What Does "Healthy" Even Mean?

It's all about foods that make you and your body happy, not ideologies or fads

Salad Nicoise hero

The Spruce / Cara Cormack

Being healthy has never held a more forefront place in our society's consciousness than in the past year. The reason for this is twofold: for one, we've been through a deadly pandemic that has struck down millions of formerly healthy people, and we want to protect ourselves from illness as much as possible. And secondly, times of stress and crisis innately lead people to crave less healthful foods, making that goal of protecting ourselves from illness often feel like an unattainable one.

Let's examine what healthy really means, from diets to individual foods, how your attitude around what you eat is actually as important as the food you consume, and what easy steps you can take to feel as healthy as possible in your everyday choices.

The Pandemic Impact

No matter your dietary habits, chances are they've dropped off or wavered throughout the past year. As a nutritionist and special diet chef who generally eats in a manner society considers a bit over-the-top healthfully, my own pandemic cravings for snack foods shocked me. I quickly learned this is natural as it's instinctive to crave comfort in times of crisis. And, little is more comforting than the foods that remind us of safer and younger times.

If your diet changed drastically this past year, you're far from alone. Luckily, we're steadfastly approaching the "post" time of Covid, and with lower levels of daily stress, we'll be better able to make more healthy choices moving forward. What should those choices look like? Let's get into it.

Diets & Lifestyles

Pretty much every new system of eating that hits mainstream shelves promotes itself as healthy. Unfortunately, diets at large tend to rely on restrictions and eliminating either entire food groups or thousands of calories from our daily lives. Even more, these diets are often actually not healthy at all.

Nearly any diet can provide you with short term weight loss, but the healthiest diets for the long term tend to promote balance of all food groups. As far as our most popular diets go, you will find elements of healthfulness, but most contain attributes that make them less than healthy. Here's a closer look at a few.

Plant Based / Vegan

Vegan seitan pho

The Spruce / Cara Cormack

A vegan diet is often touted as being better for the environment, and there is no question that consuming less meat equals less carbon emissions from animals and factory farming. Beyond that, it's less cut and dry. There are numerous vital nutrients that you cannot get enough of on a vegan diet alone, such as vitamin B12, and many more you can get but not in as much of a bioavailable format, such as iron. The usual presumption of a vegan diet's downfall is you won't consume enough protein, but this is rarely its biggest problem. The largest pitfall is the insufficient amount of vitamins and nutrients the body requires to thrive long term.

Keto

Keto Queso Dip

The Spruce / Julia Hartbeck

No one is claiming this fat-heavy way of eating is better for the planet, but there are countless anecdotal stories of it being one of the most enjoyable ways to lose weight. That's because most foods you can't eat on a typical diet, like bacon, are free reign on keto. However, the keto diet tends to lack in fiber, which is necessary for gut motility and strong immune function. Eating keto can also make it difficult for your body to have a sufficient stored amount of glycogen, a form of sugar used to fuel your cells. And lastly, many nutrient dense foods, such as root vegetables and whole grains, don't fit into the keto diet at all.

Mediterranean

galacian octopus on plate with wine

The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

This diet rose to fame for a great reason: people who follow it tend to live longer and with less heart disease. The Mediterranean diet doesn't have any major downside. That's mostly because, unlike vegan and keto diets, it's centered around what to eat the most of and doesn't specifically force you to avoid any single food or food group. The Mediterranean diet is heavy on ingredients like lean proteins, vegetables, olive oil, and whole grains. That makes it more an eating style than a diet, and in turn, something much easier to follow. Of these three most popular diets, it's the only one that can objectively be considered truly healthy.

Healthy Foods

There is a lot of confusion over what foods are healthy and many varying opinions on the subject. No matter what you believe, you can likely find an article, or even a study, to support it. For example, there are dietitians who think beans are terrible and those who consider them great. There are nutritionists who think all grains are unnecessary, while others think believe they are key to a balanced diet. Any food has its proponents and its decriers, and consumers are bombarded regularly with the many different opinions of nutrition professionals.

It's safe to say that any single whole food has some amount of health value. Where food becomes less healthy is when we process it in factories, taking out its most nutrient dense parts, then repackage it with flavors and chemicals added. Any ingredient, plant or animal-based, has health value. Conversely, many processed foods have little health value at all. Therefore it's safe to say that the healthiest foods are the ones left in their original, or close to original, forms.

The Real Healthy Deal: A Healthy Mindset

Too often, our cultural focus is on what foods we should eat, not about what foods we should eat for our unique bodies. Simply put, the healthiest foods are the ones that make you feel best. Some people thrive without carbs, while other do without meat. Conversely, some people need carbs at every meal to feel energized and some people's brains work less well without animal protein. Eating healthy is not about choosing what diet to follow, it's about discerning what foods make you feel your best. This is called intuitive eating, and it's a lifestyle more than it is a diet. it allows you to evolve and change over time as your body changes as well.

Additionally, your attitude about food is nearly as important as what you consume. That's because stress inhibits digestion, causing bodies to not properly assimilate nutrients. Whether you're eating a salad or a doughnut, if you're doing so happily you'll get all the nutrients from it versus if you do so with stress you won't. This is important because often people eat foods they think are healthy, but that they don't enjoy and/or their bodies don't process well. Moreover, "treats" are slapped with a guilty label. To eat healthily, your biggest task is to choose the foods that your body and your taste buds enjoy.

Eating healthy is not about choosing what diet to follow, it's about discerning what foods make you feel your best.

Does Eating Healthy Lead To Wellness?

Eating a diet rich in whole foods, especially with a focus on varied and sufficient produce, can help prevent a myriad of illnesses. That said, eating healthy doesn't automatically equate to a life free of sickness. As a healthy eater who recovered from a half decade of serious chronic illness, I learned firsthand eating healthy doesn't come with any guarantees. It does work to help prevent many diseases, though, and how we eat is one of the most straightforward ways we can work to enhance our wellness. Nothing in life is guaranteed, but eating healthy is a low stakes bet you can use to increase your wellness.

The Takeaway

There's no empirically right answer when it comes to what diets are healthy. As far as singular foods go, the healthiest foods are the ones that are closest to their true forms and held onto their nutrient dense parts. The way you eat is best decided on how foods and food groups react with your body, not on ideologies or fads.

Additionally, it's important to eat foods you enjoy, and to do so without guilt; otherwise, your digestion and assimilation can be impacted by your stress hormones. This isn't every nutritionist's viewpoint--in fact, in my experience it's not even a terribly common one. But I've found that encouraging people to eat the foods that work best for them provides the most joy and the best digestion, and in turn, the healthiest and happiest outcomes.