My biggest pet peeve, bigger than large groups who walk slowly and take up the entire sidewalk or people who chew loudly, is people who refer to food as healthy or unhealthy. When someone tells me how healthy their sandwich, salad or recent food choice was, I want to smack them. I don’t. I do however feel compelled to correct them by explaining that there is simply no such thing as healthy food and conversely there is no such thing as unhealthy food. Because that comment amounts to sacrilege today, I usually see a stunned facial expression followed by a rebuttal that takes the form of “come on Abby, everyone knows that snack foods (fill in your favorite) are unhealthy and a salad (again replace with quinoa bowl, avocado toast, etc.) is healthy”. Everyone is wrong!
Merriam-Webster defines healthy as an adjective that means 1) free from disease, 2) showing physical, mental or emotional well-being, 3) beneficial to one’s physical, mental or emotional state, or 4) prosperous/flourishing. None of these properties can be attributed to a plate of balsamic dressed greens or a grilled chicken breast. In fact, I could make a strong argument that a red velvet cupcake is more important for definition number 3; my emotional well-being than broiled salmon. Clearly part of what annoys me in the use of the word healthy to describe food is semantics. Different foods have different nutrients. They do not have health. Its people that are healthy or unhealthy.
If people can rightly be described as healthy or unhealthy then the logical next question is what makes a person healthy in terms of what they eat. Unfortunately there is no simple answer to this question. While peanut butter is a portable, non-perishable protein that can be great for some people, it can also be deadly for others. While tomatoes are a key part of the Mediterranean diet touted as healthy for many, they are also known as nightshades that can lead to bone and joint pain in others. While people with diabetes must limit carbs, a marathon runner who limits carbs may not reach the finish line. We are not one size fits all in terms of our biology, our health or therefore our dietary needs; yet we keep trying to find that one size fits all answer. My pet peeve is driven by our cultural refusal to see health as a construct that sits within the unique context of each individual’s life rather than a one size fits all, black and white, rule-driven set of mandates. What each of us needs to be healthy is a unique balance of foods that provide a wide range of nutrients. There are simply no “good” or “bad”, “healthy” or “unhealthy” foods and there are no simple formulas.
As an eating disorder therapist I have seen the damage that rigid rules around food can create. Rules replace flexible, pleasurable, celebratory and relaxed eating with obsessive, restrictive, furtive and compulsive behaviors that deny us the rich, varied and real definition of the word health that includes physical, emotional and mental well-being as well as the right to flourish. So if you see me eating a Twinkie, congratulate me on my good health.