What does the word healthy actually mean?
Posted July 31
The term "healthy" in the nutrition world has, in many cases, come to be a euphemism for morality with food. You're "good" if you eat vegetables and you're "bad" if you eat cake.
The word healthy is also used as a way to describe and categorize bodies. Your body is considered healthy if it looks a certain way and unhealthy if it doesn't fit neatly into certain categories. The word healthy has been oversimplified and misused by media and so-called health gurus, and the word is practically meaningless to us now. No wonder we're confused about what the word healthy actually means.
People should reclaim this word and use it in the way it's intended: the word simply means promoting good health.
When you think of it that way, it's easy to see how broad the definition of the word health really is. There are infinite things in life that are health-promoting: a walk on a summer night after a long work day to unwind, sipping hot chocolate while watching your loved ones open gifts during the holidays and even roasting marshmallows over an open fire while camping with your family. When we think of the word healthy for what it truly is, it's easy to see how reducing it down to good and bad, right and wrong with specific foods is doing a serious injustice to the word. There's so much more to it.
There is no one food that promotes health. Consistently providing your body with a wide variety of foods in balance with each other is when a person can enjoy a health-promoting way of eating.
Healthy means so much more than just what we put in our mouth — it also encompasses what we allow to dwell in our minds and how we engage in our own self-care. For that reason, sometimes eating foods that others may deem unhealthy might just be the healthiest choice you can make in that moment; because maybe enjoying that food in that moment is a chance to connect with someone you love or enjoy a pleasurable eating experience. Connection and pleasure have a time and place with eating and can enhance our health when those values are in balance with other values around food such as balance.
The word healthy is not the way your body looks or the size of your jeans. Healthy is not avoiding certain foods and only eating foods deemed "good". Healthy is not obsession and rigid food rules in the name of obtaining a certain body size.
Healthy is keeping all areas of wellness and life in mind as you navigate your self-care and time spent on important tasks. Being healthy means you carve out time and energy to find hobbies, people and work that fulfills you, uplifts you and enhances your ability to be the best person you can be. Being healthy includes a balanced way of eating, but there's more to promoting good health than food alone.
There is so much more to health than pursuing perfect nutrition (side note: it doesn't exist). Getting caught up in nutrition and eating as the end-all, be-all of health is a seriously short-sighted way to view such an important and encompassing concept.
We do ourselves a serious disservice to boil down the definition or criteria for health to food alone. Sure, our choices about what we eat over time can positively or negatively affect our health. But, just like it's pretty laughable to call ourselves healthy for eating a cucumber one day, it's also pretty laughable to call ourselves unhealthy for eating some cake one day, too.
Resist the urge to oversimplify health. Allow it to be the messy and complex concept it is and take your time to discover what it looks like for you. Find ways to balance the things in life that make you feel whole and well, and notice how much easier the facet of health called nutrition and eating becomes when life is in balance in all areas of health that enhance your well-being.
Paige is a registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in helping people heal their relationship with food. She hosts Nutrition Matters Podcast and has a private nutrition consulting business based in Salt Lake City.