The Difference Between Healthy and Nutritious

It is very common for us to think that when we purchase something healthy, we are also purchasing something nutritious. However, that has more to do with marketing than accuracy. First, let’s get technical here. Merriam-Webster defines healthy as, “free from disease or pain,” and nutritious as, “nourishing.”1 Hopefully, none of us are consuming products that are diseased or in pain (Eww). By definition alone, products aren’t “healthy,” they are somewhere on the spectrum between non-nutritious and nutritious.

In order to prevent my attorney from experiencing heart palpitations, let me state for the record, I am not a medical professional. I have no formal training in nutrition or health. However, I do have a reasonable amount of common sense, and an even keener eye for it when I see it. Michael Ruhlman, author of Grocery, The Buying & Selling of Food in America, says, “Our food is not healthy; we will be healthy if we eat nutritious food.”2 Food companies try to market their products to appear healthy, which can lead us to believe they are nutritious. I looked up a popular item for kids, fruit snacks. I saw one popular brand put in large, bold print, on the box that they were made with “natural juice.” Then I looked up a well-respected organic brand and viewed their ingredient list: organic tapioca syrup, organic cane sugar, organic tapioca syrup solids, organic white grape juice concentrate, and more. These first four ingredients, while sounding better than corn syrup, are just sugars. Sugars have virtually no nutritional content.

Okay, that one may have been obvious. How about fat-free half-and-half? That MUST be better than full-fat half-and-half right? The top two main ingredients of the full-fat version are milk & cream. The top two main ingredients of the fat-free version are skim milk & corn syrup. So, you get half the calories, double the sugar and none of the iron.

Life moves fast, and we don’t always have the time (or chemistry degree) to dissect ingredient labels. If a company is telling us something is healthy, or all-natural, or organic, or gluten-free, shouldn’t we be able to trust that it’s a good choice? Perhaps, but that’s not always the way it works. Some tricks that get us include: sugar ingredients being spread throughout the ingredients list to avoid showing in the first few ingredients (which is always listed in order of most quantity to least); padding the list with nutritious foods, however these tend to be in such small quantities as to be meaningless.Now don’t be too hard on the food manufacturers. They are trying to give us what we are asking for: foods that are fast, with little to no preparation, aren’t too expensive, that taste good AND are good for us! So they make what we want and feature any positives they can find.

Ultimately, it’s about knowing what we are consuming. If you are craving a bag of Cheetos, then have at it, but don’t allow marketing to fool you into thinking they are better for you if they are baked. Nutritionally speaking, they are almost equally absent of nutrients. Likewise, if you want to treat your kids to fruit snacks, don’t feel guilted into switching those out for a cardboard tasting granola bar (that they probably won’t eat anyway). Just know that they aren’t getting nutrients from that particular snack.

Generally speaking, the best way to eat is to focus on nutrients and not claims of “healthy.” I feel pretty certain that you have an abundant dose of common sense, and a keen eye for it. Work on consuming the most nutrients and minimizing consumption of the other “stuff.” This will help you keep your body in optimal condition – healthy. The FDA has a very helpful guide for reading nutrition labels.4 Be sure to check it out and educate yourself instead of relying on food manufacturers to “educate” us. Knowledge is power!

Your turn! What is your favorite nutrient-rich food? (Mine are sweet potatoes, eggs, blueberries, and black beans). Share yours in the comments section. Have a recipe? Share that, too!

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1 - “Dictionary by Merriam-Webster: America's most-Trusted online dictionary.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 1 Sept. 2017.

2 - Ruhlman, Michael. “No food is healthy. Not even kale.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 17 Jan. 2016, Accessed 1 Sept. 2017.

3 - Adams, Mike. “How food manufacturers trick consumers with deceptive ingredients lists.” NaturalNews, 10 July 2007, Accessed 1 Sept. 2017.

4 - Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Labeling & Nutrition - How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label.” U S Food and Drug Administration Home Page, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Accessed 1 Sept. 2017.


  1. My favorite nutrient-rich food are avocado, seaweed and fish. I also like to eat blueberries and blackberries. You are right about healthy does not means nutritious. I usually check the ingredients when I get the food at the supermarket. Nevertheless. the food freshly out of the farm is always the best for me.

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