A few days ago, my younger sister asked me about the paleo diet. I explained it's basis as best I could, mentioning that it probably works for a lot of people, but personally I don't feel well when I eat much meat, so the paleo diet never really appealed to me.
Question answered, I went back to fiddling with my juicer. "So what about gluten-free diets?", she asked. Again, I summed up the various reasons why someone might opt to go gluten-free, and that even for people without celiac, cutting gluten is often helpful because it happens to also reduce their processed food intake. She nodded, and I refocused on the concoction at hand.
"So what IS a healthy diet?", she asked. I stopped, put down my carrot, and stared at her for a moment. It was a real eye-opening moment for me. Caity, who lives with me, like in my house, who eats a dinner that I cook every night, and reads my blog regularly, was asking me "what is healthy?"
It's so easy to forget, once you go down the path of eating well, how it was before you got started. Looking at my twenty two year old sister, I remembered. There were ramen noodles. LOTS of ramen noodles. Being raised as a vegetarian, I ate piles of white starches, oodles of cheese, and tons of processed meat substitutes. Ironically, vegetables weren't often on my radar. Yet I thought, at the time, that I was a pretty healthy eater.
Later, after I went to cooking school, took nutrition courses, and settled into the next phase of my life, I had come to the conclusion that eating whole foods, even if that included dairy and meat, in moderation, was way better than eating processed chick patties and french fries all the time. Of course, my idea of moderation might have been a little skewed.
These days I eat a mostly vegan diet. I've cast aside most processed foods, shun high-sugar, and avoid white flours. As I type this post I am eight days deep in a juice fast. I'm on a roll.
When I was at SXSW Eco, Anna Lappe said something really smart while premiering her Food Myth Busters movie. She said that eating healthy isn't about reaching some far-away ideal, it's about making a better choice today than you did yesterday. I thought that was really great.
To take that thought a bit further, I'd say that "healthy" isn't just a diet, or even a lifestyle, it's a state of mind. Being healthy means thinking about how you treat your body. It's reading up on the benefits or possible hazards of the food you eat, and taking that information to heart. Being healthy is less about what specific choices you make, and more about making the decision to take responsibility for your own health.
This attitude makes even more sense when you think about all of the different sorts of "healthy" people out there. What's healthy for me, might be torture to you. What's healthy for you, might be all wrong for me. For example, Melissa Joulwan, author of Well Fed, feels amazing on a paleo diet, when I'm pretty sure that would kill me.
The truth is that there is no absolute right way to live your life. Personally, I believe that a whole foods, plant-based diet is the healthiest one for me, but then, I also believe that occasional indulgences make life worth living. The right balance for my physical and emotional well-being seems to be a mostly vegan diet with the occasional bbq rib or ice cream sundae indiscretion. Would this diet work for everyone? On paper it might, but in practice, surely not. Hell, this diet wouldn't have even worked for me prior to this point in my life.
Right now, I feel healthier than ever before. I'm losing excess weight. I feel lighter, more energetic, and practically impervious to illness. I've finally found a diet that really works for me, and I got here, one choice at a time. It was about six years ago that I first decided that I'd rather not die prematurely. The first choice was to quit smoking, and after that choice, the rest just sort of happened.
So when you decide that you want to feel better, live longer, or even just look nicer, the answer is being healthy. Don't just adopt a set of rules someone else invented and labeled "healthy", go out and find out what you think is healthy yourself. Use your head, follow your heart, and before you know it you'll be on your way.