What Does ‘Healthy’ Really Mean? Three Dietitians Give Their Definitions

The FDA is seeking public comment about which foods deserve to be labeled 'healthy.'

Nutrition label

Photo via istock.com/steve vanhorn

The FDA is in the midst of a well-publicized effort to redefine the word “healthy,” at least in the context of food labeling. And on Wednesday, the organization opened that process to the world, soliciting feedback from the public about what healthy really means, and which foods deserve to bear its label.

Anybody can submit commentary, but we wanted to see what the experts think of the issue. Here, three local registered dietitians define what healthy means to them, and spell out some pointers for the FDA.

Marci Anderson Evans

Labeling isn’t the best way to determine nutrition, Evans says. “Healthy cannot be found in a single number, and this is where the FDA continues to get it wrong,” she says. “Healthy is defined by patterns of eating over time. Healthy is eating a wide variety of foods. Healthy is eating more whole foods and fewer foods that have a lot of manufactured ingredients. Healthy is balanced eating.”

In short: Eating well is about a lot more than choosing one or two convincingly marketed products.

Lauren Mayer

Healthy is a very subjective term,” Mayer says. “There is such an emphasis on specific nutrients or ingredients that are healthy, but we must pay attention to the big picture of foods we choose. We eat whole foods, not specific nutrients.”

Mayer points out that foods that don’t need a label—fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and the like—are actually the healthiest. Along that vein, she says foods should only be labeled as healthy if they’re made with “minimal ingredients consisting only of real, recognizable foods.”

Ayla Withee

Withee echoes Mayer, noting that seeing a label slapped on something should be a “red flag that you’ve ventured away from whole foods.” Still, if you’re checking the back of the box, she says it’s smart to look at ingredients first.

“I’d really like the FDA to require more transparency with ingredients, highlighting those that we know, based on evidence, are detrimental to our health,” she says. “For example, added sugars, food coloring, and certain preservatives, such as BHT, and also common allergens.”

Got anything to add? You can let the FDA know here.