We Need to Use the Word "Healthy" More Carefully

July  6, 2016

"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... ? 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!).

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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.

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.

'Healthy' is the calorie-free sweetener of the adjective world: Add it now, everywhere you want, think about the effects later (or don't!).

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!)

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.

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!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Holmen
  • Lena Wagner
    Lena Wagner
  • Malgorzata
  • My Friend Maillard
    My Friend Maillard
  • Rebecca Firkser
    Rebecca Firkser
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


Holmen September 3, 2020
I found this article after having enough with the indiscriminate use of the word "healthy" in recipes that are not. The advise of using an ingredient that at the end doesn't make any difference than its counterpart, from food "gurus" that play with the ignorance of people. I wonder all the time: what is the concept of healthy of this person?
Thanks. Writing this made me feel better.
Lena W. October 17, 2016
Vegetarians are healthier than meat eaters?...not. It has already been shown that strict vegetarians cut 10 years off their life expectancy because of missing nutrients found only in meats. Vegans take an additional 5 years off for the same reason. How many people in their 80s, 90s and 100s do you know who are vegetarians? I find pre-processed foods, over processed carbs and unnatural foods that have been adulterated by our 'anything for profit' scientists far more unhealthy.
Malgorzata October 17, 2016
We should seek balance in our diet. If you don’t like meat, make sure you take supplement of vitamins which are only available in red meat. If you don’t like to exercise- walk, so you will boost that metabolism. Use your common sense :You are build out of protein, fat and water so give your self what you are . If your cravings are overtaking you, find out what you may be missing in your diet so you can help your self. Take charge and control of your life. If you are happy the way you are, great…..If you “crashed” after hour of eating breakfast, see if you give your self enough energy in your food to keep you satisfied. And please, relax and enjoy….your stress may be your worst enemy
My F. July 9, 2016
Thanks for a great piece. As a Personal Chef I'm always wrestling with what is a "healthful" suggestion and what might be construed by the client as telling them they are eating "wrong".

I've written a personal response and hope that this wider conversation leads to more people actually thinking about and enjoying their food.
Rebecca F. July 7, 2016
This is SO important! "Healthy" is too often used as a catchall term and as general clickbait. Thank you thank you for this piece.
Coco E. July 7, 2016
Three not-really-rules I eat by that mostly have to do with well-being:

1. Least processed as possible. I don't mean no processing because otherwise all cheese would be off the table and that's totally not worth it. What I mean is, I stick to ingredients that are as close as functionally possible to their original form, for making my own hummus, guac, and smoked salmon rillettes instead of getting them store-bought even if they're labelled "healthy". Sure, mine might have more calories, but chances are they're made with fresher, higher quality ingredients and therefore have more nutritional value. (Not to mention they'd taste much better!)

2. Eat everything. Given that you're following rule #1, eat everything. Eating just carrots is just as bad (if not worse) than eating just beef. It's all about balance, and many foods complement each other in nutrient value and absorption such as brussels sprouts and beef (vitamin c in former helps iron absorption from latter).

3. Moderation is key, given #2 and #3. Now that I'm choosing natural foods (not to be confused with the adjective "natural" egg and beef producers meaninglessly slap onto their labels), and eating them in balanced proportions, I make sure I don't eat too much. Enough to not feel hungry, but not quite full yet. Of course, the occasional Easter Brunch and Thanksgiving Dinner are perfectly fine. Don't be a party-pooper and just nibble on grass when your loving aunt spent her entire afternoon basting the bird and making cornbread stuffing. Being respectful and loving is also part of being healthy.
Coco E. July 7, 2016
*given #1 and #2*
702551 July 7, 2016
Hey, you're one who pushes waffles, pancakes, cakes, pastries, sundry desserts, etc. as "breakfast staples."

Rather than eliminate monikers, maybe Food52 should start by excluding certain items from listicles.

You may not use the term "healthy" but you certainly categorize things to fall into groups of things that are routinely consumed as generally accepted items of a standard diet.

Another example of this flaw is your obsession with cereal.
702551 July 7, 2016
Different example: former intern "R" posts an article praising green beans and radishes, noting that she prefers to eat these raw.

Raw green beans are mildly toxic even in small amounts so if there's anything *NOT* healthy about this article, it's suggesting to the Food52 readership that they should be enjoying green beens RAW.

Just one of a plethora of incongruous articles here on this site that defy sane judgment even without the inclusion of the word "healthy."

I suggest the Food52 editorial staff dig deep into their hearts and decide whether or not they are going to take food-related health issues serious, even if you don't use the "healthy" adjective.

It's one thing to post a recipe for waffles, it's something totally different to suggest that waffles are an exemplary breakfast dish.

You can't hide these issues under the "it's all semantics" cloak forever.
Alex W. July 7, 2016
Hi CV,

I'm pretty sure that phytohemagglutinin (PHA) levels aren't high enough in green beans for anyone to worry about. Kidney and lima beans though—that's another story—do not eat those raw. I know many people who grew up eating raw green beans all the time while they were gardening and they're still kicking.

I suppose the same issues that Sarah brings up about the word "healthy" also apply to the word "unhealthy." Are waffles actually unhealthy? Are pastries? Can I never eat them simply because I shouldn't eat them for every meal? I eat all of those "breakfast staples" in addition to fruit, eggs, and yogurt but I choose to not make my waffles with Bisquick and I opt for fresh pastries over something like Entenmann's or Hostess. The simple act of cooking your own food—the thing that this site and its editors encourage above all else—leads to a diet with a considerably lower intake of sodium, sugar, chemicals, and carbohydrates than if you eat out at restaurants or order delivery. It's the most significant step someone can take when trying to be healthier while still enjoying all those "breakfast staples."

Also, it's hard for me to think of any argument for how waffles aren't an exemplary breakfast dish?

702551 July 7, 2016
Phytohemagglutinin levels in green beans probably won't kill anyone, but they make you unhappy for a few days. Is that justification to allow some Food52 staffer to suggest eating them? NO.

There's no inherent problem with mentioning waffles and pastries as breakfast items. The problem is positioning them as BREAKFAST STAPLES, which basically insinuates that one should seek these items out. I have no qualms at identifying waffles as an enjoyable breakfast dish. I do have reservations about identifying waffles as a BREAKFAST STAPLE.

If you don't get it, that's fine. But then, Food52 should get out of the "these are better food options for you" business. Just publish the recipes and let the readers decide the pluses and minuses.

As modern humans, we already do the risk assessment every day, deciding which subway/train/road to take. Whether or not it's worth leaving five minutes earlier or later. Whether or not this snack is good or bad.

Anyhow, I stand by my original post and subsequent followups. At your next editorial review meeting, feel free to discuss this or feel free to dismiss me. I'm only ONE voice amongst thousands (your editors would say millions), you don't need to impress me. I will point out that several Food52 editorial staffers are very poor at taking criticism; they don't seem to realize that criticism is an opportunity for improvement. We saw this in heaping quantities during The Piglet competition from a few months ago.

Do as you wish, it's your website and readership, not mine.

I'm just giving some reader feedback.
Daniel July 6, 2016
epic article.... there term healthy has been so overused that it no longer can truly stand for what it initially did... not only this but as stated int his awesome literature there is clearly a misconception as to what truly healthy is... it doesnt help that there has been a long for and against argument on the understanding of fats and that for so long the food pyramid, which was instilled in us for so long, has all of a sudden changed... Looking forward to helping this tasty movement :)
Lainie July 6, 2016
I was nodding in agreement with this article until I came to the statement "The word healthy...should be employed carefully and by experts" I think the experts have cause most of the issues with terms like healthy like the decades of maligning dietary fats or eggs and pushing platefuls of carbs. Don't forget, it is dietary experts that allow the government to define ketchup as a vegetable in our schools.
I try to ascribe to the everything in moderation viewpoint, I try to eat as many whole foods as possible and I try to stay away from anything I cannot pronounce. That being said, I do think there are some foods that are healthy and some that are obviously not but that does not kill the allure of a Big Mac every 6 months or so.
Sarah J. July 7, 2016
That's a really good point: Who gets the title of "expert" is another hard issue!
M July 6, 2016
The "vegetarians are healthy" thing is ridiculous propaganda that pretends eating in a vegetarian restaurant is the same as a lifestyle that excludes meat. There's no end to the meat-free bad foods any of us can over-indulge on.

It makes me want to start a vegetarian greasy spoon full of cheese fries, deep-fried pickles, bloomin' onions, grilled cheese, towering pancakes covered in fruit and sugar....
CanadaDan July 6, 2016
I'm a big fan of that mantra too...People who try to do it all will drive themselves crazy. A little sugar and fat here and there won't kill you, and may keep you sane in the long run.
2 systems I live by...
1...I don't feel guilty eating anything I've made since I know exactly what went into it. eg I'm okay eating those cookies i made since I know they don't have potassium benzoate. I mean I try to limit sugars where I can but I feel less guilty eating my cookies than a chips ahoy.
2. Similar to the moderation theory, I cook anything I know I can do better (and cheaper) than I can buy. I make 2 whole wheat loves of bread every other week because it tastes way better than any loaf I buy, has no sugar and fats like the store loaves do, and is pennies on the dollar vs a store loaf. I make peanut butter and stock and pasta and tomato sauce for the same reason. But, say...bagels? I live in Montreal where the bagels are the best in the world, and I don't have a wood-fired oven, so I'm buying them. No one has the time to do it all, so do what you can.
I'm calling my rules "Cooking isn't hard. You're just lazy."

Kenzi W. July 6, 2016
I'm digging these rules to live by. And hip hip for Montreal bagels—needs to be said again!
Daniel July 6, 2016
hahahah I have been asked to do a vlog on 5 classic american foods in NYC Kenzi... which are your favorite bagels?

Dan Churchill
AntoniaJames July 6, 2016
I'd be interested in everyone's thoughts on Aaron Carroll's Upshot piece last year, called "Simple Rules for Healthy Eating," which is also linked in yesterday's Upshot piece mentioned above. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/21/upshot/simple-rules-for-healthy-eating.html
The exception that proves the rule?
To answer your question: I generally don't live by mantras, though I wholeheartedly embrace two oft-quoted suggestions made by Julia Child:

"If you're afraid of butter, use cream," (For the record, I'm not afraid of butter, but I often use cream instead, with excellent results.)
. . . . and . . .
“The only time to eat diet food is while you're waiting for the steak to cook.”

EmilyC July 6, 2016
Ahh, this is a subject I think about a lot when feeding my kids! What works for me is not overusing the word 'healthy' -- or on the opposite end of the spectrum, 'junk food' -- around my kids. I don't want them to assign value judgments (or feel a certain way) based on what they're eating, or what the kids around them are eating. I really do believe strongly in your grandfather's moderation mantra.