Leafy greens are healthy, and a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese is unhealthy — right? Leafy greens are full of vitamins and minerals, while the Quarter Pounder is full of…bad stuff…and will make you fat and diabetic — right? So we should all eat leafy greens every day and leave the Quarter Pounders to those who don’t care about being healthy.
What I’m about to say will probably shock you, but hear me out before you decide I’ve lost my mind: the Quarter Pounder isn’t “unhealthy.” And the leafy greens aren’t “healthy,” either.
When you’ve recovered from your shock, let’s talk about why.
What does “healthy” really mean, anyway?
“Healthy” is the watchword of the day. We’re told to eat a healthy diet. Get a healthy amount of exercise. Live a healthy lifestyle. We try to have a healthy outlook on life, and to avoid unhealthy attitudes. We want to have a healthy social support system. We try to stay out of unhealthy relationships.
Now let me ask you: what does any of that really mean?
Consider for a moment. “Eat a healthy diet” sounds great. It sounds positive. It sounds like something we should want to do. But if you stop and think about it — it doesn’t really mean anything. It conjures up rosy images of nice, fit people smiling and doing…healthy things…but really doesn’t give us any information. What is a healthy diet, anyway? What defines “healthy?”
If I say, “Eat a diet that’s high in vitamins and minerals,” it means something. Likewise, if I say, “Go for a swim or ride a bike for half an hour each day,” it means something. If I say, "Exercising for half an hour each day lowers your risk of heart disease," it means something. But healthy? “Healthy” can mean anything or nothing, depending on who’s saying it. Healthy is nothing but a weasel word.
Weasel words are like gossip
Words matter. They’re how we convey information. They give shape to ideas. They affect what we think, how we feel, and how we behave. Words are powerful things. In the right hands, words can shape the behavior of an entire society. And the words that we use when we're talking about our health are especially powerful.
I’ve tried to address this idea a few times. I’ve talked about how changing the words we use to talk about things — replacing “medicine” with “healthcare,” for example — color the way we think about them. I’ve talked a little bit about how Big Pharma uses words to scare us into buying their snake oil. Remember, subtle manipulation of the words we read can change our perception and cloud reality. This puts the power in the hands of pharmaceutical companies. “Healthy” is one of the words that’s used to do just that.
When something is labeled “healthy,” it insinuates that it’s good for us, but doesn’t give us any real information. Like gossip, it suggests something but doesn’t tell us anything concrete. It doesn’t give us any facts.
This is exactly what “weasel words” do. They’re a set of words that are heavily used in advertising. And politics. And sadly, in medicine. Weasel words are what we use when we want to suggest something but don’t want to be held accountable. Weasel words are words like helps or supports. Or seems. Appears. New and improved. Many.
Here’s a prime example of weasel words at work:
Many people agree that our new and improved formula for snake oil helps support their healthy lifestyle and promotes a strong immune system.
See what I did there? I said a whole lot of nothing, but it left a pleasant feeling that I told you something good, maybe even something important. If you insert any “healthy” product where I used the term “snake oil,” it could be a testimonial for anything from yoga classes to a new drug — or a brand of organic leafy greens.
“Many” people could be ten or ten thousand. “New and improved” doesn’t even make any sense — if it’s new, how can it be improved? And if it’s improved, what’s it an improvement over? This new and improved formula doesn’t actually do anything, either — it just helps. But it doesn’t help in any specific way — it supports. It promotes.
These are weasel words. And “healthy” fits right in with all the others. It sounds great and means nothing.
Let’s say what we really mean instead of calling things “healthy” or “unhealthy”
Leafy greens aren’t healthy. And Quarter Pounders aren’t unhealthy. “Healthy” means nothing in this context. Here’s what we should be saying instead:
Leafy greens are nutritious. They’re high in many vitamins and minerals, which our bodies need in order to function properly. However, if all you ate was leafy greens, you’d soon be anything but “healthy.” You’d eventually die of malnutrition. All real food is, by definition, nutritious. It’s not “healthy” or “unhealthy.”
Quarter Pounders are not “unhealthy” or “healthy” either. They can be fattening. They have an incredible number of calories, and if you eat too many calories you’re going to gain weight. Carrying too much weight can lead to disease. However, the Quarter Pounder itself isn’t “unhealthy.”
The root problem is that we’re using the word “healthy” all wrong.
Healthy means free of disease or injury. So food itself isn’t healthy or unhealthy--at least not in the way we typically use the words. We can be healthy. We are either healthy or diseased. Our food, on the other hand, is...just food. It can be nutritious, or it can be full of empty calories. In the end, “healthy” only applies to the state of our bodies, not our eating habits or exercise practices. Using the word any other way just turns it into a weasel.