Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Reader Request: Defining “Healthy”

Every Monday, I pen a cooking column over at Serious Eats called Healthy and Delicious. Usually, those meals are produce focused and naturally low-calorie, meaning there’s little hubbub over nutritional value.

Here at CHG, we follow pretty much the same model. It says so right in the FAQ: “Nutrition-wise, we concentrate mainly on recipes with lower calories and fat, and often find those dishes naturally contain more fiber, vitamins, and minerals than most others.” (Yay FAQ!)

Occasionally, however, I’ll post a Quick and Easy Apple Tart or a Light Macaroni and Cheese, and the health aspect comes under scrutiny. Sometimes, it’s from readers, and other times, it’s me doing the questioning. Because honestly, these aren’t recipes that’ll strengthen your heart, build up your brain cells, and make you live until 135. They’re foods that are only slightly better than the calorie-laden alternatives.

I mean, think about it. How can that Tart be considered good for you? What positive effects can a macaroni and cheese – even a lower fat version – possibly have, especially when compared to an ostensibly nutrient-packed dish like Mango Salsa or Strawberry and Avocado Salad?

Of course, most folks will say it’s all in how you look at it. Sane people can’t survive on vegetables alone. Lighter alternatives (which are very different from chemical-laden “diet” foods) can be essential to a healthy lifestyle. And by god, a less oily brownie is better than no brownie at all.

All this nuance (so much nuance!) makes it dang near impossible to define the word "healthy" in any concrete, universally applicable way. Because to some, it means low-fat. To others, it means raw vegan organic. And still to others (a.k.a. my little bro) it means scarfing Buffalo wings three nights in a row, rather than six.

Personally speaking (or typing), my idea of "healthy" cooking is based largely on my own values and experiences. What's more, it varies from day to day and year to year. In times I was on the heavier side, “healthy” meant getting through dinner without a third piece of pizza. Now, it means fresh food that won’t do harm to my body. But that’s just me.

So, sweet readers, what's a healthy recipe to you? How do you describe a healthy food? Or healthy eating habits? Is there a hard and fast definition, or is it open to interpretation? Bring on the thoughts!

(P.S. I’d love to turn the responses into next Wednesday’s post, if you’re into it.)

(Photos courtesy of Art History and Roger Wang.)

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