When people find out that I'm a dietitian, they find a certain compulsion to either confess their poor eating habits or beg for validation of what they're eating. I frequently get asked some version of “is this healthy?" or “which is better for me?"
My answer to them is usually not what they want to hear. Not because they are eating poorly, but because it's not as simple as yes or no. It's all about the big picture of your diet. I firmly believe that any food can be incorporated into a healthy diet - even if we encourage smaller bites or thinking about foods as “special occasion" options.
So when you ask whether something is healthy or not, it's all about what else you're eating, and how much of it you're eating.
To clarify this point, let's take two foods, popsicles and spinach.
Is a popsicle healthy? Not only does it depend on the nutritional value of the popsicle itself, but it depends on what you're NOT eating when you eat a popsicle. Meaning, if a popsicle is your dessert, and it's a substitution for an ice cream sundae, it’s definitely fewer calories and sugar and probably a good choice for you. But if eating a popsicle is the only way you eat fruit, then maybe I would hesitate to call that a healthy choice.
Spinach - who would ever say spinach isn't healthy?! Well, this is an example of too much of a good thing is still too much. If you are eating spinach to the exclusion of other foods, it is no longer be healthy. You need variety in your diet. You need fat, protein and carbohydrates. You need a wide range of vitamins and minerals. Spinach provides a lot, but certainly isn't a complete food.
There are also a variety of other things that impact whether or not something is healthy. For instance, if you have any chronic conditions, food allergies or intolerances, what your nutritional goals are and any genetic factors. Someone who has diabetes is going to define healthy differently than someone who has Celiac.
So in some ways it's all relative. Which means that it’s really important to know your body, and to work with a dietitian if you’re unsure. Of course, if you’re just looking to define whether a food is nutritious, check out MyPlate for national guidelines.