I'll never forget this little conversation that happened during the first week of my dietetic internship. I was doing a food demo with my community nutrition preceptor. We had the colorful table all set up with nutrition facts, images that promoted health, and recipes for the food we were about to make: no-bake chocolate peanut butter balls and a healthier version of a lemon blueberry parfait using lemon-flavored Chobani. Then one guy came over and said "Oh no. No way. You're like my wife. I'll be staying far away from you guys. You're going to force me to try to force me to eat gluten-free aren't you?"
I wondered why this guy was thinking we had anything to do with gluten-free eating seeing as we were not showcasing anything in regards to Celiac Disease. Oh right, probably because "Gluten-free" is plastered everywhere, is the new diet fad, and something people are willing to cut out of their diets without fully understanding what it is. (Note: The purpose of this post is not to shame anyone, just to educate.)
What I've perceived so far in my experience is that these diet fads that require your favorite foods to be cut out actually make people afraid of the word healthy. It is like an automatic response. "No way am I eating healthy. It's too hard."
So I'm here to sort of de-bunk some of the concepts that people affiliate with the word "healthy."
What does healthy mean to you? Does it mean:
I fully respect anyone's decision on how they want to label their dietary choices, but I don't think it is necessary. You can be vegan and have a diet seriously lacking in nutrition, or eat meat and have a wonderfully balanced plate at every meal. Ever heard of vegan junk food?
I wish I could find the guy from the cooking demo and kindly explain he has nothing to worry about...unless he has Celiac disease. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Oats are gluten-free, but due to risk of cross-contact with gluten-containing grains in growing and processing, those with Celiac should only have certified gluten-free oats.
Celiac disease is serious. It is an autoimmune disorder in which the body cannot digest gluten, thus causing an immune response that attacks the small intestine. This can lead to weight loss, malnutrition, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and more.
Gluten, the very component of grains that gives bread that doughy texture we all love, somehow became the token evil culprit for all issues around weight, digestion, allergies, and overall energy levels. There are studies underway to try to determine whether or not a non-celiac gluten intolerance exists, but so far there is no proof. [If you DO happen to have a condition in which gluten-free is a way to manage your symptoms, then by all means go for it. I would only suggest getting assistance from a physician or RD to make sure you're not missing out on any key nutrients from your diet!)
"Oh, but my friend started a gluten-free diet and lost a bunch of weight! She feels great!"
The truth is, that person who tried a gluten-free diet and doesn't have Celiac probably feels better because a) Placebo effect or b) They ended up cutting out a large amount of refined carbohydrates from their diet, which can help anyone lose weight and boost energy levels (i.e. white bread, white pasta, white rice, refined sugar, candy, soda, baked-goods, etc.)
If you have contemplated going gluten-free before, I would recommend trying to swap out your refined grains with whole grains, omitting soda either all together, or replacing with seltzer, and curbing your sweet tooth with fruit and natural sweeteners, such as honey.
And another thing..gluten-free grains such as quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, and flax can be part of a healthy diet. I may end up posting a recipe that is gluten-free once in a while. I love experimenting with different ingredients, and the reason I would specify "gluten-free" is to make sure that someone who does require that restriction knows they can try that recipe :)
Shopping at Whole Foods?
"It's too expensive to eat healthy." I agree that certain food costs are absurd, Whole Foods can be overpriced, and it's a shame that you can get a convenient yet poor-quality meal for $1 at a fast food place. But I also know that you can take matters into your own hands and shop smart for healthy options. Some people automatically assume that Whole Foods items guarantee health. Well, you can get crap at Whole Foods and grab a healthy snack at Walmart. What matters is the ingredients.
Stores like Trader Joe's, Wegman's, Target, Walmart, and even ALDI offer healthy options at a lower price. I love to shop at Whole Foods because there are some things there that I can't get anywhere else (non-essential, just foods I enjoy). But I definitely don't get my entire grocery list there.
And don't even get me started on farmer's markets! Spending less and supporting your local farmers! It doesn't get better than that.
If you are one who finds that shopping for fresh produce is what is driving up the costs, take a look at what you're buying. To cut down on costs, shop in season. The fruits and vegetables that are at the front of the produce section are usually the ones in season and the cheapest. If you find you spend a lot on fresh fruits and vegetables and they go bad before you get to them, try planning out what you'll make with them before shopping, stick to a grocery list, and freeze them for later use before they go bad.
Organic and non-GMO?
Ok, this is kind of an iffy one. As a new dietitian, I don't think it is my place to make a full on recommendation on whether or not you should avoid GMOs because I am not 100% familiar with the practice. But this question does come up often. What I do know is that we definitely can't feed everyone on this earth without genetically modifying our food. I also know that an obsession with restricting GMOs and "clean eating" can lead to an eating disorder such as Orthorexia, and that is even more dangerous to me. Given the increase in GMO-labeling, I fully respect the right of the consumer to choose what they purchase.
As far as organic goes, I would absolutely love to buy all of my food organic, but not if it is going to be a financial burden. That would lead to an extreme amount of stress, which can be just as detrimental to your health. If shopping organic is important to you but you don't want to break the bank, I would focus on shopping organic from "The Dirty Dozen" List, aka foods in which you typically eat the skin.
And if you can't do that, then I still preach that the benefits of conventionally grown produce outweighs the risk of pesticides. Just wash your produce thoroughly. Organic, after all, does not mean "more nutritious." It is simply a farming practice.
Bland and boring?
This one really gets me. Whenever my patients get put on a diet such as low-sodium, I first ask them if they have any specific questions. And they say, "Yeah. What the hell am I supposed to eat now? It's like I can't eat anything."
What a sad thought. I am not sure where the thought came from that flavorless steamed vegetables represent the doom of healthy eating. Herbs, spices, natural sweeteners, onion, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, or something like a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese can bring life to any lifeless dish. Have vegetables but don't know what to do with them? Sautée, steam, or roast them with black pepper and garlic powder. So simple yet so delicious. Or roast some potatoes with olive oil and rosemary (one of my favorite ways to eat them!)
Another one that truly gets me. Decades ago, fat was the culprit against all things related to weight and general unhealthiness. Now while I am not telling you to blend butter with your coffee and eat a spoonful of coconut oil every night, I do know that the fat restriction is long over (unless you have a condition that requires it).
The thing with fat-free products, such as salad dressings, creamers, and desserts, is that they still have to taste like something right? So manufacturers take out the fat and add in sugar. The recommended amount of added sugar is no more than 36 g (9 teaspoons) for men and no more than 24 g (6 teaspoons) for women per day. But Americans far exceed that because it is in literally everything - including seemingly healthy "fat free" products! And excess, unused sugar is eventually converted in the body and stored as fat. Do you see the problem here?
While we should still focus on limiting, but NOT restricting saturated fat, unsaturated fat is an essential component of a healthy diet. Focus on incorporating healthy fat sources such as olive oil, avocados, nuts and nut butters, seeds and fatty fish.
There are so many other ideas around the word "healthy". What else have you guys heard?! Other concepts I don't associate with healthy are: Cleansing/detoxing (post coming on this topic soon!), restrictive diets, calorie counting, supplements, and one major one: Skinny. As a dietitian I understand the importance of a healthy weight, but I also understand that it is not the only factor that determines the degree of one's health.
Are you wondering what healthy means to me? To be honest, it is as simple as a diet full of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. It's not sexy, but it is true.
Healthy, to me, also means:
- Eating foods that work for you and your schedule
- Having a wide variety of colors in on your plate from fruits and vegetables. Different colors = variety of nutrients
- Creating balanced meals with adequate protein, carbohydrate, and healthy fat sources
- Eating mostly whole, plant-based foods and cooking at home as much as possible
- Eating mindfully...meaning understanding how that food is nourishing and benefitting you, consuming an appropriate portion size, as well as savoring every single bite
- Having a guilt-free attitude when it comes to food
- Excitement about each meal, not disappointment
- Not a burden or a chore, but a lifestyle :)
There is no such thing as a perfect diet. Absolutely NO such thing. Not even mine or any other dietitians'. We are still human. What does a perfect diet mean anyway? But regardless, I do my best to live by what I just wrote above, and try to make the healthiest choices every day. I don't believe that healthy eating should cause any form of stress.
As someone who is on a mission to create a more health-conscious world, I want to know..what does healthy mean to you?
Thanks for reading!
Oh, and watch the two videos below for some humor to conclude this post :)