Is it Time To Redefine “Healthy?”

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“Healthy” is a nearly ubiquitous word. But is there any consensus on what the term means when it is applied to food? One quick web search for “what is a healthy food” generates over 567,000,000 results. Needless to say, there is a lot of variation in the definitions of “healthy food” found on these pages.

Despite the various definitions, many of us have one thing in common: We’re thinking about “healthy” all wrong.

This year’s IFIC Foundation Food & Health Survey confirms that consumer definitions of “healthy food” run the gamut from very narrow to very broad. The most popular definition was that “healthy food” was low in certain components like sugar, fat and sodium. The second most popular definition was that “healthy food” was pretty general: “good for your body.”

It’s unfortunate that over one-third of Americans believe foods are “healthy” just because of what they don’t contain. As a dietitian and a perpetual optimist, I like to focus on the positive attributes of food. Food is fuel. Better yet, it’s delicious fuel. A food may be low in salt, sugar and/or fat, but it doesn’t mean that it has the nutrients your body needs to stay healthy. It’s the essential nutrients in our meals (like vitamins, minerals, protein, healthy unsaturated fats, whole grains, and enriched refined grains) that fuel our bodies. So shouldn’t those be what we use to define a food as “healthy?”

It has always been a struggle to create a definition of “healthy food.” If you go by the strict dictionary definition of healthy (as in “promoting health”), this means that no food is “healthy” in isolation. Now, all you kale fiends out there, take a second to hear me out. Kale is rich in healthy components like vitamins and fiber. But, because it has no protein or fat, you could not live on kale alone. Kale is not healthy in isolation. That’s why variety is such an important part of healthy eating patterns. All foods bring different nutrients to the mix.

It may also be dangerous, even unhealthy, to put too much stock in foods that are considered “healthy.” Some well-meaning healthy eaters develop full-blown obsession with only eating “healthy foods,” an unhealthy eating pattern known as orthorexia. Though this condition is rare, it is an unfortunate extension of our cultural obsession with defining the term “healthy.”

Health experts and prominent nutrition organizations are challenging us to think about healthy foods differently. Instead of focusing on “good/healthy” and “bad/unhealthy” foods individually, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends focusing on eating patterns that full of a variety of foods with healthy nutrients.

The It’s All About You! toolkit can also help you get started taking small steps towards healthier eating patterns.