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Friday, October 1, 2010

Challenging Perspectives: What is "Healthy" anyway?

 I happened upon a news story the other day about a Kansas State nutrition professor who is eating little besides junk food and losing weight. He's decided to go on a diet that challenges the notion of "dieting", proving that one can lose weight while eating only the most unhealthy of foods. Next month, he's going to be eating only whole grains and fruits and vegetables and, supposedly, gaining weight. According to Professor Haub, its an academic demonstration - not a medical experiment - and the point of it is to "challenge the entire 'junk food versus health food' dynamic, suggesting that foods regarded as nutritious may, in fact, be unhealthy, while foods regarded as junk may have some benefits." [Quote is directly from AOL news].

I've noticed that, in many ways, healthy eating can become a near-obsession. In fact, they have a name for it...Orthorexia Nervosa. For those already battling anxiety disorders this can be a very real and present danger. Using caloric intake and nutritional value as a means of controlling the chaos and unpredictability of life can be downright tempting, and anyone could slip into it quite easily. This is why I recommend stocking your pantry with healthy things, making a general plan (like eating a vegetable and whole grain with every meal) and not getting overly hung up on details, unless allergies or medical problems require constant vigilance.


So, all that aside...what does constitute healthy eating? In a culture where the front of a box can say "all natural" while the ingredient's list contains all manner of non-pronounceable mush, it can sometimes be difficult to tell. Growing up with a health-conscious family who still ate pretty unhealthfully, I'll be the first to say it's not as easy as discounting this and lauding that. Plus...it's a constant learning experience! Finding what is healthy, what isn't, and how to combine and cook them is a lifelong learning experience, and even moreso with additional concerns, such as eating to curb anxiety. However, there are things that you can do now, things that don't take a team of scientists to figure out. Ways to eat and live that are not impractical, but still rather healthful. And isn't that the real goal?

First of all, it's important to understand that portion control is a necessary part of health. Americans, as a culture, eat far too much. If you look up the nutrition facts of dishes at restaurants, you can see that many of them are served two or three portions per plate, which is fine if you want to ask for a to-go box at the beginning, divide it in half, and ensure that you only eat a reasonable amount. This is a good way of dealing with the glut of food, but for many people, it's hardly ideal. An enormous disparity is created by differences between "suggested serving size" and actual amounts of food served, and that disparity accounts for a great deal of our national obesity rate and the resulting unhealthiness of our country and culture. Eat smaller portions, and eat throughout the day.


It's been proven time and time again that eating small portions but spreading food throughout the day is far healthier than the usual three huge meals per day that the average American consumes. However, if this is the sort of eating you wish to do, you should make sure that your snacks and meals are well-balanced and nutritionally sound. For example, if you eat a salad for lunch and then a Twinkie for a snack...well, that's not balanced at all! But neither is eating salads six times a day. You could, however, have a salad for lunch, a Greek yogurt with fruit for a snack, and brown rice with fish and steamed veggies for dinner. I think the key here, as with many aspects of life, is simply balance.


And perhaps that's what Prof. Haub's demonstration will prove. An overly strict, unbalanced diet is never healthy, regardless of what items are included on the menu. Navigating the world of healthy food is tricky, but one thing to remember is that your body requires a certain set of things to survive. You need protein, you need fat, you need carbohydrates. Starving yourself of one of these things will not lead to any healthier or happier an existence. You need exercise and relaxation, and you need to retain your pleasure. Eating well, not just eating healthy, should be your focus. A healthy life is a life of balance, and yes, that includes dessert and alcohol, in moderation.


Allow yourself the freedom to enjoy your life, but set yourself up for success by keeping your go-to snacks and dinners healthy. And don't worry so much!


-The Calm Cook

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