Back in the old days, healthy eating was simple: 1. Don’t starve. 2. Don’t get scurvy. While today’s healthy meal landscape is less bleak, it’s more complex and sometimes contradictory. Are healthy meals vegan or paleo? Low-carb or low-fat? This new year, if you’ve resolved to eat more healthy meals, opposing advice may leave you wondering, “Am I doing this right?”
You’re not alone. It’s hard to keep up with health fads. Even the federal government has changed its healthy meal guidelines again and again...and again. While scientific studies offer a better understanding of what makes a meal healthy, clever marketing and ever-changing captivating claims compete for our attention. Some trends have stood the test of time (and science), but others leave us scratching our heads. We’re looking at you, cotton ball diet.
Let’s take a look at three of the last century’s most dominant health food trends. Over time, what has constituted a healthy meal, and why?
Religion + Vegetarianism + Sanitariums = Cereal
It’s the late 1800s. The vegetarian Seventh-day Adventist Kellogg brothers run a sanitarium for wealthy industrialists. All meals are meat-free and grain-heavy, but the businessmen are accustomed to bacon, sausage, and ham for breakfast. What to do? Invent Cornflakes, of course! And claim it’s a healthy meal, capable of curing a myriad of ills.
Ready-to-eat cold cereal soon invaded every household. But is this convenience food really the healthy meal the Kellogg brothers claimed it is? No. Minimally-processed whole grains are great, but cereal is heavily processed. And within just decades of Cornflakes’ creation, most cold cereals were loaded with sugar. Even today, despite abundant evidence of sugar’s harm, cereals marketed to children contain up to 50% sugar by weight!
If you want more healthy meals in your life, limit cereal consumption. But don’t think that means you can channel your inner old-timey wealthy industrialist. Feel free to don a monocle and pocket watch, but avoid the risks of feasting on processed meat. Healthy meals are possible, but neither Lucky Charms nor bacon will play a big role.
Supposedly healthy meals once bore little resemblance to today’s popular low-carb, high-fat Keto and Paleo diets. In the 1980s, fat was food enemy number one. Why? Experts blame fat’s demonization on an oversimplification of mostly sound dietary guidelines.
Beginning in the 1950s, studies linked saturated fat to cardiovascular disease. In the 90s, trans fats, which have since been banned in much of the food supply, proved even more harmful to our health. Meanwhile, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, found in foods like fish, vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds, were deemed heart-healthy. According to the research, not all fats are bad.
Yet for some reason—perhaps a careless oversight or a concern that the public wouldn’t be able to remember which fats to avoid—policy-makers simplified the advice to this: for healthy meals, avoid fat. Thus began the fat-free and low-fat processed food boom. When we should’ve limited consumption of saturated and trans fats by replacing them with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, packaged food manufacturers instead replaced fat with sugar and other refined carbohydrates. Simplifying the science backfired.
As for what role fats should play in healthy meals, this post offers some guidance. When you eat fats like olive oil and avocado, you not only boost your heart health, but you also better absorb fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K. But remember: since fat is calorie-dense and very filling, you don’t need a lot; a little goes a long way.
One Food to Rule Them All
A laser focus on one food is the dietary version of a get-rich-quick scheme: it’s too good to be true. Some people set their sights on one food in the hopes of losing weight fast. Others are all about the superfood du jour—they eat lots of it, hoping their wildest dreams come true. Or something like that.
Here’s a sampling of once-popular single-food diets: baby food, cabbage soup, cookies, grapefruit, morning banana, and rhubarb. Watch the pounds fall off as you eat cabbage soup for seven days straight! Feast your eyes on this breakfast of nothing but bananas! These diets, sometimes referred to as mono dieting, are neither sustainable nor nourishing. If a weight loss goal is motivating you to eat healthy meals, opt for a balanced and holistic approach instead.
And then there’s the superfood phenomenon. You’re likely familiar with products touting superfoods like turmeric, blueberries, chia, and kale. But the truth is that no single food will solve all your problems. Enjoy them, but avoid the marketing trap. Yes, pomegranate juice is full of antioxidants, but is that the only beverage you should consume? No. Yes, raw garlic has immune-boosting benefits, but no need to be munching on garlic clovesall day.
We're not saying that "superfoods” aren't tasty and nutritious, just that each on its own is no magic pill. Instead, create healthy meals with a wide variety of fresh, unprocessed foods. Don’t worry about how many of them are in the “super” category. This is exactly how we approach nutrition at Thistle—our tasty and healthy meals include a plethora of whole foods with boosts from nutrient-dense add-ons, with no single food hogging the spotlight.
Healthy Meals for You, for Today
When confusing or outdated information about food creates stumbling blocks on the journey toward healthy meals, how can you keep going? Preferably without tripping? Take a deep breath, and reflect on these words:
“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
Maya Angelou, poet
"Eat food, not too much, mostly plants."
Michael Pollan, author
The big picture of healthy meals looks like this:
- Incorporate as many whole foods and plants as possible. Heed Michael Pollan’s advice!
- Don’t demonize carbs, fat, or protein. Give all the macros some love and find what combination works best for you.
- Customize as needed. Certain medical conditions, allergies and intolerances, and religious and ethical convictions may require tweaks.
To get started eating healthy meals, or even to refine your current approach, do some further research. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, this is your chance to know better, then do better. Perhaps begin with USDA dietary guidelines, but don’t stop there. Learn more about macronutrients and micronutrients. Consider how to thrive despite dietary restrictions. Need more guidance? Talk to your doctor or seek out a certified nutritionist. And don’t forget to have fun with healthy meals. Experiment in the kitchen. Explore unfamiliar sections of the grocery store. Be grateful for the chance to make a positive lifestyle change. And don’t get scurvy.