It’s a busy day and you’re looking for food between classes; maybe a meal or a quick snack. You find a pre-packaged salad in one of the fresh markets on campus and it’s perfect; a portable, convenient meal that’s still healthy. At least that’s what you think until you see the nutrition facts: high in calories, carbs and fat.

You set it down and try a package of vegetable chips instead. Those are high-calorie. Maybe a snack box with nuts and dried fruits is better, but after checking the nutrition facts, you notice the box is full of sugar and fat. So you set it down and glance over your options at a loss. You wanted healthy food, but based off of the nutrition labels, none of them seem very healthy.

Before deciding whether the situation is salvageable or not, first consider what “healthy” really means. When people are looking for healthy food, all too often they think they are looking for something low in calories, fat, carbohydrates or sugar. While it is true that someone usually needs less fat than other macronutrients, fat is still an important part of one’s diet. Calories, carbohydrates and sugars are just as important.

Automatically assuming that something is healthier because it has less of a certain nutrient is a common misconception. The actual Merriam-Webster definition of healthy is something that is “beneficial to one’s physical, mental, or emotional state: conducive to or associated with good health or reduced risk of disease.” This includes everything from vitamins and minerals to healthy fats. Many people assume that certain foods are objectively healthy, like fruits or salads. They are to some degree, though as with most food, their actual health value varies on their portion size and method of preparation. Eating a salad is usually healthier than eating a slice of cake.

However, the health benefit of food items like salads can depend on what the item is mixed with. A salad loaded up with bacon bits, cheese and heavy dressing is not much healthier than a hamburger. Conversely, a salad consisting of only lettuce and cucumbers is not a great meal either. Sure, the salad has health benefits, but those vegetables are little more than water. Just those foods alone are not super healthy.

The human body needs a varying amount of calories, fat, carbohydrates, sugars and other nutrients to work efficiently. Therefore, a healthy meal is one that is balanced. A salad with grilled chicken, tomatoes, cucumbers and light low-fat dressing would be healthier than a salad with a filled with cheese or a salad with only lettuce.

So, looking at the earlier scenario, could any of those options be considered healthy? All three of them could be depending on the mix. If the salad is heavy on dressing or cheese, it might be best to skip it. Nuts and dried fruit are filled with healthy fats and sugars, so eating a portion of the snack container wouldn’t be all bad. The vegetable chips are similar.

When looking for healthy food, check how balanced the nutrition label is. People need different amounts of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat) depending on their size and level activity, but in general, most people need more carbohydrates and fat than protein. This may change depending on workout routines or your state of health.

Your meals need to be balanced throughout the day and the week as well. If you skipped breakfast, the loaded high-calorie salad could be a better choice than a small fruit sack. If you’ve been eating out with your friends all day, you probably have most of the calories you need. A small portion of fruits, vegetables or granola can help curb your appetite then.

Overall, healthy food comes in a wide variety. Don’t assume you know what’s on the nutrition label based off of the food’s appearance. Check the label first to see what you’re getting into, and don’t be scared off by high amounts of fat and calories.

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