Defining Healthy Food: 10 Questions to Ask Yourself When Deciding Is This a Healthy Food? Featured

Authors: Registered Dietitians

10 Questions to Ask Yourself when Deciding if this Food is a Healthy Food

(  Have you ever wondered what is healthy food?  Ever thought about how to decide whether a food is healthy or not? I have always been interested in these questions. And, the more I talk about this question with people, the more I find different “criteria”, different answers to the same question. We’re not the only ones…

A report from Health Canada examined this very question – how do we define “healthy” foods?  Not surprising, they found that programs across Canada use different nutrition criteria to define “healthy” foods.  You’ve seen these programs in action - for example, front-of-package labeling programs.  If foods meet specific nutritional criteria or guidelines, they are labeled with a symbol to help you identify them.  Closer to home, with the Alberta Nutrition Guidelines for Children and Youth, more criteria were identified to help decide what foods will/will not be allowed in schools and recreation centers.

For school, recreation and workplaces, defining “healthy” food using criteria is helpful/necessary to create structure around what foods will be allowed and not allowed.  While I love that there is more interest in food and in creating healthy environments where healthy choices are the easy choice, I think applying a black-and-white, all-or-nothing approach to the question about a food’s healthfulness is very tricky because it depends on so many other factors. 

  • Questions about the food itself:  What nutrients and phyto-nutrients are in the food? What is the balance of health-promoting nutrients versus components we want to minimize?  Where did the food come from?  How was the food grown?  How was it produced?  What else is in the food?
  • How much of the food do you eat?
  • How often do you eat it?
  • How do you feel when you eat the food? 
  • What happens as a result of eating that food?
  • What other foods do you eat along with that particular choice?
  • What other kinds of foods do you eat in your diet?
  • What foods are missing from your diet?
  • How well do you listen to your body’s cues for hunger and fullness?
  • “Healthy food” for what outcome?  What lifestyle goal are you trying to achieve? Weight loss? Lowering your blood pressure? Lowering your cholesterol? Improving your 10 km race time? Eating for a sensitive stomach?

There is no one food that will make-or-break your diet.  I do believe that all foods can be part of a healthy diet – but some foods belong more than others.  Your overall lifestyle pattern, and health and lifestyle goals will determine what foods you will want to eat more of, what foods you may want to eat less of, and how you may want to include them as part of your overall eating pattern.  All of this, while respecting your body’s needs and signals for hunger and fullness.

How do you define “healthy food”?

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