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Making Healthy Food Choices: It’s More Complicated Than You Might Think

Making Healthy Food Choices: It’s More Complicated Than You Might Think

People use the phrase “healthy food choices” all the time these days.  When we first hear it, it sounds easy enough to understand.  It seems universal, a phrase that would mean the same thing to everyone.  But upon closer examination, we find that the phrase “healthy food choices” means something different to everyone.  It’s not nearly as standard as you might be tempted to think.  In this post, I am going to share 6 Reasons why making healthy food choices is a bit more complicated that you might think.

food choicesKatie Smith/ Unsplash.com

1.  Availability of Food

Not everyone has the same foods available to choose from.  In certain parts of the world, you won’t find super-sized grocery stores with lots of choices.  Actually, in some places, you may not find any stores at all, and all food needs to be homegrown.

In other situations, there may be plenty of food choices around, but a family does not have enough money to purchase high quality cuts of meat, seafood and organic fruits and vegetables.

As you can see, asking a financially strapped person in a third world country how they define healthy food is going to be quite different from a wealthy person in a first world country.  Sometimes it comes down to what you can get, what you can afford, and what’s not contaminated or what won’t hurt you.

2.  Health Needs Differ

Saying eat healthy to a diabetic patient is going to mean something different from saying make healthy food choices to a patient with kidney disease.  The diabetic needs to carefully watch sugar and carbohydrate intake.  Whereas, the patient with kidney disease needs to keep a very close eye on water, salt, and certain other nutrients.  What is healthy for one person, may not be healthy for another and vice versa.

I have a gastrointestinal condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).  This means the food and stomach contents in my stomach has a tendency to move back up into my esophagus, where it doesn’t belong.  This causes me to feel very uncomfortable at times, but it also has the potential to cause significant damage to my esophagus.  Some studies have even shown a link to cancer.  I have been cautioned to avoid certain foods and have also noticed that certain foods cause me more trouble than others.  So, even though something may be considered very healthy, for me it may be a big no-no!

3.  Preferences Vary

When it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter how healthy experts claim something to be, if you don’t like it you’re not going eat it.  Also certain cultures tend to eat foods that other ones would not even dream of eating.  Here is the US, we have olive bars in just about every grocery store.  Some people even include olives on the list of the world’s healthiest foods.  Although I have tried them on a few occasions, and realize they have many health benefits, I can’t stand them.  So, I’m not going to eat them by choice.  They would have to the only option and I would have to be famished for me to think they were a good option.

Preferences go beyond just what people like and don’t like. Preferences include major diet choices such as choosing to be vegetarian, vegan, paleo, or strictly organic.  Sometimes diet are chosen due to cultural or religious beliefs.  Other times they are chosen due to the perception that they are the healthiest way to go.  Nevertheless, as we can see a meat eater and a non-meat eater are not going to think the same thing about the health benefits of a turkey dinner.  One might think real turkey meat is awesome and the only way to go.  The other may be looking for the best soy substitute so that actual meat won’t ever touch their lips.  Neither is necessarily wrong, it’s just a matter of preference.

4.  Allergies & Food Sensitivities

If you look at the dietary recommendations from just about any authority they will tell you that you need a certain number of dairy portions for a healthy diet.  Well, that’s great unless of course you have an allergy to dairy.  The same goes for other food that frequently cause people allergic or sensitivity problems.  A few that I have come across in my nursing career are peanuts, shellfish, eggs, wheat, and strawberries.

While a food may in itself beneficial to the body, each of body’s respond to food differently.  I have a relative who loves ice cream but must be close to a restroom when he chooses to eat it.  Some people are sensitive to sulfites.  Sulfites are chemicals that are added to some foods to help preserve them.  A few examples are wine, bottled lemon juice, and dried fruit.  While these foods are not unhealthy in moderate amounts, they are not healthy food choices if they’re likely to make you sick.  WebMD notes that some sulfite sensitivities can be life threatening.

5.  Perceptions of What Healthy Means

Even if you are talking about people of equal financial means, in the same general location, and they tend to like similar thing and no one has allergies, healthy can still mean something different.  It has to do with what we perceive the word to mean.  Our perceptions come from personal experiences, what we have been taught, and the culture we live in.

Growing up in a middle class home, we tended to eat well-balanced meals that were moderately priced.  Feeding three kids on one full-time salary meant my parents had to spend wisely.  I don’t think I ever heard of organic foods and certainly never ate any.  I didn’t understand the benefits of organic foods and didn’t understand why someone would pay more money for ugly-looking food.  My perception was that only extreme health nuts ate organic foods.  Often these people were doing very well financially and could easily afford this extravagance.

Today, I know much more about the benefits of organic foods.  In fact, if you’d like to hear more about this topic, I invite you to listen to my podcast entitled E-Books, Personal Learning, and Organic Food Choices.  This brings me to another key point, perceptions change.  My income level has varied greatly over the last 30 years.  There were times when I had more than enough, and times when I have counted my pennies.  In the lean times, 3 boxes of pasta for a dollar sounded really healthy to me.  In times of abundance, I have purchased organic fruits, vegetables, and meats that I considered healthier choices at the time.

6.  Experts Disagree

In an article by Quealy & Sanger-Katz (2016) called “Is Sushi ‘Healthy’, What About Granola, Where Americans and Nutritionists Disagree”  these authors discuss a study of what different people consider healthy.  I would expect the public to have differences of opinion, since everyone has different experiences and levels of education.  However, I would not have expected so much variation among the experts.

There were some foods both the public and experts agreed were healthy.  This list included apples, oranges, oatmeal, chicken, and turkey.  Then there were some that both groups agreed were not healthy.  These included hamburgers, diet soda, beef jerky, white bread, and chocolate chip cookies.  But then there was a list that no one was quite sure about.  Items on this list included pop corn, pork chops, whole milk, steak, and cheddar cheese.  I have to say, it only adds to the confusion about what constitutes healthy food choices when the experts can’t even agree.

Reflection Questions

  1. How do you define healthy food?
  2. Do you have any strong preferences of foods you love or can’t bear the thought of?
  3. How do you handle other people’s food preferences if they’re different from your own?


Quealy, K. & Sanger-Katz, M (2016).  Is Sushi ‘Healthy’, What About Granola, Where Americans and Nutritionists Disagree.  The New York Times.

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