The confusing notion of “healthy”

by | Jun 23, 2017

I love feeling healthy.

I mean, who doesn’t? But it’s important to remember that what healthy means can differ drastically from person to person.

For me, feeling healthy is a case of being balanced. I like to make sure sure that I’m giving my body nourishing foods that make me feel good (like big salads, lots of fresh fruit and veg, brown rice, lean meat and oily fish, potatoes and avocados), but that balance also means I get to eat a massive slice (or three) of chocolate cake when I want it.

Today, I wanted to take some time to address the increasingly confusing notion of what we talk about when we say the word “healthy”.

Simple foods (like the ones listed above), no longer cut the mustard when it comes to having a insta-worthy healthy diet. No, now we have superfoods, and miracle foods, because the humble spud and carrot just won’t do anymore. We have mixed messages being spouted from ‘influencers’, bloggers, and the media: declaring wars on sugar, carbs, fat, gluten, dairy, and animal products.

You can’t blame people for being unable to keep up with what is supposedly the latest healthy diet. I probably missed something from the latest food fatality.

We’re told that just because something is gluten free, dairy free, refined sugar free and organic, it makes it healthy. But that’s simply not always the case. For example, scientists are saying that most people don’t need to go on restrictive gluten free diets, and there’s a huge amount of misinformation out there about nutrition and calorie consumption.

I learnt this the hard way. Back when I was working with a trainer and was required to track every calorie, every morsel of food, and each sip that passed my lips, I was craving cookies. I had some Oreos in the cupboard, but I thought I would be “good” and make some cookies from scratch. In my mind, that would be way better because I could then make “healthy cookies”. I was totally winning.

So, I baked some cookies. They were simple: a whole pot of almond butter, a good cup of maple syrup, oats, eggs, and dates. In the oven they had exploded and joined together into one massive cookie. Not Instagrammable, but it was one giant cookie I couldn’t wait to get my teeth into. I scooped some hot cookie mess straight from the baking tray into a bowl and went back to working. The hot gooey cookie in the bowl disappeared in an instant, and I went back to scoop some more into my bowl. I repeated this three times until all the cookie had gone. Hey ho. It was healthy.

NO BIG DEAL.

I’m lazy when it comes to things like tracking, so I just guessed it was the same number of calories as having six Oreos, so that’s what I put down. The next day I saw my trainer and he asked about the Oreos, as he’d seen them on my tracker. I smiled guiltily, and admitted they weren’t actually Oreos, but I had them in as a worst case scenario.

His eyes widened. I told him not to panic, my cookies were “homemade and healthy”. I mean, hello –  they were gluten free, dairy free, and had no refined sugar in them. He wasn’t buying it, and was horrified I had eaten the whole batch. He asked me to put all the separate ingredients into the tracker and we could see how many calories I had eaten.  So I did.

GULP.

The jar of almond butter (which, we’ve been told, is so much healthier than peanut butter) I used was 1300 calories alone. Throw in a cup of maple syrup and some dates, and I had already hit the 2600 calorie mark. I had eaten that big giant monster “healthy” cookie in the space of 5 minutes, and I had eaten over 2800 calories.

2800 calories in 5 minutes.

Look, I’m not saying that eating cookies is a bad thing. And I’m really not in the business of making people feel guilty over the number of calories they consume. I love to eat cookies, and consider them a vital part of my weekly diet.

But, this does bring up an important issue: I believed that I was eating a ‘healthy’, low-calorie option. I truly believed I was being virtuous, somehow skipping out on the ‘naughty’ cookie, when this was completely untrue.

There should be nothing ‘virtuous’ or ‘guilty’ about any food. But I was misinformed, confused, and got sucked into the whole “eat this way and eat as much as you like because it’s healthy and you’ll never gain weight” rhetoric that is so prevalent online.

I call bullshit.

I was lucky this happened to me 18 months ago. Thanks to my trainer, alarm bells started ringing, and my eyes were suddenly wide open to the misinformation and hypocrisy we can’t help but encounter on a daily basis.

 

I saw comments on Instagram under certain bloggers posts that terrified me. Pictures of date caramel dripping off nut bars covered in chocolate were inundated with comments:

“You’re amazing, how do you make all of this calorie free?

“Wow, this so clever, and amazing that it’s healthy”

“I ate a whole batch of these and didnt feel at all guilty, because it’s healthy”

“You eat all of this, and you’re so slim, it must be healthy!”

“Health coaches” declare how healthified millionaire shortbreads make the perfect “guilt-free”, morning snack, or even “nourishing” breakfast (presumably because it says “with a nutritional twist” on the label). “Those” energy balls contain more sugar than a Kit Kat, (and are by the by more expensive). Raw brownies packed full of nuts, maple syrup and dates which contain double the calories in a traditional brownie. And on top of everything else, they’re so much more expensive than some egg on toast, or yoghurt and fruit.

Don’t get me wrong. Using these insta-fave ingredients can create amazing dishes. I genuinely love my black bean brownies. And you’re wasting time reading this if you haven’t made my sweet potato blondies which are INSANELY delicious.

My point is that they aren’t always the answer. Sometimes there’s a trade off: “it isn’t that delicious, but it is a lot better for me than the traditional version”. And I get that, I so get that. But this is all total crap if the less delicious version ISN’T EVEN BETTER FOR YOU.

I acknowledge that the quality of the ingredients, and nutritional value can have a bearing on the notion of what healthy means to some people. Some people would prefer to eat nuts and dates over a chocolate bar because of the nutritional benefits. They accept that there may be more calories, but they are happy with the tradeoff because of the perceived goodness involved, and of course that’s absolutely fine! The same goes for people who have legitimate food sensitivities that limit what they can eat. The purpose of this post is not to pick holes in other people’s choices, far from it. To each their own.

I am, however, genuinely concerned that people tend to over-exaggerate the health properties of certain foods. Goji berries, for example, are touted to us as a miracle food, however Alison Hornby, a dietitian and BDA spokesperson, says the evidence behind the health claims about goji berries is weak. She says: “various goji berry products are sold as health foods, but the evidence of their health benefits so far comes from scientific studies using purified extracts of the fruit at much higher concentrations than the products contain.”

Similarly, of wheatgrass, gulped by the thin and beautiful, Hornby says, “there is no sound evidence to support the claim that wheatgrass is better than other fruits and vegetables in terms of nutrition. It cannot be recommended above any other choices in this food group.”

People guzzling coconut sugar and agave in the belief it is significantly better for them is worrying, and something I ranted about here. If you happen to love goji berries, wheatgrass, agave and coconut sugar – please please carry on eating them, I write this not for you. I write this for the people, and I was such a person for a long time, who believe the hype and buy into the idea of the “miracle food”. That some mysterious properties (based on iffy science) can make one food so much superior (and more experience) to the other – even if it’s metabolised by the body in exactly the same way.

Ultimately, the old adage stands: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

So here’s what I’ve decided. Healthy is a moveable concept that differs from person to person.

Mental health can come into it too, and it’s a vast topic but ultimately we shouldn’t judge others on what they eat and what they choose to do. But I do think there is a call for a lot more honesty surrounding food: less PR, less hype and just more honesty. That way people would know what they are actually eating and can make informed decisions. Just please, please can we have no more miracle foods.

I mean, let’s take a moment to think about the Manuka honey being sold, which was JUST BOG STANDARD HONEY at 20 x the price. We’re better than that, people.

 

At the end of the day, healthy isn’t meant to be so confusing.  Healthy is whatever makes you feel good and whatever works for you.

If any of this is ringing true and you feel completely lost in the sea of misinformation out there about what it is to be healthy, or if you are stuck bouncing from one failed diet to the next – I have something for you! Sign up here today to be the first to know all the details and for a super early bird discount! Exciting times ahead!