What Is Healthy Food?

CC BY 2.0. rusvaplauke

While experts and the general public do share some opinions, there are also surprisingly wide gaps, as shown in this survey conducted by the New York Times.

The Food & Drug Administration in the United States has recently kicked off a review of its official definition of the word “healthy.” The term was last updated in 1994, which means an update is long overdue. At the same time, defining “healthy” has never been more complicated. Countless new and exotic foods have been introduced into the American diet over the past two decades and, thanks to the Internet and social media, we’re now bombarded with more conflicting messages than ever about what’s actually healthy and what’s not.

The New York Times chose a particularly ripe time to conduct an interesting survey comparing the opinions of American citizens and hundreds of professional nutritionists on approximately 50 common foods. Not surprisingly, opinions vary greatly.

There are foods that nutritionists consider much healthier than the general population does. These include tofu (89% of nutritionists vs. 58% of Americans), quinoa (89% vs. 58%), and hummus (90% vs. 66%). Why such differing opinions? The Times suggests it may be because these foods are relatively new to the mainstream American diet. In a way, people have yet to normalize or accept them in their minds.

Then there are the foods that the American population thinks are much healthier than the experts do. The widest gap occurred with granola bars, with 71% of the public saying they’re healthy, but only 28% of nutritionists agreeing. Similar differences exist with granola (47% of nutritionists vs. 80% of public), coconut oil (37% vs. 72%), and frozen yogurt (47% vs. 80%). Many of these foods contain added sugars, of which nutritionists may be aware, while the general population is not. The Times reports that this will hopefully change soon:

“In May, the Food and Drug Administration announced a new template for nutrition labels, and one priority was to clearly distinguish between sugars that naturally occur in food and sugars that are added later to heighten flavors.”

There are a host of other foods about which both experts and the public disagree. These include popcorn and a number of high-fat foods, such as steak, pork chops, whole milk, and Cheddar cheese. The split in opinions hovers between 50-60% for each group, which isn’t surprising.

“Years ago, the nutritional consensus was that fat, and particularly the saturated fat found in dairy and red meat, was bad for your heart. Newer studies are less clear, and many of the fights among nutritionists tend to be about the right amount of protein and fat in a healthy diet. The uncertainty about these foods, as expressed both by experts and ordinary Americans, reflects the haziness of the nutritional evidence about them.”

Until time and further studies reveal more information, it may be helpful to know what the nutritionists said when asked how they eat on a daily basis. When given a list of dietary descriptions, such as Atkins, Paleolithic, Organic, Vegan, Vegetarian, Gluten-Free, and Mediterranean, the majority (57%) said they follow “no special rules or restrictions.”

Rather than singling out and labeling certain foods as “good” or “bad,” it’s probably best to focus on eating healthily overall (and not feeling guilty for the occasional less-than-healthy treat).