Healthy or Not? It’s not black and white…

My daughter likes to play a game she calls “Is it healthy or not?” She’s 5, so everything I do is still cool to her and apparently I spend quite a lot of time talking about this subject so it’s very very cool. The game goes something like this.

“Okay Mom – let’s play ‘Is it healthy?’  I’ll name a food and you tell me if it is healthy or not!”

You might think I’d be pretty darn good at this game. But I promise you that it is more difficult than it sounds! More often than not, my answer to her seemingly simple question is “It depends.”

It depends.

Macaroni and cheese?

French fries? Chicken? Milk?
Depends. Depends. Depends! 

Healthy! Yes! Praise God – apples are unequivocally healthy! Whew..

Aaaaargh! I wish I could give her more straightforward answers, but I simply can’t because so much of the answer depends on the method of preparation used.

For example, a high-fiber, low-sugar, whole-grain breakfast cereal is pretty healthy! It may have a few too many additives, but I’d give it a passing grade. But Fruit Loops? Cocoa Puffs? Even Rice Krispies? Not so much.

Mac and cheese. If it’s made from scratch with a whole wheat pasta, skim milk, and a sensible amount of real cheddar it’s actually a pretty healthy food. But the kind in the box with white pasta and cheese flavored powder, maybe not so healthy.

We make homemade baked fries that are very healthy, and Ore-Ida even has a variety or two that would earn the “healthy” moniker…but any fast food or restaurant fries certainly would not.

Chicken can be grilled or baked or sauteed into a lean healthful entree. But if we’re talking about a chicken nugget, I just can’t call it healthy.

Even milk has been compromised. Organic, skim milk may well be part of a healthful diet. But sugar-laden chocolate or strawberry milk (organic or not – have you read the label on Horizon flavored milk boxes?!) just isn’t.

It’s no wonder that kids, and many adults, are confused about what exactly is healthy these days. As a way to simplify, I’m partial to Michael Pollan’s Food Rules approach. Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Brilliant. In his book, he breaks down each of those principles into really simple guidelines. Things like “Avoid food products that contain ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce,” or “It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car”.

The bottom line is that in today’s food environment, we need to be savvy food consumers who read labels in stores and ask servers in resataurants to get information about the nutritional profile of our food so that we can make good choices. 

All manufactured food is required to carry these labels, so it’s important to learn to read them! And restaurants are increasingly publishing nutrition information for their menus to help patrons make informed choices. If the nutrition info is not posted in the store, it’s often available upon request or online. 

McDonald’s, for example, has quite an elaborate system online in which you can “Bag a McMeal” and calculate its nutritional profile, making any customizations you’d like. And if you forgot to investigate in advance, the nutrition info for their menu is also printed on the backside of the paper tray liner. (Really! Check if you don’t believe me.) 

Earlier this year an Oregon-based chain, called Burgerville, began printing the nutrition profile of the ordered meal on their receipts….and making suggestions for how to order more healthfully! Here’s an article explaining that choice – I’ve never heard of anything else quite like it!

So while restaurants are making strides to assist us, and food manufacturers are putting info right in front of us, it’s ultimately up to us to take a moment to read the label before making an informed choice. Because in most cases, it’s just not black and white.

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