Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Reader Request: Defining “Healthy”

Every Monday, I pen a cooking column over at Serious Eats called Healthy and Delicious. Usually, those meals are produce focused and naturally low-calorie, meaning there’s little hubbub over nutritional value.

Here at CHG, we follow pretty much the same model. It says so right in the FAQ: “Nutrition-wise, we concentrate mainly on recipes with lower calories and fat, and often find those dishes naturally contain more fiber, vitamins, and minerals than most others.” (Yay FAQ!)

Occasionally, however, I’ll post a Quick and Easy Apple Tart or a Light Macaroni and Cheese, and the health aspect comes under scrutiny. Sometimes, it’s from readers, and other times, it’s me doing the questioning. Because honestly, these aren’t recipes that’ll strengthen your heart, build up your brain cells, and make you live until 135. They’re foods that are only slightly better than the calorie-laden alternatives.

I mean, think about it. How can that Tart be considered good for you? What positive effects can a macaroni and cheese – even a lower fat version – possibly have, especially when compared to an ostensibly nutrient-packed dish like Mango Salsa or Strawberry and Avocado Salad?

Of course, most folks will say it’s all in how you look at it. Sane people can’t survive on vegetables alone. Lighter alternatives (which are very different from chemical-laden “diet” foods) can be essential to a healthy lifestyle. And by god, a less oily brownie is better than no brownie at all.

All this nuance (so much nuance!) makes it dang near impossible to define the word "healthy" in any concrete, universally applicable way. Because to some, it means low-fat. To others, it means raw vegan organic. And still to others (a.k.a. my little bro) it means scarfing Buffalo wings three nights in a row, rather than six.

Personally speaking (or typing), my idea of "healthy" cooking is based largely on my own values and experiences. What's more, it varies from day to day and year to year. In times I was on the heavier side, “healthy” meant getting through dinner without a third piece of pizza. Now, it means fresh food that won’t do harm to my body. But that’s just me.

So, sweet readers, what's a healthy recipe to you? How do you describe a healthy food? Or healthy eating habits? Is there a hard and fast definition, or is it open to interpretation? Bring on the thoughts!

(P.S. I’d love to turn the responses into next Wednesday’s post, if you’re into it.)

(Photos courtesy of Art History and Roger Wang.)

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wheatlessfool said...

Healthy food to me is simply food that makes me feel good for longer than simply stuffing it down my gullet.

If that triple chocolate mocha supreme is going to make me nauseous 15 minutes after I scarf the lot - not healthy. If the turkey chili warms me up inside and out, leaves me full and ready to roll - healthy. It all comes down to balance and payoff for me.

And sometimes, that fudgy brownie IS healthy. Just not every day, and not replacing the foods I DO need to keep me feeling my best.

Rebecca said...

The strict definition of "healthy" according to the food labeling regulations (21 CFR 101), while complex, can be summarized in general as "low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, contains at least 10% of the RDI of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, Iron, Protein, or Fiber, and has less than 480 mg of sodium."

So, by this strict definition, things like macaroni and cheese may not be "healthy", but they do qualify as "healthier" than typical versions of the same dish. And besides, who wants to be perfectly virtuous all the time?

Allison said...

I have my own definition of healthy largely based on my own health goals: lots of healthy fats, calcium, garlic, leafy greens, berries, and protein - for my health goals of maintaining good heart, skin, bone, and muscle condition.

That said, I'm always interested in making unhealthy dishes healthy or even a little healthier. For example, I substitute pureed potato for cream and butter in any "cream of" soup, swap applesauce, mashed bananas, and avocados for milk and butter in baked goods, etc. Recently, I experiemented with baked green tomatoes - still not exactly "health food," but at least a healthier version of a caloric - but oh-so-yummy! - treat.

Kristen@TheFrugalGirl said...

Good question. I generally think that healthy food is food that's fairly unprocessed (real yogurt vs. watermelon Gogurt, homemade granola vs. Cocoa Puffs, fresh green beans vs. the canned sort, etc).

My diet is not made up entirely of food that is healthy by that definition, though. I make breakfast breads with white flour (yay cinnamon twists!), I sometimes eat a little bit of chocolate after dinner, and I put (real) sugar into my homemade yogurt.

I just think it's important to look at the overall diet instead of trying to make sure every. single. thing. you eat is bursting with nutrition. I eat a lot of whole grains, fresh produce, and fresh dairy, and so I don't think a little dessert every day is going to kill me. The key is balance...more fresh, whole stuff than sweet, processed, refined stuff.

relishments said...

Wow, really good question. I'm not 100% sure of the answer, actually. But for me, healthy food is food that's has a low or reasonable amount of sugars and fats. It's not overly processed-ideally it's something I made, not something that came out of a box. Healthy food must have some nutritional value, not just make you full.

That said, it's all relative and sometimes a "healthy" mac and cheese or brownie is just the thing. Moderation is healthy, too.

Regina Terrae said...

For me, healthy food is produce-focused, like you said; fresh and seasonal and varied; uses naturally-raised meat as a condiment or at least in smallish portions; simple, unprocessed, whole. Balance is key ... apple tart is OK, once in a while. Also, for me, healthy diet cannot be looked at in isolation from healthy lifestyle, i.e. getting the body moving every day.

Libby said...

for me, healthy means that the meal contains whole grains, beans and/or nuts, lots of veggies, and no meat or dairy. its also important to me that the meal is high in fiber and has little to no saturated fat (poly and mono are fine). almost every meal i make is a combo of grains+beans+veggies, but occassionally i'll make something with cheese (usually feta) but only as an accent. for me, i don't consider any cheese- or meat-centric meal healthy.

having said all that, personally i cannot eat that way 100% of the time. when i get a very strong craving for pizza or a single with cheese combo meal from wendy's, i get it. i'm definitely an all-or-nothing kind of person, and i'd rather eat an extremely healthy diet 90% of the time and splurge on really unhealthy (but sooo good) stuff occassionally than eat somewhere between healthy and not all the time.

I know everyone has different ideas about what is healthy...this is just what works for me.

April said...

I think fake food is a much bigger health issue than fat. Skim milk may be lower in fat than whole milk, but it is a fake food--it certainly doesn't come out of the cow that way! An avocado is laden with healthy goodness, along with a good dose of fat. Is it really the oil in the brownie that makes us fat, or the refined sugar? Is it the cheese and milk in the macaroni, or the industrially refined pasta? One could argue that God (or evolution, if that's what you believe in) knew what He/it was doing, and doesn't need to really be improved on. I'm not totally gung ho on the Weston A. Price Foundation, but their research on fat is very interesting.

I stopped worrying about fats a while back, and focusing more on eating real, as-is (for the most part) food. I feel much healthier now than when I was on Weight Watchers, eating skim this and fat-free that. And while I'm still working on losing some of that extra weight, I haven't gained any more, and all my numbers (blood pressure, cholesterol, etc.) are good.

Just my unpopular two cents. :o)

jenniferocious! said...

I would agree with your definition of healthy: low in calories and fat, high in fiber and other good-for-you nutrients. There has to be balance in life and while I strive to eat a majority of my meals from recipes and foods I would qualify as healthy, I also know its okay to indulge in a bowl of mac'n'cheese or having a frou frou coffee drinks once in awhile.

If I have a craving for something completely unhealthy (last week, I could not stop drooling over the thought of chicken tikka masala from my local Indian place) and I knew that it was better for me to enjoy that chicken tikka masala and stay conscious of eating healthy at home. I know if I hadn't indulged in my craving for Indian food I would have eaten my way through many other unhealthy food options unsatisfied until I finally ate some of that naan bread and tikka masala.

For me, if I'm eating healthy on a daily basis, then I feel good physically and mentally. I know that its okay to eat those less healthy options, as long as they don't become daily food staples for me (ice cream, I'm looking at you!).

Debbie said...

“Healthy” to me means balanced. Not just balancing calories vs fat vs fiber vs vitamins vs “MAKE MY HEAD HURT WITH THE MATH”, but also a healthy lifestyle and a healthy mental state.

An example: I love my mama’s homemade mac & cheese, fried pork chops and green bean casserole. That menu is one of my most favoritest in the world. If I ate it every day, I’d die in approximately 4.2 months, because it’s not healthy on a daily basis. It’s high in fat, calories and … well, just about everything else.

BUT. If I only eat it once or twice a year – say, for my birthday – then it’s not bad at all. It’s an indulgence. Same goes for a triple chocolate trifle – yummy, but I have to keep it down to a once-in-a-blue-moon indulgence. And I think indulgences are just as necessary every once in a while for a happy *mental* state as eating high fiber foods are to your digestive system.

Sometimes, doesn’t it feel just a little good to be bad?

Daniel said...

I use a really simple shorthand to define healthy. If it's a first-order food with little processing, it's healthy enough. If it's a second-order food, meaning a food that's packaged and processed, it's unlikely to be healthy.

That doesn't keep me *entirely* out of the Doritos, but it helps.

Casual Kitchen

Anonymous said...

Healthy = moderation. In all things. Including moderation.

Laura said...

Balance, balance, balance. Like others have said already, "healthy" is so much more than what you put in your mouth. It's a whole mental/emotional state. I try to eat things that are good for me. I also eat things that are happy for me. I find I'm much healthier and happier overall that way. Because it's not healthy or happy when you clean out a sampler tray at the deli because you're missing cheese just that much.

Daniel said...

Moderation in your moderation. I love it, Anonymous!


Ross said...

I think healthy is a relative term. Whether a person is overweight or underweight has food allergies or medical, religious, or ethical issues the definition is vastly different. For some it's how their food is processed and grown. For others it's low in fat or carbs. I don't think there is one all encompassing definition of what it means to eat healthy. When I was a kid in my early 20's, eating healthily meant eating a piece of fruit or a salad once a month. Now it means watching how many calories I'm taking in a day, limiting my fat intake and the like. So, even as a person progresses through life their perceptions of eating healthy change.
Then there's also the difference between physical health and mental health. There are times in my life where it's good for my mental health to indulge in Mac and Cheese or Dreyers Rocky Road ice cream. Isn't that what comfort food is all about anyway?
Hopefully this all made some sort of sense. I'm a terrible writer. What I want to say, when written, doesn't convey what I'm thinking in the way that I mean it.

AmandaLP said...

"Healthy" is something that nourishes my mind and my body. I dont care if what I am eating has tons of fiber and no sugar and lots of protein, if I hate eating it, then it is not healthy for me. Also, there are some times that my body and mind wants and needs that piece of chocolate cake. That is healthy.

I think so many people use "healthy" as this "this food is good, and that food is bad," which is not a good way to look at food. I would much rather listen to my body and feed myself what is best for me. Which I will not say is best for anyone else.

Marcia said...

Good question. Healthy, to me, is a combo of a lot of the other responses.

I try to eat real food, not fake food (I will fess up to using splenda in my tea after getting crap at the dentist). I like low fat, high fiber...but it really depends on what you are talking about.

For example, I eat a lot of fruits and veggies, and I like them simple. Plain fruit. Fresh or steamed veggies - if cooked, generally tossed with olive oil and pepper. So fat-wise, I don't fear fat. I don't fear avocados, nuts, or olive oil.

I've done weight watchers, and I like it. I just never was into the fake cheese thing, so I ignored that part of it and ate real food. I didn't eat the 1-pt bars, I'd eat 2 pts of nuts instead. I'm really into SIMPLE too. I think Larabars and good and healthy. But I'd rather just eat a few dates and some nuts, than a bar made out of them.

I tend to eat mostly vegetarian. I don't consider most red meats to be healthy. I love cheese, and I consider cheese to be a real food, but in moderation (an ounce a day. Okay, maybe two.) It's got good protein and calcium, but also a lot of fat.

I eat a lot of grains and beans. Most of the grains and beans I have are whole - quinoa, brown rice, bulgur, whole wheat couscous. But I will fess up to buying the occasional multi-pack of regular pasta at Costco because it's convenient.

So healthy isn't just the contents of an individual dish. It's also the content of your diet and lifestyle. Sure, I like a white bagel with cream cheese and tomato for breakfast sometimes. And dark chocolate. And cheese. But I also eat 7-9 servings of fruits and vegetables a day, very little meat, almost no fried food, and I exercise 6 days a week.

Okay, now back to drinking my tea and eating my fresh pear.

Becca said...

So many of the commenters already voiced my opinion.
Healthy to me is whole foods or just one step away (for example, I use frozen veggies when fresh aren't in season). I seldom buy or use canned or boxed products. I try to incorporate whole wheat flour into my baking and cooking when possible, and we use whole grains and dried beans when possible. That being said, I am currently providing child care for a two year old and my 6 month old, so sometimes mac and cheese from the box keeps me sane, whereas making beans and rice from scratch would probably leave me twitching on the floor. It is all in the balance I think, more so than "low-fat" or "no-fat" or high this or high that. My mother in law eats only no or low fat foods- but almost everything is processed. To me, that doesn't seem healthy. I would rather eat nuts than "low fat no sugar added nut bars". Moderation is the key in all things.

Anonymous said...

Hey kids. Healthy food is redundant.

wosnes said...

Oh, boy. You've hit my "hot" button. I'm sick to death of "healthy eating." Let me explain:

I've done quite a bit of reading about various traditional or indigenous diets. All healthy. Nearly all very different. Some high in fat; some not. Some high in carbs; some not.

Things they had in common:
1. Eating a variety of seasonally available foods.
2. Absence of chemical-laden processed foods (including reduced fat foods).
3. They don't eat 24/7.

Nearly all ate some refined foods -- white rice, white flour and even white sugar. In some cases (Asians, for example) the refined grain was served frequently, but was accompanied by vegetables, fruits, other whole grains and legumes and some meat and fish.

They don't tend to define foods as "good" or "bad." There are foods that are only eaten occasionally and foods that are consumed daily. They're not concerned with nutrient density.

I'd kind of turn Jenniferocious' definition of healthy around: If I'm feeling good physically and mentally, then I'm eating healthy food. The only time we pay attention to whether or not we're eating healthy is if we're not healthy.

My own mantra is "mostly homemade." I aim for the opposite of Sandra Lee: 70% (or more) fresh food and 30% (or less) ready made products. I think I'm at about 85/15, including condiments.

Someone else said it: moderation in all things, including moderation. There are definitely times to be immoderate. Not every day, but some days.

Joy Manning said...

I believe that factory-made, mass-produced, processed foods are unhealthy. I don't eat them.

Outside of that, I don't believe we can label any dish based on whole ingredients "healthy" or "unhealthy." Because health isn't created, destroyed, or maintained over any one meal; only a sustained pattern of eating (where real food is concerned) can be healthy or unhealthy.

When we are assessing the relative health of our diets, we should look at a whole week or month or year of meals and consider the variety of nutrition it provides, but also the pleasure. Getting pleasure from meals is, by my definition, part of a healthy diet. Whole ingredients + time and effort cooking + a wide variety of delicious real food = healthy over time.

Katie said...

I disagree with the person who said that whole milk is more natural then skim milk. You only get whole milk when the milk has been processed (homogonized). If you are drinking unhomogonized milk, then the cream rises to the top and you can skim it off the top and use it.