A Spotlight on “Healthy” Food Choices—And What That Even Means
So eat from the good, lawful things which Allah has provided for you, and be grateful for Allah’s favours, if you [truly] worship Him [alone]. (Quran 16:114)
Making “Healthy” Choices
If you feel like you are navigating a growing mix of nutrition labels, health claims, and diet trends—all amid skyrocketing grocery prices and inflation—you are not alone. When confronted with different messages about what is considered “healthy,” especially if these messages conflict with or don’t align with cultural dietary patterns, many consumers find it challenging to identify the foods that best meet their dietary needs.
However, a fall 2022 survey conducted by Ketchum with support from IFANCA found that halal consumers generally have a better grasp on nutrition labels than the general public. Consumers familiar with halal are much more likely than those who are not to look for nutritional content (81% vs. 74%) and ingredient transparency (76% vs. 62%) when shopping for food. Americans familiar with halal also associate halal with positive attributes, with more than two-in-five agreeing that it is more humane (44%), fresher (42%), and healthier (41%) than non-halal-certified foods. The same survey found that the labels “clean ingredients” (76%), “no added hormones or steroids” (74%), and “raised without antibiotics” (71%) are important to the general population when purchasing food products.
While other studies have shown that consumers value nutrition labels, these labels do not account for barriers to purchasing or accessing healthy food, such as availability and affordability. And they fail to take into consideration the relationship between diet and mental and spiritual health.
Redefining “Healthy”: An Evolving Term
The “healthy” food claim was established in 1994 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). According to the FDA, “the existing definition [of healthy] has limits for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium and to qualify, foods must also provide at least 10% of the Daily Value (DV) for one or more of the following nutrients: vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein and fiber.” Only about 5% of all packaged foods meet the necessary requirements to be labeled “healthy,” according to the FDA.
In September 2022, the FDA issued a proposed rule that would update the definition of the term “healthy” and the use of this claim on food packaging and labels. Then, on March 24, 2023, the FDA released its latest drafted proposal for the use of the term “healthy.” The proposed update is informed by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), 2020-2025 and would require that food labels using a Dietary Guidance Statement contain “a meaningful amount” of the specific foods or food groups—including vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, and protein—that are recommended by the FDA for a healthy dietary pattern.
According to the FDA, a healthy dietary pattern includes fruits, vegetables, lower-fat dairy, and whole grains. A diet rich in these foods has been associated with improved health outcomes, such as a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancers, and being overweight or obese. Yet over 80% of U.S. consumers lack sufficient intake of fruits, vegetables, and dairy, according to the FDA.
As the definition of “healthy” has evolved, so too have diet fads and trends, with some of the most popular diets in the U.S. today being the paleo, keto, and Mediterranean diets. Beyond these diet trends, “food as medicine” is a concept that is gaining increased attention among the health professional community and those interested in the intersections of socio-emotional, environmental, and physical health.
According to the American Society for Nutrition (ASN), “food as medicine, also known as ‘food is medicine,’ sits at the crossroads of nutrition and healthcare. It may take many forms, including medically tailored meals, medically tailored groceries, and produce prescription programs.” Peer-reviewed studies have shown that food-as-medicine programs can be effective in addressing diet-related chronic diseases.
In Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice, Rupa Marya, physician and activist, and Raj Patel, food system activist and policy professor, approach health from the lens of social justice. Specifically, they highlight the connections between health and the historical and ongoing structural injustices that have led to disproportionately high rates of diet-related disease among Black, Brown, and Native communities in the U.S., including type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
What is considered “healthy” does not always account for the impact that diet has on holistic well-being, including spiritual, mental, and physical health. And, while the USDA is taking steps to advance equity in the U.S. food system, health inequities–and their implications for pursuing a healthy dietary pattern throughout the lifespan–will continue to exist until structural injustices are fundamentally addressed.
USDA Dietary Guidelines: Food Pyramid to MyPlate
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) introduced MyPlate, which promotes eating a combination of different fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins, and dairy or fortified soy alternatives. MyPlate replaced the USDA’s food pyramid guide and is based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are revised every five years and informed, in part, by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The NHANES survey has been conducted annually since the early 1960s with the goal of better understanding how dietary patterns impact the health and nutrition outcomes of people living in the United States.
The authors of a March 2023 white paper, “Critical Data at the Crossroads: The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey Faces Growing Challenges,” published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, argue that NHANES must adapt and incorporate new methodologies to remain relevant amid evolving concerns about health and nutrition. Yet the authors make no mention of the current gap in questions that seek to understand access to culturally important foods and foods that meet faith-based dietary guidelines. As a result, NHANES—and the national dietary guidelines informed by the survey—is limited in its ability to understand the nuances of healthy dietary patterns among certain demographics, including Muslim Americans who observe halal guidelines.
Eating for Spiritual and Mental Health
“O Children of Adam! Dress properly whenever you are at worship. Eat and drink, but do not waste. Surely He does not like the wasteful.” (Quran 7:31)
Many health professionals generally agree that balance and moderation are key to a healthy diet. However, as the field of nutrition compiles new data, recommendations about just how much to eat of certain food groups are continuing to evolve.
For example, dietary fat used to be villainized. Today, however, high-quality sources of dietary fat are regarded as an integral part of a healthy diet, and low-carb diets are more and more common. Another example of the evolution of what is regarded as “healthy” is calorie counting, which used to be emphasized for maintaining a healthy weight. Now, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the quality of the food we eat is widely regarded as more important than merely counting the calories we consume.
How Food and Nutrition Security Impact Health
In 2021, 10.2% of American households were food insecure, according to the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS). The USDA ERS also notes that Black households experienced food insecurity at a rate of 19.8% and for Hispanic households the rate of food insecurity was 16.2%. Native Americans suffer the highest rates of food insecurity (23.5%) of any demographic in the U.S., according to Feeding America. These disparities stem from a long history of structural racism.
According to the Met Council’s analysis of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU)’s 2022 American Muslim Poll, Muslim Americans are twice as likely (10% versus 4%) as the general public to be food insecure, with respondents saying they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat.
For Muslim Americans who rely on food pantries to supplement or fill their nutrition needs, finding suitable halal options can be a challenge. According to the Met Council report, only one of the over 120 products offered through The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which services food banks nationwide, is required to be halal certified.
To ensure a healthy dietary pattern, consumers should have access to foods that meet their faith-based dietary guidelines. As the definition of “healthy” and the guidelines for labeling a food as such continue to evolve, it is important to 1) center access, affordability, and availability; 2) address the root causes of food and nutrition inequities and insecurity; and 3) empower people to make the food choices that will make them feel their best, healthiest, and most spiritually fulfilled selves.
Amelia Keleher is the food and health equity coordinator at IFANCA. In this role, she collaborates with key partners to advocate for statewide and national policy changes that address food and nutrition security. She is also working to expand access to halal foods for K-12 and college students nationwide. Based in Portland, ME, she has a strong commitment to cultivating sustainable and equitable food systems and enacting food justice in her local community and beyond.