Healthy Eating Defined and Deconstructed

by Charles Platkin

The term “healthy eating” is mentioned all the time – in the media, by academics, government discussions, social settings, and almost everywhere you go when health is discussed. The problem is that the term probably has hundreds if not thousands of definitions. I once asked a class full of nutrition students to define the term, and their responses were amazing. They used words and phrases such as “balanced,” “moderation,” “good for you,” “no GMOs and organic,”  “filled with nutrients,” and “nutritious.” However, many of those definitions need definitions themselves.  Very confusing. I decided to reach out to some of the world’s experts on health and nutrition and to look at a few governmental websites to find some answers. Here is what I found: 

David L. Katz, MD, MPH, author of The Truth about Food. and founder of True Health Initiative

“To me, ‘healthy’ does NOT mean changing weight as fast as possible.  It means fostering vitality and longevity; adding years to life and life to years.  And since there can be no truly healthy people on a sick and ravaged planet, it also means sustainable – friendly to the planet, the climate, to biodiversity, to the permafrost and the rain forests.  Aggregate the massive available information we have on these topics from diverse sources- from science, sense, and the global consensus of experts (http://www.truehealthinitiative.org/) – and you get a very clear articulation of the theme: a diet made up MOSTLY of minimally processed vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans/legumes, nuts and seeds, with plain water the go-to answer for thirst.  Get those fundamentals right – wholesome foods in a balanced, sensible assembly – and you simply can’t go too far wrong!”

Marion Nestle, PhD, Professor, of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health Emerita at New York University and author of  How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat

“What ‘healthy eating’ is turns out to be so simple that the journalist Michael Pollan can do it in seven words: “Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.”  Really, that’s all there is to it.  Those seven words reflect plenty of evidence that diets that follow these principles–a wide variety of relatively unprocessed foods (including many of plant origin) in amounts that balance calorie intake with expenditure–are associated with prevention of weight gain and the chronic diseases for which it is a risk factor.  What I like so much about these principles is that they provide plenty of room for enjoying food as one of life’s greatest pleasures.” 

Urvashi Rangan, PhD, Chief Science Advisor, GRACE Communications Foundation and founder of FoodPrint.org

“How ingredients are produced and processed and packaged all impact the health of our eating.  Pesticides, chemicals, drugs, heavy metals, many food additives and aids won’t be found on the label when they are used.  Supporting food choices from progressive, biodynamic, regenerative, pasture-based or real organic food producers is a powerful way to support real sustainable and healthy food choices.”

Colin Campbell, Jacob Gould Schurman Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University, co-author of The China Study and Founder of nutritionstudies.org

“Healthy eating and/or the term nutrition is the biological expression of food that creates health for individuals, for society and for the planet. Health is provided by a variety of plant-based foods composed of countless nutrients and nutrient-like substances acting “wholistically,” from consumption and digestion to tissue function, and is best obtained by consuming whole foods, not individual nutrients derived therefrom.

“The effects of eating this way are exceptionally broad, simultaneously maintaining health and preventing and treating a broad range of illnesses and diseases. Healthy eating should not only be taught in medical schools but should also be a medical specialty, which would allow e practitioners to be reimbursed for services.”

Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 (USDA)

The core elements that make up a healthy dietary pattern include: 

  • Vegetables of all types—dark green; red and orange; beans, peas, and lentils; starchy; and other vegetables 
  • Fruits, especially whole fruit 
  • Grains, at least half of which are whole grain 
  • Dairy, including fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese, and/or lactose-free versions, and fortified soy beverages and yogurt as alternatives 
  • Protein foods, including lean meats, poultry, and eggs; seafood; beans, peas, and lentils; nuts, seeds, and soy products 
  • Oils, including vegetable oils and oils in food, such as seafood and nuts

The Guidelines recommend:

  • Limiting added sugars* to less than 10% of calories per day for ages 2 and older and to avoid added sugars for infants and toddlers;
  • Limiting saturated fat to less than 10% of calories per day starting at age 2;
  • Limiting sodium intake to less than 2,300mg per day (or even less if younger than 14);
  • Limiting alcoholic beverages* (if consumed) to 2 drinks or less a day for men and 1 drink or less a day for women.

* The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 recommend limiting intakes of added sugars and alcoholic beverages, but do not include changes to quantitative recommendations from the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for these two topics, because the new evidence reviewed since the 2015-2020 edition is not substantial enough to support changesto the quantitative recommendations for either added sugars or alcohol.

Canada’s Food Guide Healthy Food Choices

Make it a habit to eat a variety of healthy foods each day.

  • Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits, whole grain foods and protein foods. Choose protein foods that come from plants more often.
    • Choose foods with healthy fats instead of saturated fat
  • Limit highly processed foods. If you choose these foods, eat them less often and in small amounts.
    • Prepare meals and snacks using ingredients that have little to no added sodium, sugars or saturated fat
    • Choose healthier menu options when eating out
  • Make water your drink of choice
    • Replace sugary drinks with water
  • Use food labels
  • Be aware that food marketing can influence your choices

The Norwegian Dietary Guidelines

  1. Enjoy a varied diet with lots of vegetables, fruit and berries, whole-grain foods and fish, and limited  amounts of processed meat, red meat, salt and sugar.
  2. Maintain a good balance between the amount of energy you obtain through food and drink and the amount of energy you expend through physical activity.
  3. Eat at least five portions of vegetables, fruit and berries every day.
  4. Eat whole grain foods every day.
  5. Eat fish two to three times a week. You can also use fish as a spread on bread.
  6. Choose lean meat and lean meat products. Limit the amount of processed meat and red meat.
  7. Include low-fat dairy foods in your daily diet.
  8. Choose edible oils, liquid margarine and soft margarine spreads instead of hard  margarines and butter.
  9. Choose foods that are low in salt and limit the use of salt when preparing food and at the table.
  10. Avoid foods and drinks that are high in sugar.
  11. Choose water as a thirst-quencher.
  12. Be physically active for at least 30 minutes each day. 

World Health Organization

A healthy diet includes the following:

  • Fruit, vegetables, legumes (e.g. lentils and beans), nuts and whole grains (e.g. unprocessed maize, millet, oats, wheat and brown rice).
  • At least 400 g (i.e. five portions) of fruit and vegetables per day, excluding potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava and other starchy roots.
  • Less than 10 percent of total energy intake from free sugars , which is equivalent to 50 g (or about 12 level teaspoons) for a person of healthy body weight consuming about 2000 calories per day, but ideally is less than 5% of total energy intake for additional health benefits. Free sugars are all sugars added to foods or drinks by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, as well as sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.
  • Less than 30% of total energy intake from fats. Unsaturated fats (found in fish, avocado and nuts, and in sunflower, soybean, canola and olive oils) are preferable to saturated fats (found in fatty meat, butter, palm and coconut oil, cream, cheese, ghee and lard) and trans-fats of all kinds, including both industrially-produced trans-fats (found in baked and fried foods, and pre-packaged snacks and foods, such as frozen pizza, pies, cookies, biscuits, wafers, and cooking oils and spreads) and ruminant trans-fats (found in meat and dairy foods from ruminant animals, such as cows, sheep, goats and camels). It is suggested that the intake of saturated fats be reduced to less than 10% of total energy intake and trans-fats to less than 1% of total energy intake. In particular, industrially-produced trans-fats are not part of a healthy diet and should be avoided.
  • Less than 5 g of salt (equivalent to about one teaspoon) per day Salt should be iodized.

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