Originally posted on Forbes.com.
The biggest food trends for 2016 appear to be completely at odds. We’ve all become obsessed with healthy eating, although none of us can agree on what that even is. (I am personally at odds—both impressed and aggravated—when someone launches into a plant-based-diet lecture.)
But we also have a passion for indulgent eating. Obesity numbers are still soaring in the United States, and even the most disciplined of us can easily fall down the rabbit hole after googling “most indulgent foods” or “most decadent meals.” Food & Wine even published a list of 11 foods to “inhale” before New Year’s resolutions kick in (three-queso dip, sticky toffee pudding eggnog and more), and BuzzFeed thrives on clickbaity lists like “The 8 Most Insanely Unhealthy Restaurant Meals in America.” And the turducken has given rise to the piecaken.
It would seem as though the two strains of thought (healthy and indulgent) would be stuck in a perpetual hornlock. Some 20 years ago—even if neither trend was quite as pronounced—they were pitched in battle, as my co-authors and I mentioned debit-and-credit diets in our book Next. Then a decade ago, the trendwatchers at What’s Next remarked that “on the one hand [consumers] are craving indulgence, but then they are repenting soon afterwards. The trend (also known as debit and credit eating or Jekyll and Hyde eating) sees people eating salad one minute and ice cream the next.”
Back then, it seemed as if we could drink a diet cola with our bacon cheeseburger and they would somehow cancel each other out—the calories and fat in the burger being clearly bad and the lack of calories in the soda being good (never mind what the chemicals in their place did to the body). One minus one equaled zero.
The new math around food is a lot more nuanced and subtle. Hardly anyone counts calories anymore, and numerous experts are telling us to embrace fat, and not just olive oil and nuts but also full-fat yogurt and milk. (At least for those of us who aren’t shunning dairy.) Nothing adds up the way we grew up thinking it did. There are hardly any food rules to follow—and exceptions to almost all of them. There are no absolutes.
That’s why “healthy indulgences” has become one of the biggest buzzwords in nutritional circles lately. Foods that many of us long thought were inherently bad, like eggs, coffee and even butter, turn out to be pretty good for you. Now it’s sugar—and plain white foods, like formerly innocuous bread—that’s public enemy No. 1. (The recently released federal guidelines on nutrition say as much, though like anything related to nutrition, and agricultural politics, they’ve brought their own controversy and conflicting opinions.)
Although nutritionists have long advised moderation—the thinking being that it’s better to allow yourself the occasional bite or two of chocolate brownie than to deny it completely and set yourself up for a binge on the whole pan—some are going to a new extreme. Cheat days are not a new idea, but an extreme manifestation has been bubbling up in recent years in the form of intermittent fasting, the idea that you can eat like an abstemious monk a portion of your day or week and a reckless hedonist the rest.
For those of us who don’t want to go to that extreme, plenty of other options for healthy indulgences exist, one meal at a time. A Google search for “healthy indulgences” turns up almost 60,000 results, starting with a website for sugar-free recipes. Look at the moment had by avocado toast, which consists of several things recently thought to be unhealthy and perpetually delicious: avocado (fat), bread (gluten and carbs), and often an egg (cholesterol) or cheese (dairy). When Bon Appétit worked up the guts to ask a nutritionist if it’s actually healthy, the verdict was yes, though you might want to limit the amount of avocado.
Also, a strain of thinking says that “good,” “bad,” “healthy” and “indulgent” vary from person to person. A recent Israeli study of “personalized nutrition” stirred up a bit of a media storm, drawing conclusions like the one that says foods that are good for most people, such as tomatoes, can be bad for others. So your indulgence might be my virtuous snack.
We all get to define what healthy means for ourselves, but there’s no doubt that healthy is a fast-growing niche across industries and marketing that incorporates all kinds of content around living well. It’s a lifestyle, not just a collection of test results.
One of the fastest-growing categories of the restaurant industry is fast casual—especially healthy fast casual. Consider dining on beautifully plated (or bowled, given another current trend) vegetables and quinoa at Flower Child, True Food Kitchen (both clients of my agency’s), Sweetgreen, Superiority Burger or Beefsteak, superstar chef José Andrés’ new entry into the category, in which Gwyneth Paltrow just invested. (And is there a better poster girl for healthy indulgences than Goopy Gwynnie, who seems to live on green juice and homegrown purity when she’s not eating her way through Italy with Mario Batali?)
Look for that category to grow, along with the category of partly prepared healthy foods that can be assembled and finished at home (what we used to call convenience foods, a term that smacks of Hamburger Helper now). The majority of us want to eat healthy, whatever that means for us, or whatever we think that means for us, the majority of the time. But we don’t want to cook 100 percent of our meals from scratch, or eat only in sanctimonious, hippie-dippie health food restaurants strewn with potted plants.
Now, thanks to the work of nutritionists, entrepreneurs and—not least—marketers, we’ve decided that pleasurable and good for us need not be mutually exclusive. That avocado toast or quinoa bowl or kale salad or vegan burger, when well prepared and served in a pretty place, perhaps along with a glass of organic wine, can feel indulgent, even decadent. The new math adds up to healthy hedonism.