I no longer believe that the word “healthy” is appropriate to use in the context of individual foods. Here’s why:
Health Can’t Be Watered Down to Vegetables
Working in the healthcare field, health and wellness are constantly topics of discussion, as are nutrition and fitness. Every day, I hear talk about “good” and “bad,” “healthy” and “unhealthy” food, and I find it incredibly frustrating. No single food is “healthy” or “unhealthy” — we aren’t made suddenly healthy by eating a carrot and we aren’t suddenly made unhealthy by eating a donut.
Vegetables are generally considered healthy foods, especially when they are compared to sweets and snacks like donuts or potato chips. But few of us stop to consider why this is.
Considering the collective habits of Americans, many are overeating snacks and sweets and undereating vegetables. Therefore, to improve their health, it’s generally advised that they eat more vegetables.
But there are also individuals who eat far more vegetables than are necessary to maintain good health and are not eating nearly enough of foods that are higher in protein, carbohydrate and fat. For these individuals, eating more vegetables will not make them healthy. Quite frankly, I think more of these folks could stand to eat a donut.
If you only eat vegetables, vegetables aren’t a healthy choice for YOU anymore. Likewise, if you don’t eat many, they are a healthy choice.
Don’t get me wrong, vegetables are an important piece of a healthy life, but they don’t alone determine it.
Vegetables Can’t Be Ruined
Another thing that pushes my buttons about diet culture’s obsession with vegetables is the idea that raw vegetables are “clean” and that they can somehow be made “unclean” through various preparation methods (i.e. frying, breading, cooking in butter.)
Vegetables are unique foods because they offer a wide variety of different micronutrients.
To maintain health, we need a wide variety of macro and micro nutrients, and vegetables are an excellent source of these vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. However, adding more macronutrients to our serving of vegetables doesn’t suddenly cancel out the healthy components it offers. A carrot is a carrot no matter how much ranch you add. Salad dressing doesn’t cancel out the naturally occuring vitamin A, fiber, or potassium in root vegetables.
The reason the idea that butter, salad dressing and breading “ruins” vegetables comes from the completely distorted view of the value of vegetables. Most folks think they are “healthy” because they are low in calories, so they’re diet-friendly. By eating low calorie foods, folks think they will end up losing weight and consequently become healthier.
Sure, if someone never eats vegetables and only eats high-calorie foods, replacing some of their diet with vegetables will improve their health and they will probably also lose weight. But the health improvements didn’t stem from the weight loss, but rather from the increase of micornutrients in their diet that were once lacking.
The value of vegetables isn’t in the calories.
The idea that low calorie foods are license for a food free-for-all is an extremely unhealthy belief. Overeating any food is an unhealthy practice. Binge eating carrots is no healthier than binge eating cake. Both practices tax the digestive system and perpetuate an emotionally and spiritually dysfunctional relationship with food.
Carrots are not healthy or unhealthy. Chocolate is not healthy or unhealthy.
Balancing a wide range of fresh and satisfying foods is an important aspect of cultivating a healthy lifestyle, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Food isn’t everything, and vegetables aren’t the savior of our diet-obsessed world.