Thursday, 2 September 2010

Unhealthy or fattening? What's the difference?

I grew up in a house where  butter was out because of my father's cholesterol, margarine was in. Full fat anything was a definite no no and the fridge was crammed with very low fat yoghurts, skimmed milk, low fat cheese spreads, lean meats and diet sodas. In truth the line between weight loss and good health was very blurred as my mother’s crusade for the perfectly slim body meant that she was on a permanent diet and so eating diet foods killed two birds with one stone. My sister and I just ate what we were given. Back in those days eating healthily and obesity were not top of the political agenda, people didn’t talk about it as obsessively as they do today. By the time I left home I no idea what was healthy and what wasn’t (but I was  a mine of information about calories and what foods were most fattening!). I expected the experts, the books, the doctors, the magazines to tell me what I should and shouldn’t be eating.

When the newspapers announced a new discovery about some food or other that was 'unhealthy', I’d steer clear of it. For years I limited myself to one egg a week, avoided animal fats and had butter as a guilty pleasure, convinced it would give me heart disease (not to mention that it was so fattening I only had to look at it to put on a pound). 

Of course both health and weight loss concerns flew out of the window when I was eating ‘unofficially’. When I was eating out of boredom or because I was sad or lonely or in a rush, it didn’t matter what the food was, as long as it did the trick I would eat it. Health wasn’t my top priority anyway – I was far more concerned with losing weight.

In my mind slim equalled healthy – if I could lose weight, no matter how I did it or what I ate I would automatically be healthier. It never even occurred to me that even at my ideal 8 stone I might be unhealthy and eating food that was barely nutritious. If I could eat something that would contribute to my weight loss efforts and was touted as healthy, so much the better, but it was definitely an afterthought.

The key to being healthy was losing weight – after all that’s what I’d grown up with, if my dad wanted to avoid a heart attack he needed to lose his paunch! Healthy eating had become synonymous with being slim.

Over the next 15 years as the mantra to have a healthy diet gained momentum, I was lured by countless ‘healthy eating’ fads in my search for weight loss; food combining, raw food, low salt, low fat, high fibre, blood type, fasts and detoxes.

Later on I dabbled with cutting out various food groups; sugar, dairy, wheat, caffeine, alcohol on the advice of various dieticians, sports nutritionists, naturopaths, and weight loss gurus… practically everything was banned at some point or other apart from fruit and veg and even they weren’t always safe. For a few months I cut out all vegetables from the nightshade family, avoided cooked tomatoes, banished peas, carrots, grapes, avocado...

In the meantime I’d continue to spend evenings secretly eating Haribo sour mix and liquorice wheals in front of the telly and stuffing myself with a bit of bread with my butter, biscuits, crisps, chips….

Looking back I realise I had NO idea. As more and more contradictory health food claims emerged and healthy eating dominated the headlines, I grew more confused and baffled. I found it harder and harder to separate weight loss and healthy eating as the media, the government and health professionals inevitably linked the two.

When I ditched the diets and weight loss stopped being my focus, the old criteria by which I had done my weekly shopping no longer applied. When I started to allow myself to eat what I wanted without having a long list of forbidden foods two things happened. Firstly, when I sat down, put the food on a plate and focused I found out that some foods just didn't taste good. And when I read the labels I discovered that most of the foods I’d been so lured by were actually full of dubious ingredients that didn’t sound like they had anything to do with real food. 

As I stopped overeating and gradually began to eat more and more in tune with my hunger (and so eating much less than I had done in the past) the quality and the taste of each meal became more important than whether it fitted into a diet friendly list or category. I went from eating a Shape (1) fat free peach and mango yogurt (or 3) as my sweet treat of the day (it tasted nothing like peach or even yoghurt and left a slimy film on my tongue) to eating the full fat fruity Activia (2) of the same make, which tasted better but still had a long list of unpronounceable, unnecessary ingredients which I didn’t recognise and didn’t trust. Nowadays I buy organic plain yogurt (ingredients: 100% live yoghurt. Full stop!) and whiz it up with a freshly cut mango or a few strawberries. Added ingredients: zero, taste: fabulous.

As my priorities shifted from weight loss to enjoying what I was eating and giving my body good nourishment on every level, I relished the quest for the best yogurt I could possibly find. The tastiest, the creamiest, most nutritious – and because it was satisfying on every level I didn’t need to keep going back for more.

The yoghurt story repeated itself up and down the supermarket aisles. What started out as a defiant stand against diet foods and refusing to eat low fat, low anything products slowly gave way to a growing curiosity about what did make up the foods I was choosing.

I started reading labels and became increasingly discerning. I also stopped lapping up the constant media hype about what was healthy and what wasn’t and started reading independent research, books and articles. I became active in defining healthy eating for myself based on my experience, as much independent information as I could find and common sense rather than set of random, contradictory and inherited beliefs. 

Today my definition of healthy eating is clear and very personal. It may not match anyone else's definition of healthy eating and it works for me 100%.

What makes up a healthy diet is multifaceted. It includes the nutritional value of food, to the extent that I can obtain reliable, believable, unbiased information. Just as important is how it tastes, whether I like it, whether I feel like eating it, how I cook it, how I feel after I’ve eaten it (physically and emotionally), who I’m eating it with, where it comes from, how it was grown or raised, what it ate (if it eats things), how it gets to me and how many miles it has travelled and in what condition it reaches my plate.

It’s not that I ask myself these questions every time I take a bite or go shopping; they are general principles which guide my food choices. I am not rigid, I do my best and good enough is good enough.

Overall my diet is varied, balanced and wholesome. When I read a headline pointing the finger at he latest culprit or heralding a new super food, I do some research of my own. I ask myself all the questions above and make my own mind up.

Today I have untangled the sticky mess that used to bind weight loss and good health. I am very clear that being slim is not necessarily an indication of good health and vice versa. I believe that it is possible to have a healthy diet at any weight. Good health depends as much on eating healthy food as it does on how much I move, how stressed I am, the air I breathe, the quality of my relationships and my quality of life in general.

How do you define healthy eating? How do you decide what’s healthy and what’s not? How do you make sense of the mountain of information, evidence and guidelines? Before we can begin to have a healthy diet we need to be clear on exactly what it means. Defining what it means to you is the first step.

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1 Shape Ingredients:Yogurt (Skimmed Milk, Skimmed Milk Concentrate, Milk Proteins, Yogurt Cultures), Water, Mango (6%), Fibre (Oligofructose), Stabilisers (Modified Maize Starch, Carrageenan), Sweeteners (Aspartame, Acesulfame K), Acidity Regulators (Citric Acid, Sodium Citrate), Flavouring, Colour (Paprika Extract). 

2 Activia Ingredients: Yogurt with Bifidus ActiRegularis® (Whole Milk, Milk Protein, Cream (1.1%), Skimmed Milk Concentrate, Yogurt Cultures), Sugar (8.7%), Peach (8%), Stabilisers (Modified Maize Starch, Pectin, Guar Gum), Flavourings, Acidity Regulators (Citric Acid, Calcium Citrate), Colouring (Paprika Extract).


  1. Yes!! Say no to foods that have been unnecessarily mucked about with and added to! There's nothing quite as delicious as good quality Greek yoghurt with a drizzle of Fairtrade honey and a sprinkle of chopped, toasted hazelnuts! I have an extremely small cliptop tub especialy for this combination, so I can take some to work for my snack. BC has really, really helped me to stop ever wanting to eat rubbish again - except of course for those odd occasions when I actually choose to eat rubbish!

  2. Me too - I read somewhere that it's best to avoid foods if their ingredients read like a chemistry lesson! If we are what we eat, we will want to make sure what we eat supports what we want to be.


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