THE REAL DEFINITION OF ‘HEALTHY EATING’

As ‘healthy eating’ becomes another generalized label, it’s important to remember its definition is different for each individual.


BY: LINDSEY JANEIRO, RDN, CLC

The concept of healthy eating sounds enticing. In a way, it kind of feels like a box you can check off every day on your “living well and rocking a responsible adult life” checklist. But “healthy” in the context of food has just become another label and another way to classify food as good versus bad.

So, what does healthy even mean?

Merriam-Webster defines healthy as:

  • Free from disease or pain: enjoying health and vigor of body, mind, or spirit (like healthy children or tips for staying healthy)
  • Showing physical, mental, or emotional well-being: evincing health (like a healthy complexion or a healthy appetite)
  • Beneficial to one’s physical, mental, or emotional state: conducive to health (healthy foods or a healthy lifestyle)
  1. prosperous, flourishing (like a healthy economy)
  2. not small or feeble: considerable (a healthy sum of money)

This definition is all well and good.  Gosh, it’s almost even inspiring. But it actually places the fact that “healthy” in the context of food is just another label putting external pressure on each individual’s food choices. You really can’t say a food is healthy because it promotes absence of disease or pain, because who’s to say if it will or won’t?

All of our bodies respond to food differently.

Sure, some foods have health-enhancing properties but it is completely up to each individual’s body if a food will promote health for them or not.

Take salt, for example. We were told for decades that salt isn’t good for us. Yet now we know there are dangers for sodium consumption that is either too high or too low.  Reducing salt intake is often go-to advice for hypertension patients, but unless an individual has salt-sensitive hypertension, they may not always see a dramatic difference in blood pressure reduction.

The same can be said for consuming gluten-containing foods. If you have celiac disease, eliminating gluten from your diet will be hugely beneficial for your health and wellbeing. But if you’re looking to just drop a few pounds or avoid gluten because you think it’s “healthier”, there may not be much point. If you don’t have celiac disease or a medical reason to avoid gluten, a slice of whole wheat or sprouted whole grain bread will usually contain more fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals (and flavor!) than a slice of gluten-free bread.

And of course, what about those with food allergies? Walnuts are a food that contain many health-enhancing properties. They’re an excellent source of anti-inflammatory Omega-3 essential fatty acids and are full of antioxidants. Sounds great, right? Everyone should eat more walnuts! Except for the fact that while they’re “healthy”, they may not actually be “healthy” for everyone. As healthy as they may be, someone who is severely allergic to walnuts won’t go near them with a ten foot pole.

They’re not so healthy when they can literally kill you.

Just looking at a nutrition label won’t tell you if a food will enhance your personal picture of total health. Despite the many differing expert opinions about healthy eating and food that exist, no one will argue against the necessity of water for human survival. Yet even something that is essential for life can still cause death if consumed in incredibly excessive amounts.

As a society, the notion of individualized nutrition is becoming more acceptable, which is fantastic. Yet despite embracing this mindset and despite acknowledging the varying degrees of healthy eating for different individuals, we’re still missing one major concept.

Health and food are not just about physical health.

It’s easy to say, “of course a bowl of fruit is healthier than a bowl of ice cream,” but that’s one-dimensional thinking. Sometimes the healthiest thing you can do is to choose the ice cream over the fruit and completely enjoy it. The fact that our taste buds can bring us pleasure is almost seen as a downfall in some health circles, but why? Why can’t pleasure and enjoyment be healthy, for physical, mental, and emotional health?

Beyond denying ourselves enjoyment from food and flavors, there are other potential concerns that can impact your mental health when you’re always trying to make the “healthiest” choice. Any unnecessary guilt or other negative associations with food can lead to unnecessary stress that can be linked to long-term health issues down the road. On the opposite side of the spectrum, if you choose fruit when you truly want ice cream, you may end up less satisfied.

Satisfaction plays a big role in your mental and emotional health, too.

All of this was not meant to leave you feeling as if the pursuit of health or “healthy eating” is a fruitless endeavor. After all, your health is individualized to you and your needs. The point is to show you that all foods can be conducive to health, even foods that you typically don’t associate with healthy eating.

It’s about looking at food like puzzle pieces, and understanding how foods fit in your life because they make you feel good, both physically and emotionally, and taste good. It’s an ebb and flow of mindfully listening to your body without feelings of deprivation. Healthy eating goes beyond a nutrition label:

It fuels you to live your best life physically, mentally, and emotionally.


Lindsey Janeiro RDN, CLC is a Registered Dietitian and Lactation Counselor based in Sarasota, FL focused on helping busy moms live stress-free in the kitchen. She inspires moms with the confidence and encouragement they need to create simple, affordable family meals that nourishes everyone’s health and happiness. Learn more about Lindsey at Nutrition to Fit.

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