Monday, May 23, 2011

What Does Healthy Mean?

One question I frequently get asked is "Is this healthy?" -- Which I actually find a difficult question to answer. I usually want to respond with, it depends... which is not what the person asking me the question is expecting to hear.  

For example, last week I was at a team event where we were traipsing around Philadelphia on an adventure scavenger hunt. One task on our quest for points was to find a healthy snack and take a picture of the team enjoying it. We ducked into a small convenience store in Old City, and some members on the team grabbed two granola bars listed "high in fiber" and we snapped a picture -- so that's a healthy snack, right? Back to my initial gut response to the question, it depends...

The definition of what is healthy depends, in some ways, on what you individually are doing with your food and lifestyle choices, what your current state of health is, and what your health goals are. However, there are some universal principles of healthy living that can apply to everyone - regardless of what type of food choices you follow - strict Paleo, Vegetarian, Macrobiotic, Raw foodie, Mediterranean, South Beach, or one of many other combinations and your current state of health (e.g., perfect health, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, an autoimmune disease, etc). I would like to share 10 Principles of Health with you as things that you can incorporate into your life to improve your overall health - no matter who you are.

Healthy Living Principle #1: Eat Real, Whole, Unprocessed Foods

Base your diet on things that come from nature with minimal processing, avoid eating things that come in a box or package that you have to unwrap to consume. Try to eat things that are a single ingredient, or better yet that don't have ingredients listed on them (have you ever seen ingredients listed on a head of broccoli, a bunch of kale, or an apple?). Eat organic and local when possible, since organic foods will have less chemicals and pesticides on them, and local foods travelled less far reducing the carbon footprint of getting that food to you. Often local foods also have fewer pesticides and chemicals used to treat them since they may have been grown on smaller farms and many small farms practice organic or close to organic farming practices anyway - but haven't gone through the expense to be "certified organic' through the federal government.

Selecting real, whole foods are choices like vegetables and fruits as well as meats, seafood, nuts, and seeds. When selecting vegetables and fruits - fresh is best and frozen is second try to avoid canned or jarred and if you must, check the ingredients first! Make sure that you are checking anything that comes in a package (e.g. frozen veggies and fruits) to confirm that it only contains the vegetables, without added sugar, salt, and preservatives. Buying a bag of baby spinach is still considered a real, whole food choice - your paying a premium for one that is packaged in a convenient way.  If you look closely at that bag of spinach you'll notice that the ingredients listed on the bag are: Spinach.

When thinking through if a food is processed, take into account what has to be done to the food before it becomes edible, which should include cooking and prep time required for a food before you can actually eat it (e.g. soaking beans overnight). To me, lots of processing makes a food less desirable. I think you should reconsider foods that take a long time to cook before you can eat them - beans, sprouted grains, and even potatoes which are toxic if you eat them raw. Things like steak, chicken breast, or canned salmon may be slightly processed since you don't find them in that form in nature, but what has been done to these foods to make them "ready to eat" doesn't pincipally change the way the food is found in nature. These minimally processed foods (and many others) are much less processed than foods like rice that cooks in minutes, instant apple cinnamon oatmeal, just add water pancakes, powdered non-dairy creamer, and as Michael Pollan quotes in his book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, go-gurt yogurts. An easy rule of thumb, that Pollan recommends, is that before you eat something ask yourself is it something my great grandmother (or for our very young audience, my great-great grandmother) would recognize as food? If not, avoid it and choose something that she would - it's more likely to be a real, whole food.

In my list of the Principles of Health, #1 is eat more real, whole foods.  Take a look in your pantry and fridge to see what's inside. How much food do you eat that actually comes out of a package? How much food do you eat that is real, whole food? What changes can you easily make to add some more whole foods into your daily food choices?  Stay tuned to learn more about my 10 principles of health in future blog posts.


  1. I really enjoyed the finishing comments about eating more real foods. Even on days when I cheat, I try to keep the foods real, such as potatoes. At least they can be grown somewhere, like peanuts. Oreos, Dorritos, and Coca-Cola don't grow anywhere the last I checked :) Looking forward to future posts.

  2. Great post on a similar topic over at Constantly Varied, check his view point on how real food is better and not getting sucked into the "gluten free" hype