What the Heck is Healthy?

Cutting out fat, eliminating carbs, going vegan, eating meat, gluten-free or organic—how we define “healthy” has changed enough times to make our heads spin. From new mantras to the latest fad diets, it’s time to navigate what’s considered good food and bad food and address why that has never been more clear—or more confusing.

I grew up in a margarine home and only got a taste of real butter when I visited my grandma. It wasn’t that my family didn’t like butter—we did. It was that my mom was sold on the idea that fat, especially saturated fat (like the type found in butter), was bad for your heart. She wasn’t the only one. That “saturated fat equals bad” messaging quickly bled into fat at large, and our food system and popular diets started to replace fat with refined carbs.

The many shades of healthy

Today, the research on saturated fat is still unclear, but we do know that replacing fat with sugar, as we see in popular diet products like low-fat peanut butter or yogurt, may actually be worse for your heart. New research is also constantly reminding us of the heart-healthy benefits of both monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats like omega-3s, and even the weight-management perks of some saturated fats like coconut oil.

Unbelievably, a lot of the official American government’s dietary recom­mendations are only just catching up. This year, the New York snacks company KIND launched a citizens’ petition after getting into trouble for marketing their nut-based bars as “healthy.” It was also huge news when the FDA prohibited the use of the word “healthy” for foods with more than three grams of fat, leaving avocados, salmon, chia seeds and nuts out in an undeserved “junk food” wasteland. Meanwhile, your six-year-old’s low-fat, sugar-coated cereal, chocolate pudding cup and box of cookies could bear the sought-after “healthy” stamp (do I hear the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys playing, or is this 2016?).

If food trends on the Internet are any indication, most of us are miles ahead of legislation and are settling back into a respectful relationship with fat. From creamy coconut-milk popsicles to almond-butter energy balls, the most popular pictures in your Pinterest feeds are often flaunting full-fat.

What is the new healthy?

While fat may be getting a free pass in 2016, we’ve now got a whole host of other dietary demons to battle. Our food priorities have seen a very dramatic shift from a preoccupation with quantity to perceived quality. “Healthy” today is less concerned with calories or grams of fat, and more focused on foods that are identified as natural, detoxing, organic, clean and free from whatever “toxin” was on Dr. Oz last week.

And we are now talking in absolutes. There are “good” foods and there are “bad” foods, and just having one of these ingredients in a dish or recipe completely determines its fate (i.e., whether you will ever eat it). Depending on what blog you read or who you follow on Instagram, your “bad food” list may include anything with gluten, dairy, animal protein, GMOs, non-organics, sugar, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, sodium, cooked foods or other ubiquitous “toxins.” On the flip side, we’ve added a lot of nutritious GOOD foods that our parents never had a chance to taste. We make chia puddings that overflow with buzzy superfoods like hemp, flax, goji berries and matcha, and whip up dehydrated “chips” out of kale leaves.

What is orthorexia?

Coined in 1996 by Dr. Steven Bratman, the term orthorexia was used to describe an obsession with righteous eating. While anorexia and bulimia are motivated by weight concerns, orthorexic behaviours are driven by the perceived healthiness or “purity” of the food itself. People with orthorexia often have their own strict set of eating rules and refuse to deviate from their ideals. The result is often severe psychological distress, social and relationship interference, and physical signs of malnutrition. If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their relationship with food, speak to your doctor or a registered dietitian.

The problems with the new healthy?

As a dietitian, I’m pretty thrilled about the idea of adding nutrient-dense foods to our meals and welcoming fat back into our diets with gusto. There’s nothing like a cappuccino with full-fat dairy milk, and I’ll take that fully loaded slab of avocado toast (with extra EVOO, please!) over fat-free toaster waffles any day. But that’s where my excitement fizzles out.

We’ve graduated from an age of calorie counting to one of extreme nutritionism, a term made popular by Michael Pollan to describe our obsession with reducing foods to the sum of their parts. Attaching a “health halo” like gluten-free, raw, vegan or superfood to foods seems to create a permissive freedom: Go hog-wild and eat as much of that particular food as you want! In fact, research suggests that we consume more of a food labelled “healthy” than we do when the food lacks its diet-friendly moniker. We may not be “eating by numbers” as much as our parents did, but eating by label may be just as problematic, as it silences our body’s innate needs.


Not-so clean eating

This tunnel vision and selective sight for “good food”/“bad food” buzzwords also tends to promote an unbalanced, and sometimes wholly unhealthy, diet. I recently watched a woman at the gym pop two vegan brownies into her mouth at 9 a.m. simply because, as she insisted, “they’re healthy!” To be clear: I am all for a brownie—vegan or otherwise—and I don’t judge how early you need your chocolate fix. But focusing solely on specific ingredients or food labelling is clouding our ability to assess our food choices holistically. In the 1990s when I was growing up, my mom would have called a gluten-free cupcake with vegan buttercream a once-per-week treat, so why are we calling it a daily clean-eating snack?

Food shaming

I also have an issue with the moral weight we assign to these dichotomous categories of food. Eating “good” food these days doesn’t always seem to be about optimizing nutrition. Often, it’s about making a statement regarding status, identity, class and morality. When we eat foods that our peers (online or otherwise) deem “good” or “right”—like green detox juice, for example—we feel virtuous, clean, pure and strong enough to exercise self-restraint. On the other hand, when we eat foods that are deemed “bad,” we see ourselves as lazy, unmotivated and weak. And we’re not just food-shaming ourselves—research suggests we judge other people’s character based on what they eat, too. Every time we share a photo of our clean paleo lunch, we are implicitly defining our place in a very classist food system where we are either “good” or “bad” based on what we ate. Unfortunately, this strict food thinking is being taken to the extreme, leading to eating disorders. There has been a lot of discussion in the medical community about the new unofficial eating disorder orthorexia which is grounded in a fixation with dietary purity.

Food frauds

So where the heck are we getting all of these wretched feelings about food? Well, not from peer-reviewed journals. Part of the issue is the bottomless ocean of pseudoscience-peddling bloggers masquerading as “food authorities.” Then there are our favourite TV and online celebrities promoting the latest miracle diet through their carefully curated, heavily stylized social-media feeds and blogs. Diets these days come equipped with sensational health claims, a stunning spokesperson swearing it changed their life and—more than likely—a hefty price tag. Hard, long, rigorous nutrition research just can’t compete with sexy, sensationalized results, so a more moderate, mindful approach to eating often goes ignored.

Mindful eating

Foods are not inherently good or bad, and neither are the people who eat them. Rather than choosing foods based on which dichotomous bucket you believe they fit into, try tuning into your body’s needs. This practice is called mindfulness, and research suggests that people who listen to their innate hunger cues, eat for pleasure and refrain from restrictive behaviours manage a healthy weight without any apparent effort. Mindfulness has also been linked to reduced cholesterol levels and blood pressure, as well as improvements in psychological disorders and physical-activity levels.

Making the new healthy... healthy

Salas, cutting out fat isn’t the worst thing we’ve done with food. And putting it back into our diet isn’t the miracle solution, either. Today, we’ve got bigger problems than non-organics, red meat or GMOs. Eating truly healthy means being comfortable in the grey area between “good” and “bad” foods. It requires trusting your body—not a celebrity, not your mother-in-law, not your Facebook friend halfway across the world—to tell you what you need. It invites you to overlook buzzwords that paint a broader dietary picture, knowing that a food that wasn’t good for you yesterday because maybe you binge-watched Netflix on the couch all day and needed fewer carbs, may in fact be good tomorrow because you ran a 5K race.

We have yet to find a superfood to fix our troubled relationship with food, so let’s stop looking. At its core, being healthy is really about being a happier you. Beating yourself up for snacking on a GMO-grown carrot doesn’t sound like much fun. It’s time to make happy your new healthy.

Abbey Sharp