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What Does “Healthy” Really Mean?

What is “healthy” food? Does your definition match up with what your friends would say? What about your parents, or your children?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wants to know what you think so it can help you better understand food labels. The FDA is working to redefine nutrition claims on food labeling, according to this WebMD article.
When I read that, I wondered, what do I consider healthy? This topic has always interested me, and I’ve done some research on it, but there seem to be a wide variety of opinions out there.
For example, years ago my brother decided he was only going to eat foods with nutrition labels to make sure he was eating right — the labels ensured he could verify how much fat, sodium, carbs, etc. he was eating. To him, that seemed like the best way to follow a healthy diet. And back in college, I tried calorie counting — partly out of curiosity and also as research for an article. It was exhausting, but it kind of worked … in that I lost a few pounds. But looking back, I realize I wasn’t being healthy.

What Counts for More Than Calories?

Fast forward a few years to the time I took a corporate wellness course with a certified master nutrition therapist. I hadn’t completely ended my relationship with calorie counting, and I thought the instructor was crazy to tell me to stop calorie counting completely. Thankfully, I took her advice anyway (for the sake of the course). I quit counting calories, and followed her advice: Always look at nutrition labels.
Well, duh. How else will I know how many calories I’m eating? I initially thought when she made that announcement. At the time, calories were one of the few things I knew to look for on nutrition labels. I would glance at the fat content, too, but I didn’t know what it meant exactly, especially with all the hubbub about good fats and bad fats. So, when the instructor went into what to ignore, I was floored.
She told us to skip most of the daily values: cholesterol, sodium, sugar, etc. Just look at ingredients. If there are bunch of words you’ve never heard of or can’t pronounce, don’t eat it, she said. With that many chemicals in it, the food in the package probably isn’t very healthy.

How I Read Nutrition Labels

I took those words to heart. Since then, I always, always, always look at nutrition labels —and not for the calories. I don’t look at the daily values either. I skip right to the ingredients. They’re always listed, and they’re always telling. If “high fructose corn syrup” or “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” is listed, nope. Just nope. Not up in here. “Partially hydrogenated” means hydrogen is added to the oil to make it solid. And that, to me, is quite a turn off.
Another of the instructor’s rules was to make sure the ingredients list is short in general, maybe six or fewer ingredients total. That’s how you can be sure what you’re eating is whole and natural.
I must have talked about this change enough that it caught on for the people closest to me. Now, my mom and boyfriend often comment about a food’s listed ingredients and ask if I know what certain additives are (some are acceptable to me, such as citric acid, which occurs naturally though is also often manufactured). It’s a small change, but it makes a big difference.
The other way you can be sure a food is healthy is if there’s no nutrition label at all, and you can identify the only “ingredient.” When my brother was in his nutrition-labels-only phase, he turned down an apple. I think — I hope — he was just being silly, but that memory always reminds me of my health compass: the healthiest foods occur naturally, without a label on them.
The FDA will enforce updates to nutrition labels beginning in July 2018, and it doesn’t look like there will be any changes to the ingredients section.
What do you think makes a food healthy? —Megan

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