What makes a meal healthy?
There are so many different reasons why a person makes the food choices they do. One of these reasons is the perceived healthiness of a food or meal.
There are many views as to what makes a food ‘healthy’. There is little debate that fruits and vegetables meet the criterion for ‘healthy foods’.
Soft drink, confectionary and deep fried take away food sit on the other end of the healthy spectrum. However the questions remains about all the foods and meals that sit between these two groups.
Nutrition scientists can use a range of criteria to determine the nutritional credentials of a food. When it comes to the consumer, however, surprisingly little is known about how they determine if a food is ‘healthy’.
Using a buffet display, 85 consumers (none of whom had studied nutrition, were following a medical diet or had a history of an eating disorder) were asked for their subjective healthiness evaluation of 54 different meals, individual foods and beverages.
The consumer ratings were compared to objective measures based on the scientific nutrient profile of the food. There was a strong correlation between consumer perceptions of healthiness and the scientific assessment.
The correlations were strongest for individual foods, but did tend to fall away when it came to assessing meals.
The participants tended to give meals a lower healthy rating even though they gave higher ratings to the individual ingredients on their own. Fibre content was a good predictor of a positive healthy rating, while added sugar and fat content predicted an unhealthy rating.
Consumers were less likely to take into account the saturated fat, salt and protein content of the food or meals informing their healthiness rating.
Nutrition is not as confusing as people may think. What constitutes healthy eating has changed little over time and is something that people are intuitively aware of.
It is making the choice to eat the healthier food in the first place that is often hardest for people.
Last Reviewed: 01/10/2019
Norman Swan Medical Communications
Bucher T et al. What is healthy food? Objective nutrient profile scores and subjective lay evaluations in comparison. Appetite 2015;95:408-414.