What does "healthy eating" even mean?! (Some notes)


This Saturday just gone, I MCed a panel as part of Dublin Book Festival: "Your Guide to Healthy Eating." (The festival runs until November 9th, so there may well be some events coming up that could pique your interest.) On the panel were dietitian Paula Mee, chef Adrian Martin and nutritional therapist Jane McCleneghan, all of whom had lots to say on the topics of healthy eating, food provenance and the evils of sugar. I found the discussion really interesting and thought it would be worth jotting down a few of the take-home points, namely:

What is healthy eating?

This, to me, was the most interesting question of all. How can we know what healthy eating is? Is it to do with what we're eating or what time we're eating it at? Is it only considered healthy eating if it's all "clean"? Should we be doing the ketogenic diet? Paleo? Slimming World? Weight Watchers? And how the hell, with a world of information – and misinformation – out there, do we even know?

What all three agreed on was a seemingly simple answer: it's about balance. (Easier said than done, I know.) Ultimately, healthy eating seems to come down to eating a wide variety of (some) fruit and (lots of) vegetables, cooking everything from scratch yourself if possible (Chef Adrian's prime focus) and eating not only for physical health, but also for mental and emotional health. In other words, sometimes you want to have pizza. And that's okay, as long as you're not eating pizza every day.

There was also agreement on the fact that it can be difficult to know where to get your information from – and the resounding conclusion was to refer to an expert. Don't get all of your wisdom about food, diet and healthy eating from Instagram. Though someone might be a bodybuilder, personal trainer (ahem) or model who eats green juices twice a day, there's nothing to say that person is qualified to advise you about what's best for your body and your health.

(From the personal trainer point of view, that's also about us knowing our scope of practice. I will happily give food recommendations and advise people on how to get the best results from their training, from the nutrition point of view, but if someone has a suspected food intolerance, I'll refer them to a dietitian or nutritional therapist – because I simply don't know enough about it.)

Is it really better to eat organic fruit and vegetables?

On this front, the answers were kind of mixed. Overall, it seemed as if, yes, it's probably wiser to buy organic where possible – and shops like Aldi and Lidl have really affordable organic fruit and veg offerings. We're already ingesting and absorbing so many chemicals each and every day, why not reduce that where and when we can?

That being said, Paula stated that there's very little evidence to show that organic food is any different, from a nutritional standpoint – but she did say that organic fruit and vegetable farming is so much better for the planet that, if possible, we should all opt for the "cleaner" versions.

It takes a village – literally

Adrian talked about how he goes around to primary schools in Ireland, educating children on how to cook from scratch. He told a few stories of kids who didn't know chips came from potatoes, and of explaining where milk comes from (can you imagine the horror on those little faces?!). From his perspective, educating children – and getting them excited – about cooking can make a really massive difference.

Paula and Jane did point out, though, that these lessons need to be reinforced at home. Primary-aged children aren't going to be the ones making the decisions about what to buy in the supermarket, or what to cook for dinner, so it's important to work on targeting those parents, too. And how do we get the parents involved? By motivating the teachers to talk to them and encourage them to come along, when there are free talks and seminars available – improving the health of future generations is going to take empathy, understanding and education, rather than condescension and judgment.

And as for the sugar tax...

I'm really not sure where I stand on this one because I do think it's going to disproportionately affect those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. However, when I asked our trio, they all seemed in favour of the sugar tax – at the very least, they said, it will force people to think about the sugar content in the foods they're consuming.

And, on the topic of sugar, there was a little dispelling of myths around "natural" sugars (that is to say, still sugar!) – adding honey, maple syrup or dates to recipes may mean making them "cleaner", or at least based on natural sugars, but once those sugars go into the body, they're digested the same way and have the same effect on your system, so you needn't feel too smug about your Deliciously Ella brownies.

When an audience member asked about low-fat options, sugar came up again – "low fat" processed foods often have added sugars, or artificial sweeteners, to replace the fat that's been removed, and Paula, Adrian and Jane all said that they would all opt for full-fat versions of things like yoghurts, milk, cream and cheese. Because when all's said and done, if your diet is largely made up of fresh fruit and vegetables, lean meats, pulses, nuts and whole grains, a little full-fat dairy isn't going to kill anyone. (Unless you're dairy intolerant, but that's another story.)