What is healthy?

by admin on December 20, 2006 · 4 comments

We love food and the joy of eating, and we don’t like to harp on nutrition. What, after all, is healthy? It’s hard to think of a meal as healthy in isolation. Health is more a question of habit over time.

I’ll admit to following the shifting body of reports that too often focus on the health benefits of foods in isolation. Trans-fat is better than butter…no, it’s worse. Fat is bad — oh, but wait — then there’s good fat, too.

Meanwhile above the trees, the recurring theme seems to have taken shape. It might go something like this:

Eat a wide variety of all kinds of foods, as close to the form they take in nature as possible: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seafood, meats, poultry, eggs, cheese, nuts, herbs, spices, tea. Eat fewer saturated fats and more good fats like those in olive oil, fish and nuts.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. What about proportions and amounts?

I find it helpful to visualize a plate, and fill it with more vegetables and whole grains than meat and seafood, with beans often standing in for meats. Because whole grains and vegetables have so much fiber, if you get the proportions right you’ll feel full and the “amount” issue will begin to take care of itself (as will many other issues).

What about variety? That’s the most fun part of the food equation, and the easiest to overlook (or maybe it’s just the most difficult to figure out). In his book On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee reminds us of a visible indicator of variety and health among plants:

There’s a useful guideline for estimating the relative healthfulness of vegetables and fruits: the deeper its color, the more healthful the food is likely to be. The more light a leaf gets, the more pigments and antioxidants it needs to handle the energy input, and so the darker the coloration of the leaf…

Other deeply colored fruits and vegetables also contain more beneficial carotenoids and phenolic compounds than their pale counterparts. Their skins are especially rich sources. Among the fruits highest in antioxidant content are cherries, red grapes, blueberries, and strawberries; among vegetables, garlic, red and yellow onions, asparagus, green beans, and beets.

The more color in our diet, the more of the beneficial things we’re getting, whether we know what they are or not. We borrow protection from plants. Colorful compounds protect them from daily life, and when we eat them they protect us too.

Health and enjoyment are deeply intertwined. We crave beautiful foods for a reason, we often intuitively know what to eat, and we enjoy foods that are good for us.

Sometimes stuff just gets in the way.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

brys December 20, 2006 at 10:44 pm

On the cutting board, clockwise from the bottom left:

Sliced turmeric root, sprig of rosemary, sliced ginger, a clementine above, black quinoa, brown basmati rice, sliced carrots, red chile flakes, dried cranberries, fennel seed, oolong tea, and kohlrabi.

Anonymous December 21, 2006 at 2:50 am

Blog-reader from Japan again–don’t forget about how healthy “sea vegetables” are.

Tons of nutrients and easy to throw in most salads.

brys December 21, 2006 at 9:02 am

Thanks, we won’t forget now. I’ve heard as much but haven’t tried many — only kombu in dashi.

And thanks for the link to the World’s Healthiest Foods site — I visit often and find it really informative.

Chip December 22, 2006 at 6:06 pm

Anonymous: How do you like “sea vegetables” other than in salads?

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