Is it healthy? That’s a question many of us ask ourselves when selecting what to eat. Some of us analyze everything we put into our mouth, basing it on the statements on the food packaging and claims we hear in the news or find on the internet. Food producers and marketers also throw “healthy food” around to try to get you to buy their products. This can make the simple act of eating, a necessity to live, frankly quite stressful.
So what is a healthy food? Healthy used as an adjective to describe the food we eat, describes food that is beneficial to our health and would contribute to improving or maintaining a person’s overall health. While the word unhealthy used to describe food means the opposite, food that is harmful or may promote a poor state of health. So, in simple terms, healthy food is good for our health and unhealthy food is bad for our health. But still, what defines a healthy food?
If we look at pizza, for example, it’s often considered an unhealthy food. Pizza in its most basic form is bread with some tomato sauce topped with cheese, none of which are detrimental towards our health. Yes, eating too much fat can be problematic, so let’s assume pizza is only eaten occasionally and in moderation. Then why is pizza considered unhealthy?
Let's look at the nutrition of pizza. The crust of pizza is a product from white flour so doesn’t provide many nutrients but does provide our body with energy, the small quantity of tomato sauce provides some vitamins and minerals, and cheese provides calcium and protein. Though minimal, some beneficial nutrition can come from pizza, however pizza is high in calories. It is calorie dense, but not nutritionally dense. So it would be accurate to say pizza is not very nutritious, but it is not necessarily bad for your health.
What if instead of looking at food as being healthy or unhealthy, we question if it is nutritious. Really the overarching reason to eat is to provide our body with nutrition.
Determining if a food is nutritious is much easier to define. Nutritious foods would ideally be a nutrient dense food, which is a food that is high in vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, lean proteins, and complex carbohydrates while also being low in calories. A calorie dense food would not be considered nutritious because it is low in nutrients and high in calories, like pizza.
Fruits and Vegetables are definitely nutritious foods, they provide our body with important vitamins and minerals. Saltine crackers however, are made with just white flour which is not a complex carbohydrate and doesn’t provide many nutrients so would not be considered nutrient dense or nutritious.
We eat for enjoyment and to provide our body with nutrients, but aren’t always sure what food is best to choose. Instead of always looking at food as being healthy or unhealthy because it can be difficult to determine, look for foods that are nutritious. Fill your diet with a range of mostly nutritious foods, it can take the stress out of determining what is healthy and what isn’t.
Article was written by the Extension Office’s intern, Shannon Jones, Purdue University | Coordinated Dietetics.