At this time of year when we look back as well as ahead, one realizes that our relationship with food is more complicated than ever. This is especially true for people who practice some sports with a passion because they tend to try to make wiser food choices to optimize performance and maintain good health. But being inundated with ads and tons of conflicting messages in the press about what healthy eating means it can all become very puzzling.
Contradictory food guidelines Take wine for instance: for the last three or four years women were told to avoid drinking more than one glass of wine daily because it might increase their risk for breast cancer, among other things. But last November another very credible piece of research suggested that it would be wiser for us ladies to sip 2 glasses of wine daily (with at least one day off every week) because it's amazingly effective at maintaining good coronary health and - yes! - preventing certain types of cancer!
It's the same confusion with fibers: first they were the most effective insurance policy against colon cancer; then another study found that they did not have any effect; now fibers are back on track because - again - a new study has proven that they are indeed essential for a good overall health and help prevent conditions such as diabetes or heart problems. The thing to remember is: nutritional research is a new form of scientific knowledge and as such, it is in constant evolution. So how to make the right food choices while dealing with an ever changing avalanche of contradictory messages? What should be the proper guidelines?
How about a bit of pleasure for a change? I have one simple rule: pleasure! No matter what the experts suggest, I know that if there isn't a little pleasure daily at my table, I won't be able to adopt and maintain healthier food habits in the first place. I find that pleasure, along with discovery and sharing, are the keys. If we first enjoy what we eat, choosing ingredients that are good for our health (and the health of the planet) will become second nature.
Making New Year's resolution useful and meaningful I'm also up for a little challenge from time to time in order to spice up my gourmet-gourmand life. First, I confess that I am one of the 100 million Americans and 10 million Canadians who believe in the self-motivational value of New Year's resolutions. Call me fool, but for me January is a super exciting month, despite my extra-slim wallet (thanks to Christmas shopping), and my less-than-slim waistline (thanks to holiday over-indulgence). If I like the first month of the year so much it's because I feel renewed and ready to commit to the challenge of a whole new set of resolutions. Of course, those resolutions (at least the ones I make to improve my health) are always more or less the same: eat less and choose better quality food, exercise more, try to work wisely in order to create decent schedules and a good balance between professional obligations and personal life. It would also be nice to escape the alarming stats: 50% of people who carefully prepare a training program on January 1st tend to abandon it within 8 weeks.
So this year, I'm trying to organize my resolutions differently in order to keep them for the long term, by trying to make them part of my daily routine. They are all about pleasure and discovery instead of obligation and duty. Let me know if you find that they might be of any help for you too…
- Eat local more often Not only is this way of eating good for our economy because it allows people to make a decent living through their work and helps create a bundle of new jobs, but it is also beneficial for the environment. The less distance our foods travel to get to our table, the less their carbon footprint will be and the better their nutritional value.
- Make cooking a hobby, not a chore! Many of us lack the time and the patience to cook anymore. Nevertheless, I don't know many tasks that are better for self-esteem and for creating close-knit relationships among friends and relatives than preparing a nice homemade meal. Why not invite friends over one Sunday afternoon when the weather turns nasty to cook lasagna, stuffed peppers or beef ragout in big batches so that everyone comes away with meals for the week? Cooking doesn't have to be complicated to be fun.
- Buy a few good cookbooks! The best way to enjoy cooking is to get a few good books that explain the basic techniques and instill the desire to master a few new recipes. Get inspired by consulting the web or go to your favorite book store. A few good tools also help: mixing bowls and spatula, a Dutch oven, good knives, a cutting board, etc. Again, simplicity is in order!
- Try new fruits and veggies every week We've come a long way since the meat-potatoes-carrots-peas era thanks to chefs and produce growers who have made it their mission to introduce and cultivate all sorts of interesting fruits and veggies. Try rapini (broccoli rabe), kolrabi cabbage, yellow beets, winter squash, Jerusalem artichoke (Sun choke), fennel bulb, wild mushrooms, jicama, celeriac or bamboo shoots for a change. Rediscover heritage cherries, pears or apples and stock up on berries when they are in season.
- Get inspired by world cuisine One of the nicest gifts the global economy and immigration have brought us is the easy access to many different recipes and ingredients from around the world. What an easy and fun way to travel and to make our kids discover their small planet without leaving the kitchen! Korean, Vietnamese and Indian cuisines are loaded with flavor, color and taste and their basic principles not too complicated to master. While trying new ethnic ingredients and restaurants read about each culture, play with spices, experiment. This is really a fun way to cut the boredom in your kitchen.
- Clever fat choices for pure pleasure Talking about health and pleasure, why not increase your taste buds' pleasure while, at the same time, reducing the risks of coronary diseases by cooking with quality oils: olive, sunflower, organic canola, soy, peanut. Cut Trans Fat shortening, artery-clogging palm oil, go easy on coco milk, butter, cream and fat cheeses. Seduce your guests with delicious nut oil, toasted sesame oil, truffle oil, avocados and fat fish such as mackerel or salmon that are loaded with beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids.
- Opt for more flavor by using herbs and spices Fresh herbs and spices add loads of personality and nutritional bonuses to dishes thanks to their digestive and anti-inflammatory properties. Dare to create unusual mixes. Try star anise in a soup or a rice dish, go for coriander and cumin seeds in a ragout, add cardamom, turmeric and ginger in your vegetables for a hint of Indian style, go for juniper berries or caraway seeds in cabbage or with braised fennel, try fresh vanilla pod in your rice pudding or even in savory dishes. Opt for chili peppers or fresh horseradish to rev up a rather bland recipe. As a cook, that's another sure and easy way to escape boredom. An important health plus of cooking more with herbs and spices is that it lowers our dependency on salt without even realizing it.
- Discover interesting and unrefined carbs Instead of bleached white flour, opt for a fiber-rich version by mixing it half and half with whole wheat flour; try buckwheat, go for quinoa, brown basmati rice, barley or cracked wheat. Opt for whole grain bread and pasta over white, pick breakfast cereals that offer the most fibers and the least refined sugar. You'll feel more satisfied, will get inspired to try new dishes and you will also have more energy all day. The reason is simple and well documented: unrefined carbs (or sugars if you will) are slowly released in the body instead of giving you a burst of quick energy that vanishes just as quickly. For that reason, you'll also avoid mid-day cravings and feel less fatigue.
- Choose more vegetarian meals Eating less meat is extremely good for our health and the health of the planet because plant-based ingredients have no saturated fat and need much less energy for their growth and transformation than meat. It's also very good for your wallet!
- Eat breakfast and 3 balanced meals daily plus healthy snacks Who doesn't like to eat more without feeling guilty? Well, taking the time to eat breakfast is one efficient strategy to help lose weight or maintain a healthy weight and to cut mid-morning cravings. It is also true that we feel more satisfied and have more energy if we eat three balanced meals (along with two snacks) every day, as long as it's not cheeseburgers with fries or chocolate bars and donuts! Instead, bring your lunch to work and start your meal with raw veggies and a homemade yogurt-mustard dip or with a nice vegetable soup. Bring a chicken sandwich or a smoked salmon bagel with a spread made of yogurt cheese instead of cream cheese. For snacks, pick chocolate-soy milk and homemade oatmeal cookies or a handful of almonds and an apple.