What Does ‘Healthy’ Really Mean?



“Healthy” is a word that gets used (and overused) on recipes, food packaging, and in marketing. It’s also a word that many of us strive for but what does healthy really mean? And how is our belief about what “healthy” really means impacting our relationships with food and how we feed our kids? We’re diving into all of that today.


What does “Healthy” Mean?

You may be surprised to learn that this is the USDA definition of “healthy” when it appears on food packaging:

…that individual meat and poultry products bearing the claim “healthy” (or any other derivative of the term “health”) must contain no more than 480 milligrams (mg) of sodium; and that meal-type products bearing the claim “healthy” (or any other derivative of the term “health”) must contain no more than 600 mg of sodium.

Which means: When you see the word “healthy” on meat, poultry, or meal-type products, it is referring to the level of sodium. That’s it.

And I am quite sure that this is not at all what any of us think when we see that term, which shows you just how misconstrued it really is.

“Being healthy is not about what you do, it’s about how you feel about what you do,” says MaryAnn Jacobsen, RD. I love that quote because it really puts the term into perspective.

How the WHO Defines Health

For a broader view of the term, this is how the World Health Organization defines “health”:

Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.

Which gets much closer to how I’d like more of us to use the word, because we all too often consider health to be just what we eat, but it’s really so much more than that.

What “Healthy” Means to Me

Over the past year, I’ve tried to step back from using the word when I’m talking about my recipes since, as I mention above, it doesn’t really mean anything. Or it doesn’t mean the same thing to each person. It’s a little tricky for me as a food blogger, though, because people use the term “healthy” when they’re searching for specific types of recipes—and my business hinges on people finding my work.

Which means that you will sometimes see me call a recipe “Healthy Oatmeal Cookies”. This is not a perfect system, but I have been and will continue to remove the word where I can and will use more specific words to explain what I really mean—such as added-sugar-free or whole grain or full of healthy fats.

In my real life, I don’t use the word when talking about foods with my kids or with myself. I aim to call food by the name of the food and then describe the color, flavor, and texture. My kids, of course, do hear the word out in the world, but when my 4 year old asks me if her muffin is “healthy”, I respond with something like “That’s a blueberry muffin that we made with fresh berries—do they taste sweet to you?—and flour. Do you remember what else we added?” Or something similar.

Kids don’t understand all of the various ways that adults (and food packaging) uses the word “healthy” and so I honestly think we can skip it.

I also think we should skip trying to convince kids to eat certain foods with phrases like “carrots make your eyes see better”, “iron makes you strong” because while, yes, certain foods do work in our bodies in certain ways, these are not 100% true statements. Kids are very literal and need to trust us when we talk about food and those phrases are so easy to poke holes in. (Carrots won’t help my middle kiddo see better without her glasses.)

How to Help Kids Like Nutritious Foods

So since I’m pointing out that words aren’t always the best way  well kids on eating the foods we want them to, here are some other ways to help:

  • Serve them often so they’re familiar.
  • Make them easy to eat by cutting and cooking them in age-appropriate ways.
  • Modeling enjoyment of the foods by eating them with our kids.
  • Making sure they taste really good.
  • Use a feeding approach such as the Division of Responsibility and avoid pressuring kids to eat certain foods in certain amounts.

Because when we’re able to enjoy our meals, have enough to satisfy, and have age-appropriate food that’s easy and enjoyable to eat, we’re hitting so many more marks for health than just whether a food has a certain number of calories. That broader context matters so much.

(It’s worth noting that what may be “healthy” for my body may not be the same for yours in the case of allergies or medical conditions, so this is another reason to go for more specific terms when possible.)

You May Also Like

You can also listen to a discussion about the word “healthy” in a past episode of the Comfort Food podcast from iTunesStitcherGoogle PlayTuneIn Radio, or wherever else you get your podcasts. or listen to it here! Then use this page to check out any links, notes, or tips we referenced.


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