What is Healthy?

By Alexandra Caspero on August 9, 2017

This idea has been circling in my mind a lot lately, the concept of health and healthy eating. What, exactly, does healthy mean?

I was pondering this exact thing on a recent scroll through Instagram. Like many of you, I follow a wide variety of people. Family, best friends, colleagues and random internet-goers sharing their lives and more importantly, their food.

After a few minutes of Insta-stalking, I came across a video for paleo brownies. You know, the dessert our cave-men ancestors used to bring new cave-neighbors to welcome them to the area. Anyways, what caught my eye first was the many comments on the video, heaping praise for making their favorite dessert ‘so healthy.’ One even saying how happy she was to find this recipe because ‘she could finally enjoy her favorite dessert again!’ Finally, a dessert that fit into a diet plan based on nutrition un-truths with foods that definitely weren’t around during any Paleolithic era.

Sure, coconut sugar was used in place of regular sugar, and both collagen and protein powder were added to the flour, but how is this really any better? Is this what our current nutrition criteria has come to? Swapping in various versions of sweeteners and flours on a quest to be healthier?

Which, brings me to my original question:

What is Healthy?

My bet is that you have your answer. And, if you asked the person next to you, they would have theirs. A long time ago, I would even bet that two complete strangers would overlap on what foods they considered to be healthy; with most agreeing that kale, lentils and peaches all belong in that category. Though, with as much nutrition dogma and misinformation that’s out there, that’s a bet I’d pass on these days.

The point being is that we all have our definitions of healthy. Some might consider grass-fed beef to be healthy, while others would claim it as one of the most unhealthiest foods. Same is true for beans. One could label it a perfect food, other’s would complain about their phytate content.

I’m not going to list the items that I consider to be ‘healthy food’ as I don’t think that would add much to the discussion. I’ll save the debate on individual nutrients for another time. Instead, I’m going to focus on intention. Which, most of the time, could replace the concept of healthy.

It’s all about Intention

Intention is a powerful thing, especially when it comes down to food choices. Many of my clients ask for my opinion on various food products, wanting to know if I consider them to be ‘healthy.’ Ah, there’s that word again.

My response usually has to do with intention. What is your intention for eating it? 

Let’s take the above brownie. The paleo one, not a regular brownie. If my intention for eating a paleo brownie was because I was excited to try a new recipe or knew that my body felt better when I ate gluten-free, then my intentions are likely a healthy one. There’s no guilt around eating this version of a brownie compared to the regular kind, it’s the choice that I made in the moment with good intentions of nourishment.

Now, let’s flip that. Say I wanted to eat the paleo version of the brownie because I didn’t feel like I deserved the regular dessert. I was really craving chocolate and decided to make this recipe as a ‘healthy’ alternative, yet felt punished in my decision. I felt compelled to make this version of the dessert because it fit into criteria for health that I had set for myself. Well, to me, that’s not healthy. Even if you are eating refined-sugar free, gluten-free and all that jazz. The stress and the guilt around choosing a food that doesn’t honor your intentions isn’t healthy.

(Plus! Research shows that we tend to over-eat foods/ignore fullness cues when we eat foods that we think are ‘healthy’ compared to savoring one’s we consider to be ‘unhealthy.’ More food for thought.)

Even so-called healthy food can fit in the same example. Salads are awesome! I love salads. After our birthing class last night, I came home and put together a giant one stuffed with vegetables, baked tofu, beans and a lemon-hummus dressing. It was delicious and I kept telling BL in-between bites how much I loved this salad. It was a good experience. My intention was to eat food that felt nourishing and I did.

But what about when healthy eating isn’t really healthy? What if instead of feeling super excited about the meal that I had last night, I felt like I had to eat that way? Let’s say I was feeling down on myself, wanting to lose weight and felt that the only way to do so was by cutting carbs and eating nothing but boring, tasteless salads. Well, that changes the intention doesn’t it? Instead of riding high on my food choice, the salad option felt like a chore. A punishment that I had to eat because that’s what ‘healthy’ eating is, or simply a means to the ends for weight loss.

Same salad. Same dessert. Two completely different mindsets.

When it comes to healthy eating, intention is everything. Why do you choose the foods you do? If you are choosing foods because you feel like you have to, even if you don’t want to, well, that’s not very healthy in the long run. It’s what gives dieting a bad name and why so many of my clients come to me in utter frustration. “I’ve tried everything and nothing works.” Well, in the case, let’s reframe the mindset, not necessarily the food.

So, what is healthy?

I look at health in a few ways: what does the science tell us about the connection between nutrients and the impact on longevity and chronic disease and what foods make me feel my best? I’m also focused on the ethics and environmental impact on the food that I choose. You might have different criteria for health, but that’s mine. I tend to choose items that are nutrient-dense most of the time, with permission to eat foods that don’t fit into this category when my intention takes me there.

I gravitate towards plant-based foods because I feel best when I eat this way. I know how different my energy and body feels after a salad like the one above versus after a plate of nachos.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I don’t choose the nachos sometimes. I love a good plate of nachos, especially when sharing them with my sweet BL, on our couch watching a movie and drinking ice-cold beer together. In these moments, my intention is to honor my cravings and be present to my surroundings without guilt about my food choices. If I were to feel badly about what I was eating, then I would be taken out of the moment, focused instead of calories, fat grams and ingredients than spending quality time with my love.

I also know, from having an intuitive relationship with my body, that I wouldn’t feel so hot eating this way all the time. It’s not that I can’t have nachos all the time, it’s my intention not to. As I’ve said multiple times before and will continue to say, choice is a very powerful thing. Feeling like you have a choice in how you nourish your body is a game-changer.

So, healthy. What is it? Well, that’s the million dollar question. My response to this is a mixture of intention and nourishment. Consider what foods make you feel the most nourished. This may change from day to day, and that’s OK. It’s also OK to choose foods that you know you won’t feel great eating, as long as it’s your intention to do so. Remember, focusing too much on healthy eating isn’t very healthy either.


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Meet Alex Caspero

Alex Caspero is a Registered Dietitian, New York Times Bestselling Chef, and mom of two. She aims to cut through the nutrition noise by providing real-life, nourishing tips for body and mind. Learn more about Alex.

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    1. Maddie
      August 26, 2017 AT 4:10 pm

      YES to all of this!! I am asked all the time if a specific food is healthy and I love your response about intention. Thanks for sharing this.

      1. Alex
        August 27, 2017 AT 10:56 am

        Thanks Maddie! Glad you liked it.

    2. Nicola
      August 13, 2017 AT 1:51 pm

      Love this post! I often find I gravitate towards the “healthier” versions of sweets. Sometimes I prefer the heartier flavour of a whole-wheat banana loaf sweetened with only fruit than the one-note sweetness of one made with white flour and refined sugar, or I’ll choose sweet potato brownies made with almond flour over conventional brownies because I know the the fibre and protein will keep me going until dinnertime instead of causing a blood sugar spike and crash (though I wouldn’t do this if my homemade sweet potato brownies weren’t every bit as delicious as your average conventional brownie).

      But if I want cookie dough ice cream? I’m not settling for some pureed frozen banana and PB, no matter how delicious that might be. I do still struggle with guilt and second thoughts over eating “unhealthy” foods, but I’m working on it, and I know from long experience that I won’t be satisfied if I’m craving one thing and try to feed my craving with another.

    3. Lauren L.
      August 10, 2017 AT 8:28 am

      What a great way to look at it! You are so right in that healthy is different for everyone. All the “healthy” “not-healthy” claims out there make it difficult to know what foods are best to eat, and often lead to guilty feelings when eating a food that you think is healthy but others have touted it as being “full of hormones” or “full of GMOs”. Thank you for saying this in such an eloquent, neutral way.

    4. Lindsey | Nutrition to Fit
      August 9, 2017 AT 12:16 pm

      Love this post and your emphasis on intention! I wrote a similar one lately about the term “healthy” and how subjective it is, and love seeing more professionals on this same page! P.S. Congrats on your pregnancy!