Better = Healthy?

Years ago I did one of those popular weight loss programs. You know the one where you calculate points, get weighed in and go to meetings ? The topic of the health food store would invariably come up. Usually the conversation went something like “I figured the triple chocolate fudge brownie double chocolate chip cookies were healthy because they sold them in the health food store.” Ten years later, the conversation usually goes something like “Well I figured the triple chocolate fudge brownie double chocolate chip cookies were healthy because the ingredients are all natural.”

So, how do you define a healthy food? To me healthy food is nutrient dense (high in vitamins and minerals and relatively low in calories), minimally processed and free from artificial ingredients. I could expand this definition to include – low in sodium and sugar, moderate in unsaturated fat, moderate to high in protein and high in fiber.

Now let’s look at my definition of healthy and compare it with the term all natural.

Does “all natural” equal healthy? In a word – no. Natural in terms of food labeling is a board term that is not regulated by the federal government. Foods that are free from artificial ingredients or free from synthetic processes are generally considered “natural” and can be labeled as such. Leaves a little too much room to the food labeling imagination for me.

What I take issue with is the fact that many people think word “natural” is synonymous with “healthy”. Using this criteria (natural=healthy) table sugar, which satisfies the definition of natural, would be considered healthy.

Now, before you navigate away from this page, because you think I’m about to get all preachy about table sugar – wait. I’m not saying that table sugar is “dangerous” or that you’ll lose all your hair and die if you eat a candy bar. Table sugar, candy bars and alcohol can all be a part of a healthy diet if minimally consumed (noticed I stayed away from the popular “in moderation” which has become a very flexible concept). Indulge more than three times a week and you’re not likely to reach you fitness and/or weight loss goals. Indulge to excess and you’ll be a candidate for a 12 Step program (Sugarholics Anonymous, anyone?).

So then this brings us to the dilemma of healthier vs healthy. Is the all natural cookie made with honey, whole wheat flour, canola oil and dried fruit “better” for you than the cookie made with High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) or Crisco? Sort of – the first cookie would at least have some fiber and lack the saturated fat or trans fat of the second, but the first cookie would still be high in sugar and fat. Does the fact that the first cookie is better make it healthier or better yet, “healthy”?

Let’s use this analogy. You go to the doctor with severe shoulder pain. She asks you to rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being searing debilitating pain. The pain is intense and you can’t move your shoulder, so you rate your pain a 10. Your doctor prescribes some medication and advises you to come back in a week.

A week later you can raise your arm to shoulder level but not over your head, and you rate your pain a level 6. Is your shoulder “better”? Of course. Is it a healthy/functional shoulder? No, not unless you consider nagging pain and the inability to use your shoulder to reach for an object on a  high shelf or bring your hands to your head in order to wash your hair healthy and functional.

My point is healthier or better doesn’t equal healthy.

Why am I dwelling on this? Because too often people will look at an all natural food, without regard to nutrient density and caloric density (i.e. – high calorie food), and consider it healthy because it’s “healthier” or “better” or less processed than a junk food. Said healthier food then becomes their daily snack, breakfast, etc. This starts the cycle of “I eat healthy” or “I know how/what to eat and I exercise but I just can’t seem to lose weight”. Maybe it’s your All Natural triple chocolate fudge brownie carob chip cookies. Natural or “healthier” foods can be laden with calories, sugar and fat just like any processed food. Indulge and enjoy but don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re doing something healthy.

Nutrient density and calories count. The next time you want a treat grab an All Natural cookie or two. The next time you want something sweet on a weeknight grab some berries. Now that’s (nature’s) candy!