The longer I work in health and wellbeing, the more I’m led to question what constitutes a ‘balanced diet’. Does consistently making nutritious food choices mean we’re balanced? What if a friend of ours makes us a birthday cake consisting of refined sugar, flour, and colouring and we choose not to have a piece of our own birthday cake in order to remain healthy on the inside – does this mean we’re balanced? My clients struggle with these questions and I’ve often received emails about a week ‘gone wrong’ when a mother fed them cakes and biscuits and they decided to indulge. We are surrounded by ‘cleaneating’ hashtags (I’ve used these myself), phrases like ‘Detox diet,’ and thousands of before and after images on Instagram. Amongst all the noise, all the screaming from health gurus to be heard, and images represented to us as thin and ‘healthy,’ it can be a good idea to just sit back and ask ourselves what ‘balanced’ really might look like for a lifetime of good health and joy.
Joy. This is the word that led me to write this article. A few weeks back I came to a bit of a self-realization. In many ways, it saddens me, as most self-revelations do, but it has also been a wonderful wake-up call. The thing is; I have severely lost my love for cooking and food. That is a bit of a statement considering that I used to be a professional cook and now I discuss nutrition for a living. But the longer I harp on about health and constantly choose alternatives to ‘unhealthy’ ingredients, avoiding the traditional recipes my mother cooked from, the less I enjoy the process of creating something delicious.
Five years ago I was in love with food. Not in a creepy way where I hid in the pantry and ate my way through house and home. I had landed my first full time cooking role for a large gourmet food store in New Zealand called Farro Fresh, as their Catering Manager. It was something entirely different to what I thought I would be doing. I had just finished two degrees; a Bachelor of Arts in English and Management, and a Postgraduate Diploma in International Development. Many, many worlds a part from food and cooking. Every night after my eight to nine hour days in the kitchen, I would sit by the fire while my mum sat on the couch, and I read through piles and piles of recipe books, in awe. The science of food absolutely fascinated me; whisked egg whites caused food to rise in the oven, kiwi classic butter crisped the edges of tarakihi fillets on high heat, and when beef checks were cooked for long enough in red wine they literally melted at the touch of your fork. I could have read all day about these incredible realities.
My favourite time of the week, even after working Tuesday through to Saturday in a stuffy, windowless kitchen, was when my entire family would gather together at Mum's house for a family meal. More often than not, I would want Mum to cook because there is nothing quite like your mother’s roast lamb with baked potatoes and gravy, or her triple layer baked lasagne, or especially her aubergine parmigiana. But every now and again I would prepare a menu, usually three courses, and present it to mum the preceding week to ask what she thought about my selections. There wasn't one time she refused my offer to take on the role of head chef. She would take her shoes off, lie back on the couch, and bounce her foot up and down as it rested on her other knee, usually with a glass of white wine in hand. I adored these nights. I was able to design a menu that I knew each member of my family would enjoy, I could spend the afternoon cooking for them, watch them delight over the flavours in the evening, and then recline with them in the lounge as we discussed life, love, and everything in between.
Since then things have changed. I stopped cooking professionally around three years ago. I trained to become a Nutritional Health Coach, which I love because I have seen so much change in my client's lives, but my love of food has dwindled as I sought to cut out the things that don't enhance my health. I write that last statement rather timidly. The truth is; there are foods that actually harm our health, that shorten our life, that promote disease. The truth is also that these foods are delicious, and although many of them can be switched to a healthier version, for example swapping out refined white flour for organic whole spelt flour, or almond flour, depending on the occasion, some foods just don't have alternatives.
I have lived in France for two years of my life, it is my favourite country other than New Zealand, it creates my favourite cuisine. Take the baguette for example, the best baguette is crusted on the outside and sticky and chewy on the inside. It needs to be made with gluten-heavy, refined white flour to achieve this glorious consistency. We could also look at Paris Brest, one of my absolute favourite pastries with its praline cream centre and choux pastry outer layers, and that which is laden with refined sugar. Croissants, duck baked inside pastry, steak and frites(!), pain au chocolat, and then there's the Parisian chocolate boutiques… All these traditional foods involve ingredients that the health industry, including myself, try to avoid, and teach others to avoid. For good reason to, as mentioned above.
However, there is more to say than just that. Surely our health doesn’t rely on entirely avoiding these foods for the rest of our lives. There must be room in a balanced and healthy eating regime to enjoy the recipes of our past, especially the ones that make us feel loved and nourished. More than this, science shows that often our genes have a greater role to play in our health than we may realise. One person may be able to smoke their entire life and never experience throat cancer, while another person may smoke for three years and end up dying from it. Our genes play a role in how our bodies interpret environmental stimulants, including diet. I thoroughly believe that we can also impact our genes in how they interpret these stimulants through epigenetics, and although we can support this process, we don’t know how, or at least not for certain. This is the point; the human body is so complex, and there is so much for us yet to learn, that we can’t expect or assume we can control our health through diet and nutrition alone. We can not be perfectly healthy, in fact that is not even the point of life, and so we must pursue a life of good health as well as joy, which may mean we enjoy the “refined-sugar” birthday cake made by our lovely friend on occasion.
I mentioned this in a previous post, but I recently heard a podcast by a respected health practitioner, Chris Kresser, who explained research that shows how those who follow a 80/20 rule instead of a 100 rule (eating healthy all the time) often live healthier and for longer. The reason for this is that human health relies on us experiencing enjoyable social interactions and feelings of belonging, not only does it rely on our diet and nutrition. In saying this, I would like to make a note that for people who are quite unwell; who have diabetes or pre-diabetes, liver concerns, heart disease, or who are at risk of illness, they should definitely seek further professional advice around when they may be able to enjoy the "recipes of their past". But for those who have great health now, who are not at risk of disease, and who understand how to eat well, enjoying these foods sometimes can be a wonderful life decision. One that shouldn't be filled with guilt or a feeling of "now I have to make up for it."
This is where I sit now, somewhere between healthy food and nutrition, and delighting in Mama’s lasagne followed by those classic kiwi birthday cakes she used to make with buttercream icing.
Perhaps the more 'balanced' and 'healthier' individual is not the one who avoids these delicious, less “health-enhancing” foods, but the one who lives anxiety-free within the tension of making healthy food selections and the (more than) occasional indulgence.
I would love to hear your own thoughts around a balanced way of eating - please leave your comments below.
Feed, nourish, value yourself.