My dietary philosophy is best described as a balancing act between competing desires.
At one end of the spectrum lies the noble pursuit of longevity — the urge to stay healthy and able-bodied for as long as possible. Rooted in a recognition of life’s brief and fleeting nature, it reflects my intentional approach to extracting as much value as possible from my short time on this mortal sphere.
Then, there’s the other end of the spectrum, where high-minded virtues take a back seat to the arguably baser instincts of the human experience. At this pole, my decisions are influenced by an unabashed vanity wherein the body’s aesthetics are valued above all else.
Somewhere in the vast and unknowable ether that separates these two extremes, you’ll find me endlessly searching for the optimal way to achieve both ends simultaneously, and it goes without saying that meal planning plays a pivotal role in this Sisyphean task.
Contrary to popular belief, the diets that best promote health and aesthetics are not one and the same. Sure, the basics are similar (avoid processed foods, don’t overeat, be careful about sugar intake), and pursuing one will usually net you some measure of the other (obesity and good health rarely go hand-in-hand). But one need not venture too far down the informational rabbit hole of either pursuit to discover that the most effective versions of each plan are actually quite different, and often at odds with one another.
Professional bodybuilders, for example, are known to make a number of dietary decisions that improve their muscularity despite deleterious consequences for their health. Similarly, it is possible to be entirely healthy — and indeed, even athletic — without possessing the ultra-chiseled appearance so coveted by those of us inclined to pursue it.
As someone trying to achieve both, it’s critical that my diet plan centers around nutrient-dense, low calorie foods, meaning I eat lean proteins and low-carbohydrate vegetables almost exclusively. In practical terms, that means I’ve probably consumed hundreds if not thousands of pounds of spinach and kale in the past quarter century.
This is not to say that my diet has been without diversity, but until recently, my idea of alternative leafy greens was limited to what’s available at a typical high-end grocer — options like Swiss chard and bok choy, which are only “exotic” if you’ve never perused a Baker Creek catalog.
When I revealed my inexperience to our farm manager, Joshua Andersen, he made it his mission to educate me on the many varieties of greens I was missing out on, and why I should care about them. That’s how he wound up in my kitchen one afternoon, explaining the ins and outs of alternative greens while sauteing some of them over my stove.
“We don’t live in a situation where you can have kale all year round. I don’t know anyone who lives in a situation where you can get kale year round. So the concept of eating kale year round is somewhat unethical,” he said. “All of those greens aren’t necessarily coming from somewhere close like your house, so there’s food miles associated with them. That essentially makes them an unsustainable source of greens.”
If you’re like me, you probably haven’t spent much time pondering the social consequences of your eating habits, so this consideration may come as something of a surprise. That was certainly the case for me: Even though I care deeply about the wellbeing of the planet, my narrow focus on nutrition had been blinding me to a simple way I could have been reducing my own carbon footprint.
Is this small personal change going to save the world? Probably not, but it is something I can control that, at the very least, avoids contributing to the problem.
Altruism aside, Josh went on to point out the personal benefits of expanding one’s leafy green horizons.
“Flavor-wise, spinach is super boring to me,” he said. “I like strong, ‘kick you in the face’ flavors.”
With that in mind, he had selected three alternative leafy greens — callaloo, moringa and Ethiopian kale — which, sauteed together in olive oil, had a nutty, spicy flavor on my untrained tastebuds.
Of course, for me, the central question was how the nutrition of the meal would compare to a giant pile of spinach and kale.
The mix didn’t disappoint: All three offer the usual mix of fiber and polyphenols, Callaloo has significant iron content and moringa is “one of the most nutrient dense foods on the planet,” Josh said.
Additionally, Ethiopian kale is low in oxalic acid, a compound found in most leafy greens which causes health problems for some people.
All in all, the experience was a pleasant one, and something I’ll look to repeat as I continue to immerse myself in the world of sustainable, holistic living. Josh has assured me the greens are easy to grow, and since he’ll be incorporating them into our program at the Johnny Appleseed Organic Village, it looks like I’ll have ample opportunities to find out for myself.
Know a thing or two about unusual leafy greens? Want to share your story? We’d love to continue the conversation.