Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Reader Replies: “Healthy” Defined! (As Best We Can)

Last week, we discussed defining the word “healthy” in relation to food, and decided it meant … oh, wait. We didn’t decide anything. As it turns out, a universally acceptable explanation of “healthy” is really hard to pin down.

But never fear, because it’s CHG readers to the rescue. Quite a few of you guys chimed in with your ideas on “healthy,” and there were a ton of solid points not mentioned in my post. Even better, we might have stumbled over a working definition. (It’s at the end.)

But first, in seven easy-to-follow categories, in near-original form, here are your thoughts.

(Note: there were some minor edits made for length, but otherwise, reader comments were left largely untouched.)


Anonymous: Healthy = moderation. In all things. Including moderation.

Wosnes: Someone else said it: moderation in all things, including moderation. There are definitely times to be immoderate. Not every day, but some days.

Wheatlessfool: It all comes down to balance and payoff for me … sometimes, that fudgy brownie IS healthy. Just not every day, and not replacing the foods I DO need to keep me feeling my best.

jenniferocious!: There has to be balance in life and while I strive to eat a majority of my meals from recipes and foods I would qualify as healthy, I also know its okay to indulge in a bowl of mac'n'cheese or having a frou frou coffee drinks once in awhile.

Debbie: I love my mama’s homemade mac & cheese, fried pork chops and green bean casserole. … If I ate it every day, I’d die in approximately 4.2 months, because … it’s high in fat, calories. BUT. If I only eat it once or twice a year – say, for my birthday – then it’s not bad at all. It’s an indulgence.

"Healthy" is LONGTERM

Kristen@TheFrugalGirl: It's important to look at the overall diet instead of trying to make sure every. single. thing. you eat is bursting with nutrition. I eat a lot of whole grains, fresh produce, and fresh dairy, and so I don't think a little dessert every day is going to kill me.

Joy Manning: When we are assessing the relative health of our diets, we should look at a whole week or month or year of meals and consider the variety of nutrition it provides, but also the pleasure. Getting pleasure from meals is, by my definition, part of a healthy diet. Whole ingredients + time and effort cooking + a wide variety of delicious real food = healthy over time.


Rebecca: By [the] strict definition, things like macaroni and cheese may not be "healthy", but they do qualify as "healthier" than typical versions of the same dish. And besides, who wants to be perfectly virtuous all the time?

Allison: I'm always interested in making unhealthy dishes healthy or even a little healthier. For example, I substitute pureed potato for cream and butter in any "cream of" soup, swap applesauce, mashed bananas, and avocados for milk and butter in baked goods, etc. Recently, I experimented with baked green tomatoes - still not exactly "health food," but at least a healthier version of a caloric - but oh-so-yummy! - treat.


Relishments: For me, healthy food is food that's has a low or reasonable amount of sugars and fats. It's not overly processed-ideally it's something I made, not something that came out of a box.

Kristen@TheFrugalGirl: I generally think that healthy food is food that's fairly unprocessed (real yogurt vs. watermelon Gogurt, homemade granola vs. Cocoa Puffs, fresh green beans vs. the canned sort, etc).

Daniel: I use a really simple shorthand to define healthy. If it's a first-order food with little processing, it's healthy enough. If it's a second-order food, meaning a food that's packaged and processed, it's unlikely to be healthy.

April: I think fake food is a much bigger health issue than fat. Skim milk may be lower in fat than whole milk, but it is a fake food--it certainly doesn't come out of the cow that way! … One could argue that God (or evolution, if that's what you believe in) knew what He/it was doing, and doesn't need to really be improved on.

Healthy is ACTUAL FOOD

Regina Terrae: For me, healthy food is produce-focused, like you said; fresh and seasonal and varied; uses naturally-raised meat as a condiment or at least in smallish portions; simple, unprocessed, whole.

Libby: For me, healthy means that the meal contains whole grains, beans and/or nuts, lots of veggies, and no meat or dairy. its also important to me that the meal is high in fiber and has little to no saturated fat (poly and mono are fine).

Allison: I have my own definition of healthy largely based on my own health goals: lots of healthy fats, calcium, garlic, leafy greens, berries, and protein - for … maintaining good heart, skin, bone, and muscle condition.

Wosnes: My own mantra is "mostly homemade." I aim for the opposite of Sandra Lee: 70% (or more) fresh food and 30% (or less) ready made products. I think I'm at about 85/15, including condiments.

Becca: Healthy to me is whole foods or just one step away (for example, I use frozen veggies when fresh aren't in season). … That being said, I am currently providing child care for a two year old and my 6 month old, so sometimes mac and cheese from the box keeps me sane.

"Healthy" is RELATIVE

Ross: Whether a person is overweight or underweight has food allergies or medical, religious, or ethical issues the definition is vastly different. … When I was a kid in my early 20's, eating healthily meant eating a piece of fruit or a salad once a month. Now it means watching how many calories I'm taking in a day, limiting my fat intake and the like. So, even as a person progresses through life their perceptions of eating healthy change.

"Healthy" is HOLISTIC

Marcia: Healthy isn't just the contents of an individual dish. It's also the content of your diet and lifestyle.

Regina Terrae: For me, healthy diet cannot be looked at in isolation from healthy lifestyle, i.e. getting the body moving every day.

Laura: “Healthy" is so much more than what you put in your mouth. It's a whole mental/emotional state. I try to eat things that are good for me. I also eat things that are happy for me. I find I'm much healthier and happier overall that way.

AmandaLP: "Healthy" is something that nourishes my mind and my body. I don’t care if what I am eating has tons of fiber and no sugar and lots of protein, if I hate eating it, then it is not healthy for me.

So, to sum, “healthy” (in relation to food) involves: a holistic, relative approach to eating implemented over the long term that emphasizes balance and moderation, smart substitutes, and unprocessed edibles/actual food.

I don’t know about you guys, but that sounds good to me. Huge thanks to everyone who wrote in. Y'all are pretty good at this.

(Photos courtesy of Daily Mobile, Taylorshock's Weblog, and How Stuff Works.)

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Amy B said...

I think what is missing from these definitions, is a knowledge of what actually happens inside our bodies when we ingest food.

We are too blind to the micro-processes that go on in our own bodies, we are science illiterate.

You can make up as many rules and maxims as we want, "its OK to eat macaroni and cheese if you like it" but,if, in fact, it shortens your life every time you eat certain foods, than,no they are not "healthy."I don't know if it shortens your life, but the point is,you can't just not make it so by proclamation. we really (and by we, I mean I, need to understand the science of eating before we make up these definitions of "what is healthy".)

Beth said...

Aside from something poisonous, I don't really understand how eating one certain food, in one instance, will shorten your life. That sounds a bit ridiculous, honestly. It's not as if there is some sort on direct translation or scale from food to years of life..."'Oops, I am one gram of saturated fat over my daily intake! That is minus five minutes from my total lifespan, darn!' 'Shoot, too much sodium in that soup! I better change my reservation at the hospital for that stroke I was gonna have in thirty years!'"

Food is food. "Healthy" depends on the context in which it was eaten. For example: a Snicker's bar vs. a bowl of spinach. The spinach is obviously healthier, right? Not necessarily- for somewhat who hasn't eaten in two weeks, or for someone who is about to run a 30-mile marathon with only that choice for breakfast, they need some freaking calories. Obviously, this is an extreme example, and certainly not applicable in most circumstances. But the same logic can be applied in everyday life. Generally, moderation in all areas and a variety in one's diet will lead to a healthier person.