Monday, July 4, 2011

What is Healthy Eating Anyways?

Even as a trained health researcher with extensive experience interpreting statistical data, I sometimes feel completely overwhelmed by the nutrition information out there.

In some ways what constitutes "healthy" eating is simple, in other ways it is so incredibly complicated.

When I was a kid, everyone knew that eating fruits and vegetables was a healthy habit. Period.

Now, we agonize over whether said fruits and veggies are too high in sugar, grown locally and/or are organic. Even when my kids are eating fresh produce, I feel pangs of guilt when it isn't organic. And it often isn't. Why? Because organic food is SO EXPENSIVE. We buy as much organic as we can, but we are living on only one income right now so it simply isn't feasible to buy ONLY organic foods. I do make more of an effort to buy organic for the kids, but still, they are eating nowhere near all organic.

I also often question eating meat as a healthy choice. I avoided red meat for 7 years, from the time my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, until I was pregnant with Big A and had overwhelming red meat cravings. Following my pregnancy I continued eating it about 1-2 times a month, but lately I have cut down even more and really rarely eat it.

I also try to avoid eating any processed meats with sodium nitrites - processed meats are linked with a substantially greater increased risk of cancer!

As an alternative to processed meats, I indulge in soy-versions, which don't carry the same risks, but are still a processed food and are generally very high in sodium. So what I used to think was a healthy choice, now seems like an indulgence. Sure, there are organic, all natural meats available, but once again, they are currently way out of our price range. Sigh!

After losing my taste for fish during my pregnancy with Big A, and losing it even more during my subsequent pregnancy with Little A, I have developed my love for it again. Of course now choosing fish as a protein source is not good enough. We have to avoid farmed salmon, full of PCBs and dioxins, tunas high in mercury, as well as endangered species.

And what about dairy? Recent studies have found a link between high fat dairy products and risk of premature death. At least in Canada we don't have to worry about growth hormones in our milk supply, but don't even get me started on the insane cost of organic dairy products!!

Gluten? It seems the newest trend is gluten-free foods. While this is wonderful for celiacs and those with gluten sensitivities, it is not necessary to avoid gluten if you do not fall into one of those categories. In addition, many gluten-free foods are filled with unhealthy added sugars and processed flours (like white rice flour). So don't think gluten-free = healthy.

While I admire vegans, I don't think I could live on a vegan diet without feeling too restricted. Not to mention that my meat-loving husband would probably leave me!

I love eggs, cheese and honey, and from all the research I have reviewed I don't see many health benefits of a vegan diet beyond what you get from a Mediterranean-style diet, that is based primarily on fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts seeds, fish and health fats, with minimal amounts of meat, eggs and dairy. Being a vegan for ethical reasons, of course, is a different story. I admire people who feel strongly enough about the treatment of animals to go the distance, but I am not that committed.

Overall, a Mediterranean-style diet is pretty much how I eat. A few meals a week include eggs and poultry, but my diet is heavily based on fruits and veggies, legumes, healthy fats and legumes. Most of the dairy I eat is low fat and I try to be conscious of my sugar and salt intake.

Is my diet perfect? Not even close. I adore melting fat-free processed cheese slices on my sandwiches, I often use bottled salad dressings (love Newman's Own Low Fat Sesame Ginger!), I eat processed soy meat alternatives and a few times a week I indulge in IsoFlex protein bars after a workout, which are really glorified candy bars. But my diet is relatively good and I continue to try and improve it by making small changes over time.

Vegan Cauliflower Mac & Cheese

I rarely use an existing recipe when I cook, but Angela Lidon's recipe for vegan butternut squash mac and cheese, from her Oh She Glows blog caught my attention:

I love cheese but Adam despises it (aside from on pizza which is his favorite food...if that makes any sense to YOU, please let me know!). So I decided this was a good compromise and was curious to see if it would satisfy both Adam's and my taste buds. Of course, I didn't tell him it was SUPPOSED to mimic cheese, I called it butternut squash sauce, instead. He liked it!

While I enjoyed it, I found it a bit too sweet for my liking, so I remade it last night using roasted cauliflower. I liked it even more! Neither recipe really tastes like cheese to me, but it is rich, satisfying and yummy anyways!

2 cloves garlic, minced
1 head cauliflower, chopped
3/4 cup raw cashews
2 cups non-dairy milk (I used unsweetened + unflavoured soy milk), or more to thin out
3-4 garlic cloves
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 tsp kosher salt, or to taste
8 tbsp Nutritional yeast (provides the cheesy consistency)
1 tsp dijon mustard
1/2 tsp or a bit more of dried Italian seasoning
1/2 tsp turmeric, optional (gives the orangey colour)
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 tsp Paprika + more to season
Your pasta of choice (I used 1 lb organic kamut penne) + mix-ins

Preheat oven to 350F and line a baking sheet. In a bowl, toss chopped cauliflower with some olive oil (~1 tsp), 2 cloves garlic, minced, salt and pepper. Add to baking sheet and roast in oven for 30-40 minutes.

Place the cashews into food processor and process until a fine crumb forms similar to corn meal. Now add in the rest of the cheese sauce ingredients and process until smooth. Once cauliflower is done, add to food processor and process. Sauce will be VERY thick and you may have to add more milk (I ended up adding a total of about 4 cups, plus some pasta cooking water!).

Once pasta is cooked, add the pasta back into the cooking pot, stir in desired amount of cheeze sauce on top. Stir well. Add in any desired mix-ins like spinach, sundried tomatoes, peas or broccoli (last night I added garlic sauteed kale and it was delish!). Stir over low heat until everything is heated through and serve. Makes 4 hearty servings. Store any leftover sauce in the fridge and use within a few days or freeze.

Hey, whether you are carnivorous, omnivorous, vegetarian or vegan, you can't go wrong, nutrition-wise, with a steaming, comforting bowl of whole grains, veggies protein and healthy fats!

So what is healthy eating?

I actually think it is pretty simple. And I think Michael Pollan really did sum it up best: "Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much."

In other words:

*Avoid processed foods as often as possible (i.e. eat foods in their natural state).

*Limit your consumption of animal products and eat lots of fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds and legumes. While it is certain that organic farming is better for the environment, there is little evidence, to date, that eating organic produces better health outcomes for people. So if you can't afford organic, don't fret too much, most of the research linking fruit and veggie consumption to decreased risk of chronic illness is based on consumption of non-organic products.

*Regardless of what you are eating, eat an appropriate amount of calories to maintain a healthy body weight. Even if you are eating only vegan, organic and locally produced foods, eating too many calories for your energy needs will lead to weight gain which will increase your risk of health problems.

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