*[Not to be confused with Morris Dithers' answer in this classic SCTV skit.]
[The main course table from my recent holiday potluck with nutritionist friends, clockwise from top left: [out of the photo--Balsamic Glazed Brussels Sprouts]; Southwest Brown Rice Casserole with Beans [white bowl behind cutlery]; Tempeh-Brown Rice Curry and Vegetables; Baby Spinach Salad; Rutabaga Gratin; Cinque Pizza with olives, green pepper, faux meat and onion; and (in red casserole in center) Carrot and Sweet Potato Latkes. The latkes were fried–I have no idea what kind of oil she used. Yes, I ate one.]
In recent years, it seems, we’ve all become hyper aware of the connection between food and health; it’s one of the hottest topics on the internet, twitter, blogs, or in magazines; you can’t read anything, flick on the television or listen to the radio without someone discussing a new study or mentioning a specific food and how it is or is not good for us. Goji berries? Superfood. Kale? Will save your eyes. Sugar? The devil. Trans fats? Avoid at all costs. Refined flours? Shortcut to a heart attack. And so on. How do you decide what to eat?
Well, I had originally planned to tackle this rather amorphous topic in the new year, once we’d all recovered a bit from the holidays and I had more time to craft a thoughtful post about it (since I’ll be on vacation then–whoo hoo!). Instead, I’m going to leap right in today after receiving the following comment on the Simply Bar giveaway post (the first part in quotation marks is what I wrote in the original post itself):
“In addition, the company has prided itself on using real, natural ingredients, without any added fillers in their bars. For example, the “Cocoa with Raspberry” flavor contains soy crisps (like rice crisps in texture and taste), organic agave nectar, organic brown rice syrup, organic cocoa, raspberries, organic canola oil.” Six ingredients–that’s it!”
SOY CRISPS! has the world gone mad? I appreciate that these bars only have a few ingredients in them, but they are a few, highly processed ingredients.
Soy crisps – a bean that is only truly digestible when fermented, is processed into a crisp?
Canola oil – oil that is high in inflammation promoting omega 6, processed from rapeseeds and should only be eaten raw.
Agave syrup – the sugars of the agave cactus without the natural brake of fibre, controversy rages about whether it is low or high GI.
Brown Rice syrup – sugars inherent in rice – highly processed, super high GI, even though it’s brown rice!
Only six ingredients? Whatever happened to the good old nut and fruit bars of my childhood made entirely from nuts and dried fruit? I’d rather have a bar of dark chocolate than one of these!
Since I not only promoted the bar on my blog but actually eat them, I felt a response was in order (and I will respond to the email itself toward the end of the post).
First, let me outline how I decide what to eat and what not to eat; here, then, are the principles I follow and firmly believe in when it comes to “eating healthfully.” (This is not a post about how to keep to a healthy diet over the holidays; I dealt with that subject here. )
[African Sweet Potato Stew--pretty darned good for you.]
I. Aim for a Diet That’s 100% “Good-for-You”. . . .
More than anything else about food, I believe that we are, literally, made up of what we put into our mouths, whether food, drink, or breath. Whether fresh or rancid, pesticide-laden or organic, whole grain or refined, local or imported, dirt-still-clinging-to-its-roots or packed in a BPA-lined bag inside a box, food will contribute to the makeup of every cell in your body.
In nutrition school, we learned about a diet called NAG–Natural, Alive, and Good Quality. I wrote more about it in this post. Basically, the diet aims to include only real, whole, unprocessed and organic ingredients, with most (if not all) nutrition coming from plant sources. Lucky for me, I love healthy foods (I also happen to love unhealthy foods–but that’s a topic for another post).
My own tweaks to the NAG foundation were made because of the anti-candida diet I now follow (about which I wrote more here and here), and include, for the most part: no sugar (and most other sweeteners), no sweet fruits; nothing fermented (with a few exceptions); nothing moldy or yeasty (mushrooms, nutritional yeast, alcoholic beverages, many nuts and some fruits, etc); nothing highly processed (packaged or most canned goods); no gluten; very few legumes; no eggs or dairy. (The ACD typcially allows organic chicken, beef and fish, but I don’t eat those.) I include tofu occasionally, which is considered “acceptable” in about half the anti-candida diets out there (there is quite a bit of variation about what is included in the diet).
With the ACD, you will ideally re-introduce many of the banned foods after you’ve been following it for a while and are feeling better. For instance, now that I’ve been on the diet for over two years and am 90% better, I am eating some fruits, using (gluten free) flours, and consuming the very occasional treat with agave nectar or coconut sugar.
About my own eating habits, let me be clear: during the first couple of phases of the ACD, I followed the diet one hundred percent, 100% of the time–I never “cheated.” That’s because I was in great distress about my poor health and wanted to heal as quickly as possible. However, as one of our teachers at nutrition school remarked, even following the ACD “most of the time” will, eventually, lead to diminished yeast in the body and better health; it will just take longer.
II. . . .90% of the Time.
Just as highschool graduates might send their first applications to Ivy League schools; as aspiring editors aim to nab a spot at a ”big house” like Farrar, Straus and Giroux; or as newly-graduated life coaches dreams of being on Oprah, when it comes to eating, I believe we should endeavor to eat only the best quality, healthiest foods. But what happens when the grad isn’t accepted by Harvard or Yale; if the young editor is offered a job at Harlequin; or the life coach lands a local radio spot instead? Do they decline the lesser offer, or worse–give up entirely? Of course not.
In an ideal universe, I’d be eating a top-notch, 100% “perfect” diet all the time. My meals would be 70% raw, all organic, as close as possible to the condition they’re in when they’re plucked from the ground, and entirely unprocessed–things like this, or this, or this. While I may have lofty ideals when it comes to food and eating, I understand that reality doesn’t always comply. Consequently, I try not to beat myself up if I can’t achieve that ideal. If I can remain compliant 90% of the time, I’m okay with having something less than perfect the other 10%. (Certainly, there are other food bloggers out there who manage such menus far more often–and more consistently–than I).
For example, I’ve mentioned before that the HH enjoys eating in restaurants, and we still frequent them occasionally. I’ve found a couple of places that actually serve ACD-friendly food (at one, ”Israeli Salad” consisting of fresh cucumber, tomato and onion with olive oil and lemon juice alongside hummus; at the other, gluten free pizza crust with toppings of my choice, usually roasted garlic, baked tomato, red onion, spinach and black olives). As a result, we tend to patronize either of those most of the time.
Once a month, though, we head to a Malaysian restaurant I adore. They’re willing to provide vegan options and also hold the sugar at my request. Great! But I am fairly certain that they don’t grease their woks with organic coconut oil (or anything organic, for that matter); and I am not willing to stress about this. If I consume a small quantity of less-than-healthy oil once a month, I rely on the remaining 90% of my uber-healthy diet to compensate; it’s worth it to me to be able to enjoy the rest of the meal.
III. Listen to your body.
For the past couple of years, I’ve been rediscovering books by Geneen Roth and am devoted to her intuitive approach to eating–letting your body determine when, what and how much you eat. The woman has effectively peeked into my psyche (and my pantry), and I relate to her ideas on food as psychological comfort, how food serves many other purposes besides nourishment, and how we can learn to enjoy eating in the most natural and instinctive fashion. I’m not entirely “there” yet when it comes to attending to my body’s messages, but I’m learning.
I had my first epiphany about listening to my body only about a month ago, when I first began to experiment with coconut sugar. Having baked only with stevia (and a miniscule amount of yacon or agave) until then, being able to use a one-for-one sugar replacement was thrilling. I went a little crazy in the kitchen, baking cookies, brownies, bars, muffins and whatever else I could think of. I also tasted them all. . . and then some. I probably ate more baked goods in that week than I had in the previous six months. If that episode had occurred two years ago, it would likely have spiralled into an endless round of sweet binges, fuelled by sugar and guilt and the rationalization that “it’s the holidays.”
Instead, something odd occurred: I suddenly didn’t feel like eating so many sweets any more. My body said, “Give me kale! Give me black bean soup! Give me cinque e’ cinque!” (somehow, my body managed to pick up Italian while I was sleeping). I averted a crisis simply by listening to the physical signals I routinely ignored in the past. It felt great, and I’m striving to improve my skills in that area, and practise it more often. Your body intuitively knows what’s good for you. Listen to it.
[Meant to be eaten with friends: Pumpkin Bread Pudding with Caramel Sauce.]
IV. Lighten Up (Are We Having Fun Yet?)
Earlier yesterday on twitter, a famous vegan cookbook author asked, “Q: how much oil in a recipe before you won’t make it? Does mention of 1/2 c olive oil freak anyone out? 1/3 cup better? What is OK?”. Well, I think the answer depends on several factors. What kind of oil is it? How many servings does the recipe make? How much of it will I be eating at one sitting? How often will I eat it? Half cup (the amount in the recipe) is 8 tablespoons (120 ml) or 24 teaspoons (24 x 5 ml). If the dish yields 20 servings (a baked dessert), that’s less than 2 teaspoons per serving. If it’s a main course that makes 8-10 servings, it’s still 1 tablespoon or less per serving–less than most people use on one salad. Mostly, I wouldn’t think twice if the dish were a special occasion recipe–it’s only once in a while, anyway.
What struck me about the exchange was the idea that based on the amount of oil alone, people would eschew the entire recipe. I know people who eat raw coconut oil by the tablespoon, yet the idea of 1/2 cup in an entire recipe is anathema.
A while back, I was asked in a comment on this post about whether roasting nuts renders them less healthy–and, of course, the short answer is “yes.” But do I want to eat raw nut butter all of the time? No. I like the taste of toasted nuts better than the taste of raw nuts. Nuts still contain healthy fats. They are still a real food. So I eat them toasted sometimes, and I don’t worry about it.
My point is that you can be so focused on the health-related characteristics of your food that you overlook the fact that food is supposed to taste good and confer pleasure. As Andrew Weil notes in his book, Eating Well for Optimum Health, a rigid adherence to eating only “healthy” foods can negate the pleasure we get from sharing our meals with others–and sometimes the social contact is more important to our health than the absolute quality of the food we’re eating.
Which brings me back to the comment that started it all. Here’s my response to each of the points made by the commenter:
Soy crisps – a bean that is only truly digestible when fermented, is processed into a crisp? Yes, soy crisps are processed (they contain non-GMO soy protein, tapioca starch and salt); see my comments above about 90%/10%. As I’ve mentioned before, even though fermented soy is more easily digestible than non-fermented (eg, tofu), I do not avoid tofu or other non-fermented soy (eg, soymilk) in moderation. It is a great source of protein and contains isoflavones that are advantageous in myriad ways, plus many other health benefits. While it’s not for everyone (you can read about the pros and cons yourself), for me, soy’s numerous health benefits–and the fact that it’s been a staple food in many Asian cultures for centuries–makes it a desirable food.
Canola oil – oil that is high in inflammation promoting omega 6, processed from rapeseeds and should only be eaten raw. As far as I know (or can find information in my nutrition texts and online), canola oil is considered a “monounsaturated fat” because it contains mostly (about 55%) monounsaturated fatty acids. Like any oil, canola is made up of mono-, poly- and saturated fats in different ratios. It does contain Omega 6 oil, but it also contains a larger percent of Omega 3. In any case, unless the canola is organic and cold pressed, I wouldn’t want to consume it at all. Like any oil that is liquid at room temperature, canola is best when unheated. It might not be my first choice for baking or cooking (I don’t ever use it at home); however, I am not too concerned about eating a snack with it on occasion (see point II, above).
Agave syrup – the sugars of the agave cactus without the natural brake of fibre, controversy rages about whether it is low or high GI. I know that some people think agave is evil. I am not one of those people. The glycemic index (GI) of agave, when organic and processed without excess heat or chemicals, is relatively low (38 or so). Like any other natural sweetener, agave is harmful in large quantities. However, having read several articles about it, I’ve decided that, for me, agave is a good sweetener as long as it’s organic and not overly processed. Like maple syrup, it requires some processing to convert the raw sap into what we buy in the store. It is still a delicious, low glycemic sweetener–but like any sweetener, should be eaten in small quantities and as a treat.
Brown Rice syrup – sugars inherent in rice – highly processed, super high GI, even though it’s brown rice! Again, brown rice syrup is a traditional natural sweetener that’s been used for ages. The sugars inherent in rice are no worse, as far as I can tell, than the sugars inherent in wheat, spelt, millet, or any other grain. And while some processing is, of course, required to convert rice to a sweetener, I have been able to find absolutely no corroboration that brown rice syrup is high GI. Most of the articles I’ve come across list its glycemic index as around 25-35–rather low.
Given my own approach to healthy eating, I am comfortable consuming snacks such as The Simply Bar on occasion. If the bars’ ingredients don’t jibe with what you think is healthy, please, don’t eat them. I’m grateful to the commenter for prompting me to examine my viewpoint on these ingredients and articulate my eating philosophy in general.
["Does this mean we get to listen to our bodies, too, Mum? Because my body is telling me that it's time you gave me a treat."]
Perhaps most importantly when it comes to our diets, however, is that I believe each of us must make our own informed choices about the food we put in our mouths. If my approach doesn’t resonate with you, that’s fine; there are many other approaches out there to pursue. With so many sources of illness in our world–toxins, pollution, carcinogens, molds, bacteria, germs, viruses, electromagnetic pollution–I could go on–I think it’s essential that we don’t allow ourselves to become bogged down in the negative impact of them all. It’s still possible to eat well and enjoy your food while keeping an eye open to the possible drawbacks.
Whew! And if you made it this far in the post, well, I think you deserve a reward. Go get yourself a huge piece of chocolate, or maybe a (thin) slice of cake–made with real, organic ingredients, of course.
I’d love to hear what you think about the issue–what constitutes a “healthy” diet in your mind?
Last Year at this Time:Flash in the Pan/Gastronomic Gift: Brazil Nut-Cilantro Pesto (all stages of ACD; gluten free)
Two Years Ago: Gastronomic Gifts III: Marzipan-Topped Shortbread Cookies (not gluten free; ACD maintenance only)
Three Years Ago: Pumpkinseed Shortbread Buttons (gluten free; ACD maintenance only)
© 2010 Diet, Dessert and Dogs