Digging In to the ‘Healthiest Meal Ever’

Given MeYou Health’s focus on small actions for better well-being, I tend to shy away from the many superlatives out there, but this week when a British company named Leatherhead Food Research announced it had constructed the ‘healthiest meal ever,’ I just couldn’t resist.

According to media coverage, the company’s researchers started by identifying 4,000 health claims made about food products, and then narrowed that down to 222 claims that they say are grounded in science. From there they selected a handful of dishes that incorporate food items carrying the supported claims. An interesting methodology—starting from health claims—but not shocking since the firm behind it works in part with food industry companies to help them substantiate health claims.

Salmon plays a starring role on the plate in the 'healthiest meal ever.'

Without further ado, let’s unveil what’s on the menu for the ‘healthiest meal ever’— On the plate is a multigrain roll, salmon terrine (with fresh and smoked), mixed greens dressed with extra virgin olive oil, and chicken casserole with lentils and mixed vegetables. Dessert is a blancmange made with yogurt and topped with walnuts and an oxymoronic sugar-free caramel sauce. There you have it—bon appétit!

I certainly had to look up some of the terms, like blancmange, to understand what’s really on the plate. Zoom out for a moment and our healthiest meal seems to omit a few things, like fruit and any kind of beverage. These are the main factors putting it at odds with the U.S. government’s MyPlate eating guide. It’s also a no-go for vegetarians and folks who have a problem with gluten or dairy, at least without some modifications. Not to mention that it may not be in keeping with the cultural backgrounds of some, or simply not to the liking of others.

The announcement featured some information about nutrients in the food, but didn’t give much more detail, so I decided to investigate our pristine meal a little further. First, I assumed what I hope are reasonable sizes for the larger ingredients—2 oz. each for the salmon, chicken, lentils, vegetables, and yogurt, with smaller servings for the rest. That comes out to a meal that weighs about 13.5 oz and—based on estimates from Nutritiondata.com—has about 725 calories. Complete with dessert and a roll, this is probably a large size dinner for the average person.

The cost? Using Freshdirect.com to estimate only the ingredients that are specified, and not using any top-of-the-line items, I came up with a price tag of about $7.43 USD. Doesn’t sound so bad, but eat the healthiest meal ever three times a day, seven days a week, and that will rack up a weekly grocery bill of about $156 for one person. Of course, the team behind the meal wouldn’t expect people to eat this combination exclusively, even if it is the healthiest they can come up with. So then, why focus so much attention on a single meal? One obvious reason is to garner attention, and on that front they’ve succeeded.

Walnuts also make an appearance in our sample healthy meal.

As you can imagine, coverage this announcement drew a lot of reader comments, some of which noting that bacon and booze were not on the menu, and others pointing out that some of the menu is a tad difficult to make. But one recurring theme in the comments really stood out; several people said that next year (or maybe even next week) another group of scientists will announce a new ‘healthiest meal ever’ that looks nothing like this one.

Certainly a valid point, and a familiar one. On Well-Being Wire we often talk about the results of the latest study or insights from the research du jour. Sometimes the dietary advice is contradictory, even within the same story. Sorting out all the findings and pieces of advice is daunting. Fortunately, some aspects of better eating are pretty consistent, and they rely on a collection of small changes, rather than one big menu makeover.

Here are some of MeYou Health’s own ideas for making meal mini-modifications in the right direction—

  • use an online calorie calculator to determine what your daily food needs are
  • take a look at the serving sizes listed on food labels and see how your standard helping compares
  • find out which foods are currently in season locally and give them a second look
  • keep track of beverages consumed in a day and the sugar content in each
  • eat mindfully by focusing on the food and eliminating distractions like TV, phone, and computer
  • be social!—share those favorite ideas for delicious and nutritious meals with others and encourage them to do the same

These are just a few ideas to help move beyond the single healthiest meal ever and make every meal a little bit better.