As someone who has worked in the food industry for many years, I find myself becoming a bit frustrated by all the fad diets and food trends that we are bombarded with these days.
It seems to me that when it comes to health, some people are so anxious for a ‘quick fix' that they are willing to follow very elaborate, odd or even unappealing diets, all in the hopes of losing weight or gaining muscle mass. Unlike the proponents of these odd eating regimes, I believe strongly that unless you have a diagnosed medical condition - such as diabetes or Celiac disease, for example - moderate consumption of a wide range of foods is good for us all.
When I am asked what I see as the foundation for healthy and appropriate eating, my answer is always the same: Balance and moderation are key. Everyone's metabolism is different but a balanced, moderate approach to diet, in my opinion, is vital to maintaining good health. A diet rich in unprocessed foods is key as it helps limit the intake of unhealthy ingredients that are typically found in processed foods. These include excessive salt, artificial additives, artificial preservatives, excessive amounts of stabilizers, emulsifiers, processed fats, processed modified starches, processed, modified sugars and/or sugar substitutes. In my mind all of these elements are far removed from what constitutes food or an actual, real ingredient. They are building blocks designed to enhance flavour and prolong shelf life, but at the expense of nutrition.
Although I am not a trained nutritionist, I certainly look at fad diets with a critical eye. As I said, I believe healthy eating is all about balance and moderation. Diets and fads are rarely backed up with much long term scientific evidence. Let's face it, food science, nutrition and even some aspects of modern medicine are still all relatively new concepts which have a long way to go before they transition from being theories into being considered fact. Because there is so much we don't know yet, I am always sceptical of fad diets. Some of the interesting ones we have had guests inquire about accommodating include the Paleo Diet, Nightshade vegetable diets and raw vegan diets, to name just a few.
Similarly, I'm not crazy about the trend of mass-marketed energy-boosting foods. Heavily-caffeinated and sugar-pumped beverages aren't part of a balanced, well-rounded diet, particularly if the beverage has a warning on its label. Chocolate bars and potato chips are fun pick-me-up snacks and in my mind, if eaten in an extremely moderate manner, are fine. Sometimes an indulgence, in moderation, can be holistically good for your mind and body but once you make chips and chocolate bars a regular habit, watch out. They are laden with excessive amounts of sugar, salt and saturated fat which will not have any positive merits for your health.
Better energy-boosting alternatives to processed foods might be less convenient but are much more fun to prepare and to eat. Smoothies are a great example - they're nutritious, tasty and you can tailor them to your tastes. I make smoothies all the time and my kids love them. I include low-fat yogurt, berries, banana, ice, a squeeze of fresh lime juice and a splash of maple syrup, blended with a touch of cranberry juice and voila, they keep coming back for more. I love to bake with my kids as well; muffins and granola bars made from scratch are favourite snacks. The kids love to participate and are more inclined to stay away from the convenience items, especially if you let them add some dark chocolate chips to the batter. Roasted nuts are a great snack, but again in moderation as they are very high in saturated fat. For a sweet indulgence, make decadent homemade chocolate chip cookies a little healthier by using half white and half whole wheat flour; you can also add in some organic dried cranberries and pumpkin seeds.
Here are a few more practical tips to help you avoid the fast food trap:
- Take some cooking classes. Even a limited knowledge of some culinary fundamentals will open new doors, helping you stay away from the processed convenience items - like instant mashed potatoes - which are cleverly marketed to make it so easy for you to choose them.
- Organize yourself by creating a menu for the week and preparing certain items ahead of time. Mashed potatoes are a great example: peel and dice your Yukon gold potatoes the night before and leave them in a pot full of water. Portion the milk, butter and minced fresh chives the evening before and refrigerate them. The next day at dinner time, drain and steam the potatoes, warm up the butter and cream in the microwave, mash, mix and season; you will have created a far more wholesome version than a boxed mix and it's only taken 15 extra minutes.
- Examine your grocery cart; if the majority is frozen, canned or preprocessed, look for items you could prepare from scratch to replace these manufactured foods. Start gradually; rather than buying a premade soup, try making a recipe on Sunday at home using all fresh ingredients. It will stay fresh and tasty in your fridge for days. YouTube folks, it's all there for ideas! Soon, you'll be at the check-out proudly loading your bags with fresh, tasty ingredients rather than boxed, canned, frozen, processed items….and you'll be saving money as well.
- Make composed salads on the weekend to serve for speedy weeknight meals. For example, prepare a German potato salad, a Greek salad and a five bean salad then enjoy them on busy work days. As a bonus, if you make enough, you'll have leftovers for lunches as well.
While there are some foods that we often hear should be avoided, in my opinion it's all about moderation, variety and balance. By no means am I the healthiest eater. I'm a chef. I'm surrounded with the most decadent foods every day and to that I say, "thank goodness"! Certainly there was a time when I did not approach this luxury in the healthiest of ways, indulging in fresh-baked croissants every morning, desserts, red meat, butter, cheeses, and so on. I justified it by thinking that someone had to make sure they are prepared properly! I am not exactly sure when, but I made a conscious shift to moderate these decadent ways a while back, perhaps about 10 years ago. So now, for me, it's smaller portions and balance, consistently. There is nothing wrong with a little butter, eggs, pasta, red meat, bread. In fact they are extremely nutritious if consumed in moderation and in a balanced fashion.