Editor’s note: What do the words “health food” conjure up? Wood floors, bulk bins, tofu, and a bearded man drinking from a pottery mug? Over the past 30 years, health food has undergone a major image shift, from anti-establishment co-ops stocking “natural” products to big-box groceries sporting national brands of products labeled “healthy.”
Health food, it seems, is everywhere. But so are studies documenting the diet-related causes of obesity and other diseases. And while that guy with the mug might’ve put up with tasteless food because it was “healthy,” we won’t. We demand good taste and good information, couched in terms we can all understand, such as Michael Pollan’s advice to “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”
It’s time we modernize the way we think about health food, to marry all the groundbreaking ideas of the past with the incredible variety of food that’s available today.
The Health+Food column is about both nutrition and taste. Our new columnist, Catherine Bennett Dunster, is a registered dietitian, an excellent home cook, a parent who prepares much of the food in her own family, and an all-around healthy eater. We’ve enlisted her help to answer your questions about food that’s good for you — and that tastes good, too.
If you have questions for future Health+Food columns, please send them to us at email@example.com.
“My teenage daughter recently stopped eating meat. While I do most of the cooking in our family, I’m trying to get her to take the responsibility for preparing some of her own food. Can you suggest easy, nutritious, vegetarian fare that both she and I can make?”
Going vegetarian seems to be a rite of passage for today’s teens. Unlike many other practices adopted in adolescence, this one can be very healthful for your daughter and the rest of your family. A plant-rich diet is widely regarded as protective against heart disease, high blood pressure, adult-onset diabetes, obesity, and some cancers. You can bet that future studies will only continue to show the importance of a diet lush with plant foods.
Your daughter is avoiding meat, but I’ll assume she eats other animal products, such as eggs and dairy foods, making her a lacto-ovo vegetarian. If this is the case, there’s a bevy of foods to choose from. Since good eating habits and the teenage years rarely go hand-in-hand, it’s key to encourage your daughter to consume an abundant variety of plant foods daily, as even a plant-based diet will be very poorly balanced and bereft of nutrients if variety is lacking or highly processed foods are the mainstay.
Think of it this way: If your teen ate only Big Macs and fries, you’d be concerned. Leaving the meat behind, if she only eats grilled cheese sandwiches and orange slices, you should be equally concerned. Well, almost.
Hormonal changes are the hallmark of the tween and teen years, as are intense periods of skeletal growth. Your daughter should eat an adequate amount of total calories, protein, and calcium to support her continued growth and development.
Aiming for three good daily sources of calcium is beneficial in establishing healthy bone density. Dairy products provide an easy calcium fix, but don’t overlook other naturally calcium-rich foods. Almonds, broccoli, leafy greens (spinach, kale, collard, and mustard greens), and foods fortified with calcium (fruit juices, soy milk, and calcium-set tofu) are good sources of calcium, too.
To avoid iron-deficiency anemia (of which fatigue and lethargy are symptoms), encourage your daughter to eat hearty iron sources: prunes, whole grains, legumes, beet greens, and fortified cereals. Have her combine them with a vitamin C-rich source to help the non-meat iron sources absorb more readily; she might eat freshly picked strawberries, for example, with iron-fortified granola.
(Even with enough iron, your teenage daughter may still beg to sleep until noon; chances are she’s just acting her age instead of suffering from iron deficiency.)
Protein shouldn’t be a concern as long as eggs and dairy are included in your daughter’s diet, but do encourage her to keep her diet interesting and nutrient-rich by sampling different nuts and nut butters, soy foods like tofu, tempeh, and soy nuts, and legumes like beans, lentils, and peas.
Eating produce with an array of colors will provide your daughter with a range of valuable nutrients. Typically, the more intense the color of the fruit or vegetable, the more nutrients it contains; ruby grapefruit and red cabbage, for example, have loads more vitamin A than their white-colored versions.
In the grain department, your daughter should focus on whole grains whenever possible. Remind her that the further away her grain products get from the form they’re harvested in, the less stellar their nutrient profiles will be. For example, 100 grams each of whole-grain wheat flour and white enriched flour contain 14 grams and 10 grams of protein, respectively, and the whole-grain wheat flour has 12 grams of fiber compared with just 3 grams in the white flour. Whole-grain flour, then, is the better choice.
Help your daughter be successful by having a variety of foods available in the fridge and pantry that will meet her needs. Luckily, these foods belong in any well-balanced diet — carnivorous or not — and are likely part of your grocery list already.
Your family can easily — and harmoniously — co-exist at the table. Teens generally prefer meals that take little time and not much effort. Have your daughter try the following ideas, noting that almost all the examples include an ample source of protein:
Catherine Bennett Dunster is a registered dietitian and a former instructor at Oregon Health and Science University. She lives with her husband and two children in Portland, Oregon.
Please send your nutrition questions to Health+Food@culinate.com.
Want more? Comb the archives.
A father’s legacy
The vegetarian-cooking pioneer
Barbecue, tamales, cocktails, and more
Good on everything