Wellness Refocused Education

Wellness Refocused Education: Defining healthy and Comparing Recipes

Reading Time: 6 minutes

I know this is going to sound odd to a lot of you, and I’m willing to make this conversation weird and uncomfortable to get you see a different perspective.

I’ve talked about breaking recipes into parts before judging the meal completely on Instagram and in other blog posts here and there, but since the holidays are around the corner, I think it’s important to drive it home.

Lately, I’ve seen a lot of people, including dietitians, posting about how to make the holidays healthier by modifying traditional recipes, in some cases to extremes.

When I read these posts, it sounds like they’re suggesting that one meal or one day will make that much of an impact on a person’s over all health.

I know for many one day becomes two, which may turn into a week and the holidays can turn into a month-long battle. But suggesting modifications doesn’t help get to the root of the problem or help anyone work through it. Over-modification or extreme modification is also disordered eating and it doesn’t teach us about how to have a better relationship with food and ourselves.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with recipe modification – I’ve done this here on this site. But I’ve also talked about the purpose of the modification and the implication of extreme modification.

Are you modifying the recipe because you truly like the healthier alternative? Or, are you modifying it because you believe it’s saving you calories, has a better nutritional profile or keeps you more “on track”? Is it motivated by fear?

I posted about resetting your expectations of your health goals and this post is an extension of that. In February, I wrote a post breaking down French toast, dissecting recipes is one of my favorite ways to undo myths about how healthy food is or isn’t.

In that post, I talked about a specific interaction with a client.

I still have moments when I take a step back and think about my food choices – is this something I really want to eat, how will I feel when I eat this (physical and emotionally), does this support me? I don’t always actively ask these questions – it’s not a conversation I feel I need to have out loud, but it is something I ask clients to consider when we’re getting started because our view of what healthy is or should be is distorted because of what we’ve been taught our whole lives.

Reiterating that food does a lot for us – it’s not just fuel for daily activity or emotional support when mourning or celebrating – food can be and should be fun. It shouldn’t be feared. If it is, then there’s some work that needs to be done to examine that relationship dynamic.

We get concerned about if food is good or bad. Sometimes we feel as though it can’t satisfy multiple needs like comfort and fuel, but why does it have to be one or the other? Why not both?

Aside from eating a stick of butter, which I don’t recommend, I don’t think there are a lot of inherently unhealthy foods if you are a generally healthy person i.e. no chronic health issues. I do think much of the misdirected or poorly explained concern is about the whole – not the parts. If you go to breakfast do you only order eggs like you would make at home? Probably not. You’d add toast with butter, hash browns or home fries, maybe bacon or sausage? Coffee and juice are a must, probably a glass of water while you wait. The quantity is already more than you would make yourself and preparation is probably different.

Eating all of this isn’t an issue – I’d actually encourage you to order what you want, what you like and what makes you feel good. I’d also ask you to pay attention to how you feel and if you feel like you want to or need to eat everything right there, or if you can bring some home.

This one meal out – not a problem, doing it every day – yeah, it’s going to add up. It could lead to issues if there are other lifestyle behaviors at play too.

So back to French toast, is this healthy? What makes you think it’s unhealthy? I’d definitely check out the post – I think it’ll help some of you make connections.

But changing up that conversation – what about if you compare recipes?

I’ve seen a lot about how to make the holidays healthier by manipulating and changing out ingredients.

First – go for it. You do you. If I had rules, that’s a big one – eat foods you like and don’t guilt yourself about it.

But second, why do you feel like you need to change it up. Also, back to defining healthy – how do these changes inherently make something healthier? What lens are you using to examine and define?

Banana bread is a great example for this.

I had this talk with a client in March. A big goal for her as she was transitioning off of keto was to feel more comfortable with baking again.

When we talk about what makes something healthy, I think context is important. First, banana bread is tasty and is a soul food (at least for me) so for mental health, there’s nothing wrong with this.

Here’s the traditional recipe that I use when I don’t make my protein banana bread. Here’s the one she considered healtheier.

Getting into the ingredients:

Both of these recipes have eggs, bananas and a rising agent as well as spices. So we won’t even talk about those components.

When we think of flour and health, yes, whole grains are considered healthier because of the nutrients provided over white flours. Grains have B vitamins and folate along with other minerals that are important for cell growth.  Something to understand is that many white flours have been stripped of a lot of nutrients during milling and processing, however, many foods are also fortified and enriched, which adds these nutrients back in – you’ll see this in bread.

Here’s a comparison of the flours used in each recipe.

  White Flour
( ¼ cup)
Whole Wheat Flour
( ¼ cup)
Calories 110 100
Fat (grams) 0 .5
Carbohydrates (grams) 23 20
Protein (grams) 4 4
Fiber(grams) 1 4
Sugar (grams) 0 0
Calcium (mg) 0 0
Iron (mg) 1.44 1.08
Sodium (mg) 0 0
Thiamin .3 0
Riboflavin .136 .034
Niacin 1.6 1.6
Folate 40 16

The most noticeable differences here are the fiber – whole wheat has 3g more than white flour. The vitamin differences are also noticeable. Like I mentioned, foods will be fortified with vitamins and minerals to help increase their consumption because many people don’t get enough. This is really common with cereals too, not just bread. When you select each link you will see the ingredients list for each item and notice that the added vitamins is in the ingredient list for the white flour. Does this mean isn’t better? Not necessarily, but it also doesn’t mean it’s necessarily worse either.

The fat sources in both recipes – other than eggs are different. One being an animal source (butter or margarine) and one being plant-based (coconut oil).

Butter, dairy – without salt (1T) Coconut oil (1T)
Calories 102 121
Fat (grams) 11.52 13.47
Saturated Fat (grams) 7.169 11.217
MonoUnsaturated Fat (grams) 3.327 .861
PolyUnsaturated Fat (grams) .427 .231
Carbohydrates (grams) .01 0
Protein (grams) .12 0
Fiber(grams) 0 0
Sugar (grams) 0 0
Calcium (mg) 3 0
Iron (mg) 0 0
Sodium (mg) 2 0
Magnesium (mg) 0 0
Phosphorus (mg) 3 0
Potassium (mg) 3 0
B-12 (micrograms) .02 0
A, RAE (micrograms) 97 0
A, IU 355 0
E (micrograms) .33 0
K (micrograms) 1.0 0

The concern around fats is whether it’s saturated or unsaturated, this thinking may actually be a little outdated. Saturated fats solidify and historically were known for increasing bad cholesterol as well as leading to heart disease. More recently, research is showing there may be an association of saturated fats with heart disease, but that we need to look at total diet – sodium intake, carbohydrates as a whole, excess calories, excess added sugars. It’s still new research, so monitoring saturated fat intake is still helpful, but when you compare these two you can see there are some benefits to dairy butter over coconut oil.

That being said, if you enjoy coconut oil – use it. I use it in some recipes and I use butter in others, I also use olive oil and vegetable oil depending on its purpose.

Be aware of hype language like superfood – that is not a nutritional term. It’s an allowable marketing term.

Calorically, the traditional recipe had less calories and fat than the “healthy” recipe, however, both are delicious and have different purposes.

So, consider this – not just for this holiday season, but all year round – set your definitions, really read labels and recipes and give yourself a chance to have some experiences. Set boundaries with yourself and ask the messy questions.

If you have struggled with your relationship with food before, ask our where does this come from and how can I problem solve instead of masking of ignoring it.