What Does Being "Healthy" Mean?

A variety of spices and ingredients on a wooden table.Sep 1, 2023

By Caroline Young, MS, RD, LD, RYT

The word “healthy” is thrown around often in our society.

In general media, it tends to come along with a specific appearance and type: thin, young, active and always choosing the most nutritious food possible. But as a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) who takes a holistic approach to wellness and believes in science-based evidence to guide recommendations, I believe that the true definition of “healthy” lies in a grayer area.

Today, with the help of some fellow RDNs, we will explore the nuances of “healthy” when it comes to nutrition and food. To discuss your specific dietary needs, contact a registered dietitian nutritionist or your healthcare provider.

Let’s Start with Physical.

Since we are humans living in bodies, our physical health is foundational when it comes to all parts of us. Eating adequately to sustain life — and a meaningful one at that — is foundational.

“First and foremost, before any level of optimizing one’s diet can happen, you first have to be eating enough,” said Cara Harbstreet, MS RD LD, of Street Smart Nutrition. “Addressing this, in my opinion, has to be the first step before turning focus to any other pursuit of physical health because it could either be aided or undermined by food.”

That said, every person has different energy needs and are all born with hormone-regulated hunger and fullness cues, which tell us how much we need and when we are done. When we trust our cues and let them guide our intake, we will typically meet our energy needs. Two rules of thumbs to follow to ensure you are getting enough include eating meals and snacks every 3-5 hours and including a balance of food groups.

4 Peanut butter-based balanced meal and snack examples:

  • Stir fry with rice, chicken, veggies and peanut butter sauce —Harbstreet’s favorite way to use peanut butter: “It’s a creamy base for lots of bold flavors and can balance the heat level from different spices or peppers we use.” Try NPB’s Peanut Butter Stir Fry Noodles.
  • Wheat sourdough toast, slathered with peanut butter and topped with sliced bananas and cinnamon — this one is a favorite of Liz Shaw, MS, RDN, CPT, nutrition media authority and owner of ShawSimpleSwaps.com.
  • Peanut butter and raspberry sandwich — “Raspberries are high in fiber and naturally sweet, and of course, they pair perfectly with peanut butter,” said Liz Ward, MS, RD, writer and recipe developer.
  • Energy bites with peanut butter, chopped peanuts, dried cherries and cranberries, crispy rice cereal, oats and honey --- “[They] bring the flavor and crunch for a snack that stacks up on taste and can be made in haste,” said Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN, owner of Active Eating Advice, Be Fit, Fed and Fearless. NPB has a recipe for both peanut butter chocolate energy bites and creamy peanut butter chia energy bites.

“I see a journey to health as something that ebbs and flows, and it’s dependent on so many factors beyond just a personal interest in being ‘healthy,’” Harbstreet said. “It’s almost a cliche at this point, but ‘health’ has to consider elements of health that go far beyond the physical or nutritional domain.”

Let’s Go Beyond.

To Harbstreet’s point, the physical is often upheld above all other facets of health, like mental, emotional, spiritual, occupational, social, financial and so on. We are whole, multi-faceted human beings -- not robots that simply consume food and fluids, exercise and weigh X pounds.

“The interconnectedness of how one feels in their body and mind is so important to consider, especially in this day and age,” said Shaw “While eating a balanced diet will help with many factors of physical and emotional health for the long term, if one is concerned or struggling about finances, the opportunity to eat this balanced way may be challenging. Thus, we have to consider so many aspects of health in order to help all individuals achieve a balance.”

And being emotionally healthy can be about how we deal with what life hands us. “I think that health is when you are able to cope with daily life as well as major life,” said Ward.

On the same page as Ward, I like to use the term “relative,” since striving for perfect balance in nutrition or any other area of wellness can be counteractive.

When it comes to food and nutrition, Bonci and Harbstreet agree:

“We need to be our own best friend not enemy when it comes to what we choose to eat,” said Bonci. “Constant judging, food shaming, and deprivation is not empowering or enlightening.” She believes health is about cultivating habits that promote wellness within one’s means, she said.

According to Harbstreet: stressing or fearing for your health around certain foods can have an extremely negative effect on mental and emotional health, which includes relationships. “On the other hand, connecting with food in a more helpful way can support mood and mental well-being,” she said.

So, how do you define healthy?

In my work with clients who are seeking healthier relationships with food, it always becomes clear that at least one other aspect of their health, aside from nutrition, has also been neglected and needs to be addressed and figuratively nourished, too. Of course, our food and movement impact our health, but they are only one piece of the larger puzzle.

So, feel free to take some time to answer the below journaling prompts to help you form your own unique definition of “healthy” with a bit of reflection and an action plan:

  • What does being healthy truly mean to you? Press pause on any outside influences the best you can to answer this question.
  • How does healthy feel to you? Remember, there is no right appearance of health.
  • What are the most important aspects of your health and why? Choose from physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, financial, occupational, and so on.
  • What are the things you do on a regular basis to support relative balance of those aspects of your health?
  • What is one action you can take soon, within each of the above aspects of your health, to help you reach more relative balance?

I encourage you to decide what “healthy” means for you at this time in your life, because – remember! – you are not a robot. You are meant to change and evolve as your life does.

Caroline L. Young, MS, RD, LD, RYT, is a nutrition coach, yoga teacher and freelance journalist. Caroline is owner and founder of Whole Self Nutrition (WSN), LLC, which provides online nutrition therapy and coaching for people struggling with disordered eating, eating disorders, or chronic dieting, and people who want to develop healthier relationships to food, body and exercise. Within WSN, Caroline provides online public and private online yoga groups, and media services including writing and webinars. WSN's mission is to help people feel at ease in their skin and empowered around food, and live in alignment with their values.

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