The Foodie's Dilemma

Healthy eating. It's a balancing act that is no small feat. Welcome to the New Year.

As a society, we often associate eating well with eating richly. Just look at any food porn posts to find pictures of flaky pastry, gooey melted cheese, bacon, foie gras - not healthy but so, so seductive. In contrast, look at the food posts of athletes, fitness models, and body builders: steamed greens, plain neutral carbs (if any), and sadly cooked pieces of lean meat (Boiled? Boiled?!). Sure, that diet can propel your body to mythological Greek god/dess proportions, but at what cost to your foodie soul?

To make matters worse, there's plenty of grey zone between food porn and fitness doctrine. There's all matters of diets, fad or otherwise, espoused by health gurus and dieticians alike, all with their own catchy branding. Atkins, South Beach, Mediterranean, Warrior, If It Fits Your Macros, Slow Carb, Zone ... a dizzying range of dietary dogma each with their own case studies of success. Each with completely disparate views on what - and how - to eat. There's cheat meals, intermittent fasting, juice cleanses (don't), and just plain 'clean eating' - whatever that means.

It's all compounded by the terrifying realization that a lot of the healthy eating habits we know as common knowledge were created by marketing managers to sell more things. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, right? That phrase was put into market in 1944 by a Grape Nuts campaign to sell more cereal; there is no scientific backing. In Canada, the Health Check symbol on packaged goods aren't earned, they're bought by brand managers - it earned such scrutiny that it was discontinued in 2014. The war on fats was perpetuated in the 60s by the coffers of sugar lobbyists.

Enough.

Just tell me how I can eat delicious things, keep healthy for a long time, and look good doing it. This has been a goal of mine for more than a decade; a driving force that has shaped, rather than hindered, my identity as a foodie.

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My journey began with the food pyramid any North American 90s child will recognize. On the surface, it seems to make a lot of sense. Plenty of fruits and vegetables, a good amount of healthy grains and starches for energy, some meat, and sparing amounts of fat and sugar.

At face value it's hard to say that these recommendations worked. More than a third of Americans are obese, with numbers climbing each year (before we as Canadians rest on our laurels, about a quarter of us aren't doing too well, either). It's also hard to say that the old food pyramid has failed us, either, when it's unclear as to how many of us actually followed the recommendations.

My own experiences eating a standard diet saw my weight peak at 175 lbs on a mere 5'5" frame. Frankly, a lot of that was my own doing. I played rugby at a high level as a forward - a role typically filled by heavy, tough guys. One fateful year I decided that to fuel my quest for mass and strength, I needed to eat. All the time. Not 'unhealthy', mind you, but the standards of the time: sandwiches, granola bars, yogurt, skim milk, and sugar-free options. Between genes, growth hormones, and an overwhelming excess of calories, I was an unstoppably big guy on the field. I was also so heavy that running at high speeds was not in the cards.

Just tell me how I can eat delicious things, keep healthy for a long time, and look good doing it.

The next year was different. I needed to make the varsity team; it was one of my last years to reach high school glory. This time, over a summer of workouts prescribed by my coaches and largely the same food intake, I reached a zippy 150 lbs. By no means did I have any semblance of extreme muscle definition, but I was strong, fast, and cut the muster for varsity.

I thought I had stumbled upon the winning combination: eat what you want, but get enough exercise. In my case, 'enough' was a week filled three to four team practices in a grueling sport, supplemented by a similar amount of personal time in the gym - along the genetic gift of being an 18-year old.

Seems sustainable.

My world changed, embarrassingly enough, after watching the movie 300. Every actor - ripped and chiseled. I needed Gerrard Butler's abs. I needed the abs because, well - girls.

Alongside the movie came news articles and posts about the grueling training regime undertaken by the actors in the Zack Snyder flick. The aptly named 300 Workout was an insane combination of 300 reps of heavily-weighted exercise done for time. My friends and I leapt into the regimen. We lasted about a week before I substituted for the training cycle now-long ago given to me by my high school coaches.

I NEEDED GERRARD BUTLER'S ABS.

Our fuel of choice? Dorm cafeteria food, a dedicated schedule of bar-going and subsequent drunk food, and a thirst for heavenly physiques. At one point some of us decided to eat a salad for each meal, an endeavor that was largely adhered to, but eventually devolved into tricks of logic, like grilled cheese sandwich 'croutons' and bacon toppings. We remained reasonably slim, arguably attractive people, but no six-packs were gained.

I was convinced there was another secret, another exercise. My online research about the dangerously high rep/high weight module used in 300 yielded its progenitor: Crossfit. The cultive fitness rage was just at the point of entering into the mainstream, and I was hooked.

It also happens that disciples of the workout sport advocate one of two dietary regimens: Zone, which prescribes the weighing and careful balancing of food into precise 'blocks' each meal; and Paleo, a caveman return to more natural foods with a heavy emphasis on cutting all processed food and carbs, all wrapped in appealing branding.

I hopped onto the Paleo bandwagon early. No bread, rice, pasta, or potatoes for me - certainly little packaged goods. And no drinking (or very little of it); a feat that could only be accomplished because I was then living in Norway - a country where, thanks to high taxes and an unfavourable dollar to kroner exchange, bad, 'cheap' beer costed well over $2 a bottle.

On paper it sounds restrictive, but I consider it my gateway to truly becoming a foodie. Though I was already cooking the vast majority of my meals before this, living within the confines of a subtractive diet like Paleo forced me to be creative in the kitchen. How can you make Asian food without rice taste good? How can I get an Italian fix without the pasta? The answer was kitchen magic and experimentation. Most importantly, the diet put as much emphasis on the quality of what to eat as what not to eat. It forced me to question how my meat was raised, where the vegetables came from, how to eat locally.

Adhering to the diet was transformative from a physical standpoint, too. I went from looking reasonably fit with clothes on to sporting a full six-pack, all the while pushing my body to feats of strength I had never achieved before.

It worked. I had found the missing link. No amount of Crossfit WODs (that's workout of the day, for the uninitiated) could help me escape a diet of bread and beer. Maybe the adage "you are what you eat" was, indeed, correct.

I stayed with the Crossfit/Paleo lifestyle for four years, well into life as a salaryman. Yet I found that to truly enjoy life - or business - without being a hermit, cheat meals need to happen. Craft beer, which I enjoy immensely, needs to happen. Good bread is hard to pass up when the restaurant you're going to makes their own sourdough in-house.

The danger, though, is slowly sliding back into what's comfortable; cheat days can become cheat weeks can become cheat years. It's easy to have a full social calendar for the week. How can I enjoy going to a restaurant outside of that defined cheat day without being 'that' person: the one who orders a salad at a fish and chip shop, or substitutes a dish so far away from what the chef intended?

How can I enjoy going to a restaurant without being 'that' person

The simple answer is that I don't. I've slowly loosened my dietary discipline, and with it, my belt. One of my final breaking points was the fateful day that Kim cooked a Mauritian biryani for me. It's a layered, one-pot affair full of well-spiced meats, yogurt, potatoes, and saffron-scented rice; a health food it is not. I realized, perhaps, that I had been missing out.

This is the struggle of a foodie who thinks perhaps a little too hard about the implications of what he eats. I'm still looking for answers to how to balance health and happiness; even more so as I try to balance an online persona as a capital-F 'Foodie'. How to, say, bake three pies for a feature article and not feel guilty eating the leftovers for two straight weeks. How to visit three restaurants in a week without destroying a well-earned physique. And that's to say nothing of my concern for the ethical implications of eating - that's for a different article altogether.

The truth is likely a synthesis of ideas from all of my health experiments over the years. It goes without saying that to remain a healthy foodie, a sustainable fitness regimen needs to be in place - all the more so for those motivated to excel in exercise or sport; after all, food is both fun and fuel. But I also think that it requires an even more careful examination of what we eat on a daily basis, and how we do it.

Quality of ingredients does matter, but it's disingenuous to say that what is healthier by modern scientific standards are universally tastier. For example, white rice, a staple no self-respecting Asian would give up, carries a higher glycemic load with less nutrition than brown rice; it's unfortunate, then, that brown rice can often taste like cardboard. And whole wheat flour can make for a more wholesome loaf of bread, but the germ that carries all of the fibre and nutrients of the grain cut the gluten structure of the dough, rendering most whole wheat loaves subpar against a crusty, chewy white bread baguette. It's time that we consider this a challenge, rather than a barrier.

As foodies, it shouldn't be enough that things merely look and taste good. We're missing a crucial element: health. It means that we as foodies need to set a higher standard for the restaurants we go to. Good food doesn't just taste good; the true magic of a chef is to make the painfully healthy sublime. And it's time to revisit the home kitchen, to push our abilities to find that sweet spot between health and happiness. Healthy eating shouldn't generate a fear of missing out.

The foodies' dilemma isn't a dilemma at all: it's the Holy Grail. Whether you reach it with a strict eating protocol or your own definition of clean eating, just know that the answer is waiting for you.

Words by Nicholas Wong.  Photos by Abhishek Dekate.