I was recently at a lunch cooked by an incredibly talented, thoughtful chef that started with a grilled endive salad with blood orange vinaigrette, followed by thick, creamy celery root soup with nuggets of homemade bacon. The next and main course was savory Guinness-braised short ribs, neatly blanketed with layers of slow-cooked fat dusted with a hint of spicy heat. Dessert– ah, dessert!– was the love child of sticky toffee and bread pudding accompanied by impossibly creamy ice cream. The chef described the meal as healthy, and several of my colleagues at the table agreed.
I was baffled. The meal was gorgeous, and the ingredients were of the finest, purest origins– but healthful??
My table mates argued that the provenance of the ingredients and the fact that none were processed made the meal healthy. I didn’t– couldn’t– see it that way. This was an incredibly rich meal dominated by saturated animal fats. We went back and forth, and I finally conceded that, when consumed in moderate quantities, the meal does have some health-promoting nutrients.
Does that make it healthy?
I think we are at a time of transition when it comes to defining what “healthy” means. It was easier in the past when we simply vilified foods or macronutrients: if you don’t eat X, where X equals fat, or white bread and pasta, or sugar, then you are eating healthfully. Now we talk about “clean eating”, which to many people means consuming primarily minimally processed foods. But hang on: if I live on steamed carrots and kale, is that healthy? Clearly I am not getting enough protein or complex carbohydrates. (If you want to know how much protein or carbohydrates you really need, use the USDA’s calculator here). How about if all my meats are grass fed and my produce is organic? That sounds healthier than just carrots and kale because it is more diverse, and it steers clear of potentially harmful chemicals, but you’ll need deep pockets and a limited social life to stick with it. And it still doesn’t address the fundamental issue of the nutrients we need to fuel our activity and power our brains. Nor does it speak to how much of those foods– any foods– we should consume.
We all know if you eat too much or too little, that’s not healthy. Notice a trend here? We can easily deflect the question of “What is a healthful diet?” by talking about what and how we shouldn’t eat. Buzz kill! That kind of thinking makes me want to go back to the special moment I shared with the sweet, roast-y sticky toffee bread pudding. We knew we were good for each other.
We might be on to something here. What if part of the definition of healthy eating also involves pleasure? As in, it has to make us feel good to eat whatever way we do. Some people get their willies by eating altruistically: a controlled diet of vegetables, legumes and whole grains makes them feel good. Others, like my husband, feel best when they eat foods they love (smoked and barbecued meat, in his case) in reasonable quantity. Seriously, when his pleasure center is activated and his body is fueled enough but not too much, I swear he is healthier. Barbecue doesn’t do that for me, but a beautiful salad, mac and cheese, a glass of red and that bread pudding would do me just fine.
Which brings us back to the luncheon. Was it healthy?
There may not be one answer. For those of us who were satisfied– body, brain and soul– with a moderate amount of each dish, and who could then continue to be satisfied by subsequent meals offering a different balance of nutrients, that meal may be delivering part of what our bodies need in a pleasurable way. But if that meal triggers persistent cravings for more highly saturated fatty or intensely sweet foods, or an inability to eat moderately, the meal isn’t healthy for us– despite the provenance of the ingredients.
We humans are always looking for the easy one-shot answer. Eating healthfully means no fat. Or no carbs. Or clean un-processed foods. Only raw vegetables, or only what our cave men ancestors ate. Maybe none of these simple formulas is it.
Perhaps healthy eating is about eating a wide variety of real foods you love, in the reasonable quantity it takes to satisfy and not stuff you. In which case, I am going back to Tertulia for more of that sticky toffee bread pudding.
Kale, Quinoa and Edamame Salad with Orange Vinaigrette
3/4 cup quinoa
1 cup thawed shelled edamame
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 teaspoon Country Dijon
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
8-10 cups torn kale
2 carrots, shredded with a peeler
1/3 cup pecans
- Cook the quinoa according to package directions. When it is cooked, place the edamame in the pot, cover, and let stand off the heat.
- Make the dressing: whisk the orange juice, mustard, salt, pepper and olive oil together.
- Combine the kale with the carrots and pecans; add the dressing and toss thoroughly. Stir in the quinoa and edamame and serve.
Makes 4 servings
Nutritional analysis for each serving: 404 calories, 13 g protein, 37 g carbohydrates, 8 g fiber, 25 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 509 mg sodium