Is pizza healthy? Are hamburgers healthy? Are Oreos healthy? These are some of the most common nutrition questions around. The answer to the question, “Is [insert food here] healthy?” is more complicated than a simple yes or no. Typically, individual foods can’t be classified as healthy or unhealthy by themselves. More important than figuring out whether a food item is healthy or not, is figuring out how it fits into an overall lifestyle. Foods can be relatively good or bad depending on an individual’s life choices.

Typical Definition of a Healthy Food

If you’re looking for the typical definition of a healthy food, here it is: not processed, low in saturated fat, sugar, simple carbohydrates and sodium, free from trans fats, preservatives and chemicals, contains unsaturated fat, complex carbs, 100% whole grains, fiber, minerals, vitamins, antioxidants and lean proteins. Healthy foods are typically cooked using fresh ingredients rather than frozen ready to eat meals or fast food.

Using this definition, Oreos, hamburgers and pizzas would be considered unhealthy. By looking at the overall picture rather than a single food, you can still incorporate foods that you enjoy but are “unhealthy”.

Definition of a Healthy Lifestyle

While eating healthy food is part of living a healthy lifestyle, a healthy lifestyle is based on much more than simply the foods we eat. A healthy lifestyle involves all of the choices we make that relate to our health including: practicing good nutrition, increasing physical activity, minimizing stress and reducing our exposure to harmful substances (smoking, alcohol, UV radiation).

Whether or not you live a healthy lifestyle is way more important than whether or not a single food you eating today is good or bad. When you’re looking at the big picture, can a single hamburger or a few slices of pizza really change how healthy you are? A single food item influences our overall health a lot less than some people think.

Can a single food be classified as healthy or unhealthy?

A single food can’t necessarily be classified as healthy or unhealthy. What’s more important than whether or not the single food is healthy or not is how it fits into your overall lifestyle. Let’s take the following scenarios:

Person A is obese, smokes, rarely exercises, doesn’t cook, eats out at fast food restaurants most of the time and generally doesn’t care about their health. Person B maintains a healthy weight range, exercises regularly, avoids eating out, eats plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and is very interested in making healthy choices most of the time.

Person A needs a quick snack and eats an apple. Person B also needs a quick snack but eats some cookies. Without looking at the overall lifestyles, you would think Person A made the better choice. An apple has plenty of vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients while a cookie is mostly sugar and empty calories.

When you look at the lifestyles that both of these people have created for themselves, you get a different picture. If someone is obese and makes all the wrong health choices, one apple is not going to do them a lot of good. The same is true for someone that makes the right choices most of the time. Eating healthy and exercising will negate any effects that a cookie might have.

The Bottom Line

Single foods or meals can’t be judged in a vacuum. Instead of figuring out whether an item is healthy or not, start making the right choices most of the time. Eat: 100% whole grains, lots of fruits and vegetables, unsaturated fats and lean proteins while avoiding saturated and trans fats, sodium, sugar and processed foods. When you follow these general guidelines most of the time, you can splurge some of the time.

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