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We Need to Use the Word "Healthy" More Carefully

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"The vegetarians are winning," opens the New Yorker review of a relatively new meat-free restaurant, Nix, in the East Village. "Not only are they healthier than the rest of us, they’re saving the planet, one carrot at a time—or, more specifically, one fewer hamburger at a time."

Is this healthy? Or nutritious? Or... ?
Is this healthy? Or nutritious? Or... ? Photo by James Ransom

Dietary choices are posed here as a competition (most likely with irony on the writer's part): It's us versus them, vegetarians versus omnivores, winners versus losers—and there's no question about who's coming out on top.


But Mimi Sheraton, former New York Times restaurant critic, rejects this harsh binary (and its value judgment and generalizations, be they satirical or not):

The contention around the word "healthy" is directly related to the confusion around it, which is directly related to its indiscriminate use. The word is tacked freely onto recipe names, article titles, packaged goods, and menus simply because more people will click on the link—"The Quickest, Easiest, Healthiest Weeknight Chicken Recipe That Will Change Your Life!"—or buy the product or order the dish. "Healthy" is the calorie-free sweetener of the adjective world: Add it now, everywhere you want, think about the effects later (or don't!).


Back in January, Michael Ruhlman made the important distinction between "healthy"—what many of us want for our bodies—and "nutritious"—what many of us want from the foods we put in them. And yet the label of foods as healthy is not going anywhere soon. Pushed by the granola bar maker KIND, the FDA is re-evaluating what standards a food must meet in order for "healthy" to appear on the package; the current rule is "a holdover from the era when dietary fat was vilified." It's more proof that our understanding—and our government's understanding—of "healthy" changes with the times, but that the ubiquity of the word (in the grocery store, in cookbooks, on websites) does not.

Fat Isn't Bad, Stupid is Bad
Fat Isn't Bad, Stupid is Bad

Michael Ruhlman expands on his piece on our podcast. Listen above.

Pasta e Fagioli is "healthy"; Giant Shells Filled with Spinach and Ricotta is "healthy"; Mashed Potato and Cabbage Pancakes are "healthy." This is not to call out the New York Times Cooking website and their recipes, but to provide evidence supporting the thesis of their article from yesterday: "Is Sushi ‘Healthy’? What About Granola? Where Americans and Nutritionists Disagree."

The authors used a media and polling firm to survey nutritionists and the public about what foods they consider "healthy," and the data reveal just how much the two groups disagreed. The results

suggest a surprising diversity of opinion, even among experts. Yes, some foods, like kale, apples and oatmeal, are considered “healthy” by nearly everyone. And some, like soda, french fries and chocolate chip cookies, are not. But in between, some foods appear to benefit from a positive public perception, while others befuddle the public and experts alike. (We’re looking at you, butter.)

So if you want to stick to foods universally hailed as healthy, it's oatmeal and apples for breakfast, savory oats and kale for dinner. But the Times recipes I just linked to above, who tagged those as "healthy"? They contain many ingredients (pasta! cheese! potatoes! oil!) with no healthy or unhealthy consensus.

All this is to highlight the confusion surrounding the word "healthy" to describe food, but doesn't even skim the surface of the mixed and mis- information surrounding the word "healthier." What does it mean that vegetarians are "healthier than the rest of us"? What are the metrics used to judge this? Is it heart rate? Weight? BMI? Vitamin levels? Sure, there are recommended numbers for all of these measures—but it's hard to control for all variables, to account for the quirks and peculiarities of an individual's body.

Now we're involving not only nutritionists, but doctors, too. (And marketers, and writers, and advertising companies, and government workers, to boot. It's getting crowded in here!)

10 Non-Boring Oatmeal Recipes

10 Non-Boring Oatmeal Recipes by Catherine Lamb

Kale and 9 Different Ways to Use It That Don't Involve Salad

Kale and 9 Different Ways to Use It That Don't Involve Salad by Lindsay-Jean Hard


I feel lost and I don't think I'm the only one. A recent New York Magazine article introduced me to "What I Ate Today" videos (they're exactly what they sound like). The writer Bettina Makalintal quotes one of the vloggers (not a typo: video bloggers) as saying:

it was the most popular thing I ever posted, and then I did a second one and that got even more views, and then I started seeing people leave comments about how helpful it was so I kept doing them.

Millions of people are so confused about what it means to be healthy, to eat healthily, to make healthy choices that they'll watch a 5-minute video of exactly what someone else—another person with entirely different circumstances—ate that day. And you know what? I see this appeal, too.

On Food52, we avoid the word "healthy" like the plague. (Funny, I know.) It's not only because to call foods "healthy" demonizes others by process of elimination and automatically casts judgment, but also because collectively we don't know enough to give the word its due diligence.

A Call to Ban Today’s “Food Holiday”
A Call to Ban Today’s “Food Holiday”

The word "healthy" shouldn't be tossed around or used with abandon to generalize and scare. It should be employed carefully, and by experts. If we start applying it sparingly, with moderation, maybe it can regain some of its meaning. Maybe a bit of the confusion can be put to rest. (Of course, this is optimistic: As long as "healthy" sells products and generates page views, it'll bombard us. But a consumer—of food and content and recipes!—can dream!)

Or maybe we'll use it to the point where it means nothing at all. And then we'll have to come up with a new word to sell granola bars and recipe pages. Wholesome? Good-for-you? Life-saving? Life-elongating? Life-changing? Life-fixing? Magical?! I'll let the marketers figure that one out.

My grandpa always told me "Everything in moderation, even moderation." Any healthy/unhealthy mantras you live by? Tell us in the comments!

Tags: healthy, health, nutrition, wellness