Healthy: Who Defines it Anyway?

Mar 28, 2023

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Episode Description

It’s a hot time for health. For the first time in almost 30 years, the FDA is planning to update its definition of healthy. In the nutrition community, there’s a movement to consider more factors, like age, lifestyle and culture, when recommending food choices. Consumers are considering health more holistically—not just as the food we eat but also our physical and mental wellbeing. We’ll explore how our thinking about “healthy” has evolved and what it means for peanuts and peanut butter through conversations with NPB dietitians Markita Lewis, Sherry Coleman Collins and foodservice dietitian Ann Dunaway Teh.

It’s a hot time for health. For the first time in almost 30 years, the FDA is planning to update its definition of healthy. In this episode, we’ll explore how our thinking about “healthy” has evolved and what it means for peanuts and peanut butter through conversations with NPB dietitians Markita Lewis and Sherry Coleman Collins and foodservice dietitian Ann Dunaway Teh.

Markita Lewis is a registered dietitian nutritionist and joined the National Peanut Board as a marketing and communications associate in October 2022. To her, healthy can have a variety of meanings.

“When we're talking about healthy eating, as a dietitian, I'm going to say healthy eating is really trying to get the nutrients that you need so that your body is able to do all these natural processes. You have the energy to go about your day and do things. But then also healthy is about your relationship to food, like what are your food preferences, how are you honoring your own food culture, and even how foods make you feel while you're eating, and then after eating, and then even just beyond that, looking at a whole-body holistic approach, making sure that both your physical and mental well-being are taken care of.”

Lewis shares more about how the FDA defines the term healthy. “Back in 1994, the FDA made the original regulations for the definition of healthy so which is what [foods] can be marketed as healthy. It was really focused on looking at nutrients to limit so being mindful of total fat, saturated fat, sodium and other nutrients like that, but then also the inclusion of essential vitamins and minerals. And so, we definitely had a certain way of thinking about nutrition back in the day, that is quite different from how we think about it now.

“The FDA, looking at current dietary guidance such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the newly updated nutrition facts label, they're really looking at it more from a food perspective and looking at healthy dietary patterns. This proposed update to the definition of healthy is about emphasizing nutrient-dense foods, as well as foods with nutrients that work synergistically so that they can support a healthful diet and lower the incidence of chronic health diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease which are very prevalent.”

Ann Dunaway Teh is a registered and licensed dietitian nutritionist, as well as a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics. She specializes in menu planning, nutrition analysis and nutrition communications. To her, “healthy is one of those words that means something different to everyone. And while I think most people think of "food" when they think of healthy, I think that there's so much more to health besides just the food that we put into our bodies. Obviously, being a registered dietitian nutritionist, I'm primarily concerned with food, but I think there's a lot of other aspects that affect our health. And for me, personally, I think about just being in tune with my body, in tune with my hunger signals and cravings, and honoring those, eating a wide variety of foods, food that is safe to eat. And then also physical activity and mental health to me are all kind of round out what healthy means.”

Teh says that FDA’s update to the definition of healthy “really means that like foods like peanuts, which we know to be healthy because they have great amount of unsaturated fats in them, those now can be recognized as healthy. The only limits will be added sugar, sodium and saturated fat. It really does encompass those foods that contribute to health and heart health in particular. I think that this is a really good thing that we update. And also, this claim helps people recognize at a glance what are good food choices for them when they're in the grocery store.”

Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts, including peanuts, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.

Peanuts and peanut butter are both affordable, plant-based proteins that help people of all economic backgrounds. All of these factors contribute to this changing understanding of healthy, which considers living well in a way that holistically serves the body, mind and spirit.

Teh says, “I believe in recent years our view of healthy has really changed and become much more holistic, that it's not just what we eat, the food we put into our mouths, or the exercise or physical activity we get in a day or don't get in the day. But it's much more encompassing…I think mental health has gotten a lot more attention in recent years, and the impact our mental health has on our overall wellbeing.”

Sherry Coleman Collins is a registered dietitian nutritionist who consults for NPB. Collins believes healthy can seem unnecessarily complicated.

“I think that the term healthy can be…really intimidating for people. And I think people have a lot of different ideas. It's not unlike the term wellness. Wellness and healthy, these conjure up ideas for people around clean foods, or foods that are ultra-nutritious and have no downsides. For me, the term healthy is really a much more balanced kind of idea. Healthy means leading a life that is vibrant and allows us to do the things that we want to do and to feel good most of the time and to recover quickly when we don't feel good. That to me is what healthy looks like.”

Specifically for peanuts, the new FDA proposed rule is positive. Collins says, “The benefits for peanuts are that it updates the way that we see saturated fat. So, saturated fat content that's naturally occurring isn't a ding anymore [for peanut and nut and seed products]…From that perspective, it's good. We know that most of the fat in peanuts is good anyway…And then of course, we know that peanuts qualify for the FDA approved heart health claim. And that still remains in effect. We'll see what the rest of the rule comes out like when it's published, but I think at the moment, it's actually really positive thing.”

For peanut butter, it may be a different story. Lewis says, “if the rule passes as is…unfortunately, most conventional peanut butters won't be able to have the claim of healthy. FDA currently states that protein foods are not able to have any grams of added sugars. So, zero grams of added sugar. And most conventional peanut butters will have about two grams of added sugar just for palatability. And this is very unfortunate, because the research on peanut butter shows health benefits for both conventional and natural style. For peanut butter to potentially miss out on being considered healthy, that might cause consumers to avoid this food that [has 7 grams of protein per serving], has good fats, has over 30 vitamins and minerals and other nutrients that are beneficial to them and is shown by research to be beneficial.”

Collins also shared what health trends are on the horizon and The Peanut Institute’s (TPI) areas of focus with peanut nutrition research. “Over the years, [TPI] has done a great job of identifying worthwhile research projects, really thinking about partnering with incredible academic institutions around the world to support the most cutting-edge research on peanuts in human health. Right now, there's a real focus on the microbiome…we do know that the microbiome has an incredible influence on our short term and long-term health. And so, we're trying to understand that better…The other area where [TPI is] doing a lot of funding is in cognition. Brain health is something that people are very focused on. There are lots of questions we have about the brain and diet and how diet can influence brain health, both from a mental and emotional status, and then also, just like a physical status long term, so protecting the brain as we age, but also improving our mental wellbeing in the short term.”