There are many, many ideas out there about what it means to "eat healthy." It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole and end up totally confounded — believe me, I know from personal experience!
These days, food and I have a much less fraught relationship. While no foods are off-limits, I have a clear sense of what I consider healthy and aim for that. I also support sustainable and ethical agribusiness practices when time and budget permit. Below are five of the books that have helped me figure out my own personal definition of healthy eating.
What to Eat by Marion Nestle
Healthy eating starts with where you spend your food dollars, and having a sensible and well-informed guide can be a great comfort. Marion Nestle is just that — a nutrition professor at NYU, she’s got serious cred (a Ph.D. in molecular biology and an M.P.H. in public health nutrition, for starters) to back up her recommendations in What To Eat.
Divided into different sections based on the layout of a typical grocery store, this book helps you out when you’re faced with, say, a refrigerator case holding ten differently-labeled brands of eggs. Or a seafood counter stocked with everything from local, line-caught rockfish to Chilean sea bass. Or a produce section with identical-looking organic and conventional varieties of produce. For the impatient reader, the most salient points in each chapter are highlighted for an easy skim.
The VB6 Cookbook by Mark Bittman
Mark Bittman has been writing about cooking, diets, food systems and politics for The New York Times for the better part of the last two decades. He’s also the author of over a dozen books, three of which have won prestigious awards from the food writing community. To boot, our very own recipe editor Emma is a big fan of his VB6 diet — check out her review of the diet here.
If you’re new to cooking in general, Bittman’s How To Cook Everything is a great place to start. For his health-minded, mostly vegetable-driven recipes, though, go straight to The VB6 Cookbook. It’s full of hearty vegan recipes that will please meat eaters, too (hello, Eggplant Meatballs), and the recipes that do include meat usually contain just three to four ounces per serving. Even a budget-minded shopper can buy sustainably-produced products when they’re used in smaller amounts and eaten just for dinner.
The Tassajara Recipe Book by Edward Espe Brown
Based on the food served at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in Carmel Valley, The Tassajara Recipe Book is a collection of Edward Espe Brown’s Zen poetry and recipes. Just like the poems, Brown’s recipes are accessible, not too high-minded, and easy to follow. Most importantly, they produce delicious, wholesome food that just happens to be vegetarian.
Of all the recipes in here, I keep coming back to the vegetable side dishes. Green Beans with Sesame Paste and Garlic are such a good change-up when you’ve grown up on basic, steamed beans, tossed with butter and maybe a spritz of lemon juice. I also love the Sweet and Sour Cabbage Soup, a Russian-inflected bowlful of vegetables and broth.
Leon Soups, Salads and Snacks by Leon Restaurants
While vacationing in London a couple summers ago, I was happy to find plenty of reasonably-priced restaurant options for healthy lunches. My favorite of these was LEON, a chain with tons of produce-driven salads, curries, and wraps. Their Original Superfood Salad gave me just the pick-me-up needed between sight-seeing destinations and trips on the tube.
The LEON cookbooks contain breezy, fast recipes that are all made from whole food ingredients. My favorite of their four mini-cookbooks is Soups, Salads, and Snacks, which contains a riff on my beloved Superfood Salad, including the dressing recipe I couldn’t put my finger on (it’s got just four ingredients: tamari, rice vinegar, lemon juice, and olive oil). I flip through these cookbooks when I’m looking for inspiration for a quick but healthy meal.
Food Rules: An Eater's Manual by Michael Pollan
“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
How many times have you heard someone intone this mantra in the last few years? When it comes to healthy eating, Michael Pollan is one of the sanest voices out there. He also happens to be a thorough journalist and an engaging writer, so his books are not only informative, they make for enjoyable non-fiction reading.
While all of Pollan’s food-related books are worthy reads, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual is the most concise of the bunch. Having laid the long-winded groundwork for his philosophy in previous books, this one is all about putting good shopping and eating habits into practice. Sixty-four aphorisms and their accompanying short explanations make up the entirety of the book — you can easily absorb the whole thing in an afternoon.
Further Reading for Understanding Healthy Eating!
- Marion Nestle updates her blog, Food Politics, with admirable frequency. Any time I hear about some new nutrition study, I check in to see what she has to say about it.
- If you want a great primer on what it means to be a conscientious eater, The Omnivore's Dilemma is a great place to start.
- Have you found yourself in a fast food rut, or found yourself resorting to take-out meals more often than not? Read Fast Food Nation and scare yourself right back into the kitchen.
The Flavor Bible often helps me put together balanced meals. Seeing which flavors pair well with my favorite fruits and vegetables sends my mind on a creative journey, and before long I'm inspired to search for a recipe or make up one of my own.
What books have helped you on a journey to healthy eating?
(Image credits: Coco Morante; macmillan publishers; Forever Young.MD)