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The choices — healthy, healthier, healthiest

If I were to die and go to food heaven, it would be a blissful eternity of apple pie in a never-ending harvest season.

Growing up in the early ’50s in a small village in the central highland of Malaysia, my sisters and I spent our growing years eating baskets of bananas (in eight different varieties). We munched mangoes (again in varieties too numerous to remember) until our tummies were sore and ate pineapples until our mouths were full of cankers.

Back then, we didn’t know or care that butter was full of saturated fats or that mangoes, bananas and pineapples were high in healthy antioxidants. We loved these foods simply because they tasted good. And our mother liked them because they were plentiful and cheap.

Not the butter, though. That’s a whole different story. My dad owned and operated a small grocery store that included imports from Australia, New Zealand and England to feed the “white men” that worked the gold mine. We received shipments of butter in crates and although forbidden to dip into these expensive luxuries, we would occasionally spirit a pound or two away to our bedroom to eat as if it was the most delicious, exotic luxury on earth. Bad for the heart? Ignorance is bliss.

Today, I still crave fresh fruit over Girl Scout cookies — I’ll admit I am a sucker for all of it. I put apples in my tuna salad and never saw a blueberry I didn’t want to drop onto anything edible.

Eating healthily? I try. Our meat is organic. Most of our greens, at least during the local growing season, are organic. Our fruits are a lot of both — unadulterated and adulterated with pesticides.

The choices — healthy, healthier, and healthiest — can be dizzying. But I am tame compared with most of my younger friends, the majority of whom take healthy eating all the more seriously now that they have children.

Increasingly, some parents are using the “precautionary principle” — a tendency to make healthy food the default whenever possible. Nico, my 6-year-old buddy, has his mom read food labels for nitrate content. Nico is also anti animal protein. I received “the look” from him when I was caught red-handed slicing a slab of elk back strap. You’d think I’d just slaughtered the family pet. Oh well, I’ve since tried harder to be more discreet when Nazi Nico is around.

But when does precautionary become downright obsessive. These days, the culture obsesses over pesticides and nitrates the way women feared kitchen bacteria back in the fifties. Even the laid-back moms I know want to keep their children’s diets “clean,” as they say in health-food parlance. One girlfriend, who allows her rambunctious 2-year-old to launch himself headlong into mud puddles (“A little dirt never killed anyone”) says he has never — as far as she knows — ingested food containing dyes, nitrates or trans fats. Let them eat dirt … as long as it’s organic.

As a soon-to-be grandmother (and health-food nut), I am reluctant to judge my food-focused friends. But an increasing number of doctors, dietitians and eating disorder specialists are worried that parents are becoming hyper-vigilant in their efforts to keep their children’s diets pure and that this, in turn, could create an unhealthy relationship with food down the road. Let’s not take the public health message to an extreme.

While I fully sympathize with the urge to bring up a healthy child (I made baby food from scratch), extreme efforts to restrict a child’s diet can actually backfire. When my son was young, my husband and I tried to keep sodas out of his little life. I believe that by making certain foods off limits, it actually increased his desire for it. I’m sorry, son. Is that why you still drink diet coke?

I guess, in a way, it comes down to moderation (and to a degree, what is socially acceptable). I don’t want my grandson to be one of those wee tykes that takes a special snack to other kids’ birthday parties. Food is supposed to be about pleasure — where’s the enjoyment in that?