Redefining healthy eating
Written by: Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN
Published on: January 24, 2023
Reviewed by: Denise John, Ph.D
Photo courtesy of Christine Han for Maya Feller
Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN, is the author of the new goop Press cookbook Eating from our roots. You can see Feller in conversation with Gwyneth on Thursday 26 January– and get your own nutritional questions answered in real time.
In my nutrition practice, I have come to learn that health exists on a spectrum and that healthy eating means something different to each person. But health is often defined by the Anglo-American and Anglo-European cultures, which are global minorities yet dominate and shape the trajectory of how the world thinks about food.
I’ve done countless searches for the term “healthy food,” and I’ve found that the best results include plain fruits and vegetables, the occasional bowl of brown rice, and a plate full of nicely charred grilled meats, whole grains, and leafy greens. These images are usually followed by a list of “top 10 healthy foods”, which include more fruits, vegetables (usually green) and whole grains. Yes, these foods are absolutely nutritious, have wonderful health benefits and should be part of an eating pattern. But they lack diversity in terms of the types of foods presented, how they are prepared (or not), and the spices and flavors used with them (or lack thereof).
As I observe these search results, I ask myself: How did these foods become the gold standard for health? What if someone doesn’t like these types of foods? What happens when the nutritious meals a person grew up eating are not included in these searches? As a health professional, I know that there is an abundance of healthy and nutritious foods that look and taste very different from the purported wellness gold standard. There is plenty of room at the proverbial table (and on one’s plate) for a wide variety of foods from cultures around the world. Some of these foods, often representing historically marginalized ethnic groups, are included in my book Eating from our roots.
In my practice, we focus on expanding the nutrition discussion to encourage non-judgmental inclusion of new and familiar flavors and textures. We remove the morality around eating and take the whole person into account when adapting eating patterns. And we welcome the reinstatement of the kitchen as a source of joy and a place that provides nutritious, flavorful food. As a result, my patients experience less shame and guilt when they eat and develop a better relationship with food and their bodies. We work based on some principles Maya Feller nutrition include:
Respect your food preferences. It’s best to honor your individual likes and dislikes while taking your current health into account. If eating becomes a chore, shopping, cooking and eating become a chore. My clinical experience has taught me that when a person looks forward to a nutritious meal, especially one they enjoy, they are more likely to replicate that experience. Ask yourself: Do you enjoy eating the food on your plate?
Make room for heritage foods. You are the expert in your lived experience, and it should be no different when developing, adapting or deepening your eating pattern. The foods that are representative of your culture, heritage and ethnicity should always have a place on your plate. Maybe you grew up eating plantains and cassava, but not potatoes. Or maybe your family prefers currants instead of raisins. Maybe mung beans are more familiar to you than navy beans. There is room to include these and many other foods that don’t make it into the gold standard of healthy eating. If you have removed your heritage foods from your eating pattern, welcome them back with open arms.
Don’t forget the taste. We often focus on adding flavored animal proteins, through marinades or rubs, and serve them as the centerpiece of the meal. If you do the same with vegetables, they can be just as delicious. Non-starchy and starchy vegetables, grains, beans, nuts and seeds are great in their unadulterated state, but when flavored they become absolutely incredible. A spice blend of turmeric, cumin, black pepper, and ginger can transform a roasted cruciferous vegetable dish into the star of your plate—and potentially transport you to your favorite destination, as spices often do.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it contains medical and medical advice. This article is not, and is not intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are those of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.
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