Healthy vs Unhealthy Food

As a dietitian that focuses on a non-diet, all foods fit approach; I have become increasingly concerned with the emphasis on healthy vs. non-healthy labeling. Here is why…

What does a “healthy” food mean?  

If you asked 10 people, you’d probably get varying answers:

  • organic

  • unprocessed

  • no chemicals

  • no dyes

  • low calorie

  • all natural

  • nutrient dense

  • no fat

  • no carbs

  • whole grain

  • no sugar

  • low sodium

  • high protein

  • vegan

  • local organic and sustainably raised grass fed meat

  • wild sustainably caught fish

  • and the list goes on and on…


What it boils down to is that “healthy” usually depends on that person’s food rules. These food rules or beliefs keep you in a state of disordered eating. It generates anxiety, shame and guilt when you eat a “bad” food or don’t eat enough “good” foods. The thing is food is food. Popcorn is popcorn, salad is salad, pizza is pizza, kale is kale.

The ultimate goal is to neutralize all foods, so you can take pleasure in eating all foods. When there isn’t any anxiety about eating a certain food, especially when in a social environment, you can be present and enjoy the entire experience that much more.

Healthier How?  

So lets break down this “healthier” conversation. Personally, I would rather think of it as what is the healthier choice for you physically and/or psychologically. It’s making an intuitive choice in the moment based on what you need, physically, mentally, spiritually, financially, etc.  Let’s look at some examples of what I mean.

Who is right?

Let’s take a look at popcorn. I can practically hear the arguments for and against popcorn being healthy or not. That right there also proves my point. “Healthy” is relative. As the kids say, don’t yuck my yum. Taking nutrition out of the equation, lets look at it from an environmental stand point to show what I’m talking about. Some might say, corn is a government subsidized monoculture crop that is produced in a manner that leaves the soil unable to support growth of new crop. True. Others might say, but it keeps the farmers employed and millions of people fed. True. Who is right? Both are valid points. It’s the same thing with food. There are so many variables to consider that you can’t just say this is healthy and this isn’t. Think about cholesterol. It was demonized for decades. Now, research shows its not dietary cholesterol that increases your serum cholesterol.

Healthier for who?

These days, many people would say a vegetarian option is healthier. Why? Meat is a complete protein with a higher bioavailablity (your body can utilize it easier) than vegetarian options. Many are also rich in iron and B12. However, this is not to say that meat is the healthier option. It is very specific to the person and the time. For example, red meat might be the “healthier” choice if you are menstruating due to the lost of iron in the blood. A vegetarian option would be the healthier choice, spiritually, for a Buddhist. You see, it’s not always about the nutritional component. And yes, a dietitian just said that. Sound the alarms!

How much is healthy?

Dark leafy greens like kale & spinach almost epitomize a “healthy” choice in today’s society. Did you know that they contain oxalates, an anti-nutrient, which binds to minerals? Consuming too much of it can inhibit your absorption of certain minerals as it is excreted from the body, or worse, lead to kidney stones. Yes, they are very nutritious, but in large amounts, they can negatively impact your health.                     

When is it healthy?

What about mental health? If you’re craving chocolate and you eat a chocolate rice cake, is that really the “healthier” option? You’re going to feel deprived and might end up binging on chocolate after the fact. Cue the shame and guilt post binge, which leads to restriction, which then leads to more binging, allowing this detrimental cycle to continue.

These are just a few examples, and they could be broken down further. What if the woman menstruating wasn’t in the mood for red meat? Would that then be the healthier choice? Does making a healthier choice matter? Even the idea of saying a “healthier choice” is riddled with issues. For starters, it’s an entirely different conversation for somebody that needs a special diet due to a medical condition. But again, it is specific to that person’s needs and not what diet culture deems to be the “right choice.”

Take Away

The point that I’m trying to make is that labeling something as healthy or unhealthy is looking at it with a black or white mentality, when we live in a world that spans the spectrum of color.

At the end of the day, ideally, you can make an intuitive choice as to what you want to eat because it is what you want to eat. Not because diet culture told you that you “should” be eating it or because of what you ate yesterday or because that is what your friend is having.


Try to catch yourself the next time you label or question if something is healthy. Ask yourself, why do I think it is healthy or unhealthy? When did I label it as such? What does that mean to me if it is “healthy” or “not healthy.” Why does it matter? Slowly you can start to unpack your own personal food rules. This will take you one step closer to neutralizing and reclaiming your relationship to food.