Saturday, December 13, 2008

So, What Exactly is Healthy Eating?

There is certainly a movement toward better health in this country (as well as a movement away from it ... maybe not so much a movement as an involuntary and unplanned acquiescence into unhealth). But that movement is very fragmented into groups that vary in their purpose and theories of health. Does health mean losing weight? Does it mean extending your life? Does it mean giving you the energy and stamina to enjoy life more? Does it mean getting the best bang for your calorie buck? Does it mean being in harmony with your body's natural energies? Does it mean treating ailments by eliminating allergens and food-sensitivities? Does it mean helping your body by helping the health of the planet and all its inhabitants? Does it mean self-sustenance, as opposed to relying on pharmaceuticals or surgeries to sustain you? Does it mean making sacrifices? Does it mean making no sacrifices?

The answer to all of these questions is yes, depending on who you speak with, and they could all be right. What is healthy for you may not be healthy for someone else. And your health goals may differ drastically from someone else's. It's okay for each of us to eat differently. We should listen to our bodies, our hearts, and our traditions. Those will lead us to a healthy, honorable diet.

So, how do you know what's healthy for you? There are so many health food authorities, from your local nutritionist to nutritional physicians, like Dr. Joel Fuhrman, to major nutritional societies, like the Weston A. Price Foundation, to ancient food philosophies, like Macrobiotics and Ayurveda. Of course, there are also fad diets, like Atkins and South Beach, but those are questionable, so I discount them altogether. Any program specifically aimed at weight loss is usually not looking out for your long-term health. The only exception I've found to this is Weight Watchers, which has a reasonably balanced "menu" that encourages vegetable consumption. Still, you could easily follow the Weight Watchers diet and eat mostly nutritionally empty foods ... just not a lot of them. You'd still lose weight, but you probably wouldn't gain health, and you probably would gain the weight back.

Most food authorities have something of value to say, and they all seem to make some degree of sense, but they also generally contradict one another. We can't eat a vegan and omnivorous diet simultaneously. Neither can we eat a raw and cooked diet at the same time. And we cannot de-emphasize grains and emphasize them. So, what can you believe? There is no one answer. So, it's important to exercise your own judgment in figuring out what to take and what to leave from these experts, and that may take some serious work on your part, including really getting to know your body and your habits. I think every person or family should customize their own health goals and solutions to meet their needs. And allowing some flexibility into that will also help you to adjust to necessary goal shifts (if you've met your weight loss goals, what's your new goal?), as well as to new research that may better inform your food choices.

In my family, we are not trying to combat any major health issues that might be resolved by diet. With the exception of my daughter's peanut and avocado allergies, we don't have any food allergies or sensitivities. We are not prone to illness, and when we do get sick, we recover quickly. We are all within normal weight ranges for our heights, so we are not looking to lose weight (well, maybe a little, for vanity's sake). My husband has environmental allergies, but he chooses to treat these with medication. Otherwise, we don't have any chronic conditions (eczema, rash, constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, headaches, etc.). Perhaps some of this is due to an already healthy diet. We are also fortunate to have very few genetic diseases. Although there is some cancer and heart disease in our families, much of it was developed late in life, and is therefor less likely to be hereditary, and much of it was also brought on by obesity and smoking, neither of which are concerns for us.

So, what are our health goals? Well, we'd like to remain disease-free, maintain our bones, joints, and muscle to help us stay active as we get older, keep our brains functioning well (okay, some might argue that it's too late for me on that one), make sure our daughter's development and growth are normal (especially concerning early onset of puberty), be energetic and productive people, and maintain our weight or lose a moderate amount of weight (depending on which of us we're talking about). We're very lucky that these are the only goals we need to meet. Too many people are in truly dire situations that require much more ambitious health goals. But perhaps my family's diet might work for some of those people, too.

To address our health goals, we have some broad food guidelines, and some more targeted ones. One of the easiest things to do (as is recommended by many a nutritionist) is to "eat the rainbow" every day. We make sure to eat foods of many colors, which, incidentally, does not mean eating every color jelly bean available. Sticking to naturally occurring colors in foods in the their whole form is really the way to go. The average American diet comes in various shades of brown (bread, meat, potatoes, chocolate), and there are major vitamin deficiencies that can result and cause all sorts of problems. Brown foods are also often high calorie, high fat foods, and having a diet rich in those (or exclusively those) will make it easy to gain weight, and that brings a whole host of health issues to your dinner table.

We also try to eat some of the superfoods (kale, other leafy greens, broccoli) every day, simply because they are so rich in nutrients that they cover a lot of bases. Eating all of these foods is great, but by eating organic, fresh, raw and local versions of them you are getting the most nutrient-rich foods.

We also directly target some of our health goals. To maintain/build bone health, we make sure to consume enough calcium and vitamin D. Although other minerals and vitamins contribute to bone strength, generally speaking, they can be easily consumed by eating the rainbow. For extra calcium, our go-to sources are dairy, bone-based soups (see my Turkey Carcass Soup Recipe), and canned sardines (not fillets). We certainly consume plenty of calcium in vegetable form, but these are not as easily accessible to the body as they bond with other nutrients in the vegetables that make them mostly unavailable to our digestive systems. I also take an additional calcium, vitamin D and magnesium supplement, just in case.

Vitamin D is most readily available from the sun. We try to get as much outdoor exposure as we can, with sunscreen, of course, but winter makes this particularly difficult. There are very few natural food sources of vitamin D, but among them are salmon and sardines, which we do eat fairly regularly. We also drink vitamin D fortified milk, and we take multivitamins which include vitamin D. Be aware that while most milk is vitamin D fortified, most other dairy products are not.

For joint health, the best things to consume are foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids, like salmon, sardines, flax seed (must be ground to enjoy the nutritional benefits), and walnuts. These are all part of our regular diet. Omega 3s are also essential for maintaining and growing (for children) brain function, as they are the key to brain cell production.

For muscle health, the primary concern is protein. In America, the average person consumes far more protein than he/she requires, but among those of us who focus on consuming more in the way of vegetables and fruit, it can sometimes be at the expense of protein. We don't eat large portions of meat and fish (generally 3-6 oz. per day, if at all), but because these foods are so rich in protein, that's enough. We also eat a variety of other protein-rich foods, including dairy, eggs, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and whole grains.

To keep our daughter's development at a normal pace, in addition to feeding her the rainbow, we are also very careful to avoid foods that contain hormones. We nearly never buy conventional beef (an exception is made for Jewish holidays when brisket is the traditional protein served ... I have yet to find kosher organic brisket) for this reason. Perhaps more important is to always buy organic milk and other dairy products since those are much more regularly consumed than meat in our household. Generally speaking, we buy organic or hormone/antibiotic-free animal products of all sorts (meat, chicken, eggs, dairy). The one exception to this rule is fish. We do buy organic, farmed tilapia, because there is no available wild tilapia, but otherwise, all the fish we buy is wild, and is therefor hormone and antibiotic-free by definition. We are also careful not to eat high mercury fish (farmed salmon, bluefin tuna, shark, swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel), which also has negative effects on brain development and brain maintenance.

To keep our energy levels up, we make whole grains, healthy fats and proteins essential parts of our diet. All of these are slower to digest than processed carbohydrates, like white flour and sugar. The slower digestion process keeps your body busy, making you less apt to need to refuel sooner. It also gives you a steady stream of energy, rather than a sharp boost. These foods, since they keep us satisfied longer, also serve to help us cut back on our overall food intake, which can help with weight loss.

To satisfy some of our cravings and habits, we make sure to eat small portions of most foods, so that eating something less than perfect will not overburden our bodies. This also allows us to eat more frequently, which works for our appetites. I tend to eat three meals a day, lunch and dinner being about the same in proportion and breakfast being a bit smaller, and I take two snacks a day, the first in mid-afternoon (usually some fruit and some nuts) and then later in the day (some sort of treat ... but generally not the really bad stuff). The late day snack is always small.

Finally, a word about hydration. How much water you consume depends on how active you are and how big you are. I generally drink eight 8 oz. cups of water (or equivalents) a day, and I am moderately active and on the small side. If you run 30 miles a week and are 6 feet tall, you might want to consider 10-12 cups a day your norm. A good way to gauge your need for water is thirst. If you're very thirsty, you probably should have had something to drink an hour ago. If you find yourself thirsty frequently, you probably need to up your water intake regularly. In our family, we do drink fluids other than water, but we don't drink soda, "juice" drinks, excessive amount of real juice, chocolate milk, milkshakes, etc. Mostly, our alternatives to water are orange juice (6 oz. daily), decaf coffee (8 oz. a couple times a week), herbal tea (12 oz. daily), and seltzer (24-30 oz. daily). My daughter also drinks significant amounts of whole milk (16-20 oz. daily).

Generally speaking, I don't think it's a good idea to consume very many calories through drink, even if that drink is carrot juice. Most such drinks are high in sugar and low in fiber. I make two exceptions to this rule: One is that milk for my daughter is fine, as long as she is eating regularly, too. She is still at an age when the fat, protein and calcium she gets from milk are very important, and she might not otherwise get enough of these nutrients. The other exception is homemade smoothies. Commercially made smoothies tend to contain a lot of sugar and other garbage, and some barely resemble fruit at all. Homemade smoothies, with whole ingredients and no added sugar, are exactly the same as eating those ingredients, just in another form. So, I say, why not? It's a great change of pace, and it tastes like a treat!

So, now that our bodies' needs are addressed, where do we go from here? Somewhat external to the needs of our bodies, but perhaps equally important in determining our dietary habits, are our convictions about foods. We don't live in a vacuum. Food doesn't magically appear on our plates. It's something that is grown by someone, harvested by someone, processed by someone (or not, if possible), transported by someone, sorted by someone, sold by someone, and prepared by someone. That last one, I believe, should most often be the person who will consume the food (or the person in the house responsible for that sort of thing). Although I admit that I do not make my own pasta, cereals, breads, cheeses, etc., I do make just about everything else we eat. I think that contributes enormously to our health, since I don't put additives or preservatives in my food, and my food is fresh, not sitting in the freezer or on the shelf. Of course, it also makes a significant different to our finances. Perhaps of all the things I do to save money on food, making things from scratch saves us the most.

The other elements that are part of our food chain all have environmental concerns, and that is a serious concern for us. The best choice you can make to help the environment with your food buying power is to buy local, and even know your farmer (not personally perhaps, but know where your food is coming from, and how it was grown/raised). If you can get that food directly from the farm, you'll skip several steps (processing, transporting, and preparing), and that will save energy, food quality, and money. It also means you are supporting your local economy, and perhaps your neighbors, as opposed to a corporate farm machine. Investment in your community will ultimately improve your quality of life ... that's karma for ya'!

If it's not possible to get what you need locally, you have two options: do without, or buy from somewhere else. To minimize the impact of buying from elsewhere, minimize the number of products you get from very far away. For things like coffee, tea, sugar, chocolate and bananas, which generally don't come from the US, we buy Fair Trade organic products. Fair Trade is a certification that is given to products that are grown in a financially equitable manner. Workers are paid a fair wage, workers are treated fairly, the products are sold for reasonable amounts, etc. That way, we are supporting the economies of third world countries and their inhabitants. Buying organic means that we are not contributing to the depletion of the soil that produces these crops, which is an investment in the future of the land. Of course, it also means we avoid ingesting the pesticides and herbicides that would be part of conventional farming. In general, we buy organic products, even if they are local, for that very reason.

There is also the matter of food traditions to consider in forming a dietary plan for yourself. For us, since we're Jewish, we have so many traditional foods associated with holidays and celebrations. There is a certain "warm and fuzzy" that comes with eating these things with my family. It would be a serious compromise to forgo them for the sake of health. But it's okay to keep them as they were intended ... as celebratory feasts, and not every day indulgences. So, for Hanukkah, I do plan to make latkes (potato pancakes) and soofganiot (Jewish doughnuts), even though both of these are fried and are lacking in much nutritional value. Some flexibility in our diets is necessary to remain part of our worlds. It's true that I don't feel my best the day after I've indulged, but I make up for it the rest of the year, and my body will forgive me. Sometimes, I think it's more important to preserve who we are than to be so strict and unwavering in our dietary protocols.

You know, food is a complicated matter. It's something so tied to family and culture and routine and emotion. It's something that brings us such pleasure on so many levels that to restrict it in any way sometimes feels punitive. Finding your own balance is very important, I think. If you follow anyone else's diet, you may lose yourself in it. Just be honest with yourself about your health goals, and make sure you follow a plan that will get you there ... your way.

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