approach.
"If you have 'real' chocolate pudding," Weinstein says, "it will change the way you think about everything."