[The perfect secret to making any food healthy]
My childhood memories of winter are associated with the smell of freshly baked cookies and tarts; warming up from the brisk November air with a mug of packaged hot chocolate with dehydrated marshmallows; choosing which flavour of ready-to-eat oatmeal I would have for breakfast. Eager to practice my emerging cooking skills, my mom welcomed the meals I made out of boxed macaroni and cheese or soup from a can. As a single mom raising three children and holding down a full-time job, she was delighted to enjoy a meal someone else had cooked for a change.
The veggies on our table were either frozen or canned. Every meal included a potato and bread with butter. Meat was whatever happened to be on sale. For purely financial reasons, my mom supplied my brothers and I with a weekly ration of four litres of milk each, and if we wanted more, we had to buy it with the money we earned from our paper routes and babysitting.
I wouldn’t say I grew up food insecure; there was always enough to eat, and little tolerance for wasted food. I also wouldn’t look back on my childhood food experiences as “simpler times.” My mom put a lot of attention and effort into a strict grocery budget that ensured she could provide her family with enough to eat. There wasn’t any discussion about how healthy the food we ate was or should be. We weren’t hungry, and that was healthy enough.
Now I’m a mom raising children in an era where packaged and ready-to-reheat foods incite a moral panic. Cans, boxes, and packaged foods are currently synonymous with “processed crap,” and “garbage.” These aren’t “real food,” “whole food,” “wholesome,” “natural,” or “clean.” The inexpensive food my mom depended on to stretch limited finances into a week’s worth of food has somehow morphed into a dietary obscenity.
“Healthy” is an interesting adjective without a universally accepted definition, yet it is used to modify nouns into pious ambiguity. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read entire paragraphs that fail to convey a meaningful message. Here’s an example: “A healthy lifestyle includes a healthy diet, and healthy food will result in a healthy weight, because we all want healthy children.” Repetition is a rhetorical device intended to create emphasis … but on … what?
Food is used too frequently to represent the competence of one’s parenting. Evidence of this virtuous measurement occurs in classrooms around the world, where young students are instructed to “eat your vegetables before your dessert.” That is, if the offending food isn’t confiscated from the lunches parents pack for their children. How dare you send your child to school with … *gasp* … “sugar!” A lunch that includes cookies has been described by some school administrators as “child abuse.” In my daughter’s classroom, seven children banded together, abashing their classmates who brought in a treat from their Halloween haul.
These are the sort of events that make me ask questions that begin with what and end with k. Paved roads of good intentions aside, I fail to understand the need to turn healthy into a winner-shames-all contest.
Recently, I was coerced into buying a rather large package of chocolates from the sample lady at Costco. I say ‘coerced’ because I didn’t go to Costco to buy a large bag of chocolate, but then, this is the magic of Costco. As we passed the table of little chocolate balls set in tiny paper cups, the kids asked if they could try them. They were a little different, interesting, and appealing. The sample lady handed me a large bag that announced the contents were “gluten-free” and “vegan.” As I placed the bag in my cart, the sample lady beamed at me with pride and said, “They’re healthy!”
How ingeniously clever. As a mother shopping in a store with her children, what perceptions do you think will result when she declines to buy something she’s just been told is “healthy”? What example would turning down a healthy chocolate opportunity set for her children?
The key difference between these chocolates and any other chocolate is the absence of milk products and gluten. Otherwise it’s a bag of bite-size pieces of chocolate. After I recovered from laughing, I decided to buy the healthy, vegan, gluten-free, sugar-soaked chocolates anyway, despite the marketing that demonstrates anything can be made healthy just by adding a few buzz words to the packaging. These particular chocolates would indeed be healthy for individuals with Celiac who cannot digest gluten, but for the rest of us – it’s just chocolate. Removing common ingredients used to make chocolate doesn’t improve its nutritional profile. I found the audacity so intensely humorous, I ate more of them than I otherwise would have until the joke wore off. At that point, the chocolates were no longer appealing.
A less comical example is the use of healthy in conversations about weight. The BMI scale defines the ideal range of weight as “normal” and anything outside this range is over or under the standard of normal. Weight that strays too far above the normal range is defined by another adjective synonymous with unpleasant, disturbing, unwholesome, and diseased. Healthy is decided by the number on the scale, not the markers that indicate fitness. While this sheds some light on the pervasive presence of weight stigma in healthcare, it also supports the argument that the marketing engine behind “healthy” isn’t really about health.
Watch what happens when healthy is replaced with another adjective that encompasses the sanctimonious judgement of parents, marketing buzzwords, and weight stigma.
A perfect lifestyle includes a perfect diet, and perfect food will result in a perfect weight, because we all want perfect children.
In addition to exclusionary finger wagging, the quest for perfection also nurtures the cognitive architecture that supports the development of disordered eating. This is why I don’t fret over Hallowe’en candy, cookies and tarts, packages of hot chocolate with dehydrated marshmallows, or boxes, or cans, or packaged foods. There is no valid reason to subscribe to ideas that insist perfection is a synonym for healthy. Unlike perfection, health is not an illusion.
The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Health is a positive concept emphasizing social and personal resources, as well as physical capabilities.”