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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

What does healthy mean?

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

a word cloud with healthy in the center and asking the question what is healthy?

When communicating about nutrition, the adjective “healthy” is used a LOT. Consider the many ways we use the word healthy as a descriptor – healthy lifestyle, healthy habits, healthy diet, healthy relationship with food, and on and on.

We use it so often, we may fail to stop and think, "what does healthy really mean?" Is there an objective definition, or is it based on our subjective viewpoint?

Defining healthy

According to Merriam-Webster, healthy means “enjoying good health; not displaying clinical signs of disease or infection; beneficial to one's physical, mental, or emotional state: conducive to or associated with good health or reduced risk of disease; showing physical, mental, or emotional well-being: evincing good health, and prosperous or flourishing.”

Synonyms for healthy include able-bodied, robust, strong, vigorous, hardy, whole, balanced, sound, and many more. Depending on the context, healthy can mean different things.

Defining health

The definition of healthy is obviously based on the root word, health. Begging the question, what is health?

One of the most cited definitions of health originated in 1948 with the World Health Organization:

“Health is a state of complete mental, social and physical well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

In 1986, WHO expanded its definition with:

“A resource for everyday life, not the objective of living. Health is a positive concept emphasizing social and personal resources, as well as physical capacities.”

What are the dimensions of health?

If you do an internet search of “dimensions of health,” you quickly learn that the number of dimensions varies from only 3 to 8 or more. When only three are listed, they include the three dimensions included in the 1948 WHO definition: mental, social, and physical.

The additional dimensions include intellectual, spiritual, vocational, financial, and environmental.

What is considered “healthy” in each dimension of health?


When our body is functioning optimally. Contributing factors include diet, physical activity, sleep, hygiene, and medications.


When we experience psychological and emotional well-being and can cope with the stresses and challenges of life.


When we develop and maintain meaningful relationships with others and contribute to our community in positive ways.


When we are continually learning and growing, building our knowledge and skills, and sharing these with others.


When our lives have purpose and meaning beyond ourselves, and we engage in activities aligned with our beliefs.


When we pursue and participate in meaningful and worthwhile work that is consistent with our goals and provides fulfillment.


When we manage our resources responsibly and can take care of our current and future needs.


When we understand how our environment affects our well-being and how our lifestyle habits affect our environment and respond responsibly.

Each dimension of health impacts all others. Ill health in any area can have a detrimental effect on all other dimensions, and well-being in any area can have a positive impact on all other areas. Achieving health requires attention to all dimensions.

Achieving health - Is healthy in the eye of the beholder?

How do we define optimal, adequate, or poor health in each dimension? Will my definition of healthy be the same as yours?

If you review the descriptions of each definition of health, notice they don’t have specific criteria and they allow for individual variation. For example, intellectual health does not require a Ph.D. and financial health doesn’t require a million dollars in the bank.

Being healthy is a unique and personal goal. It requires an individual commitment to being aware of one’s health in each area and the need for taking positive steps toward our personal health goals.

“The greatest wealth is health.” ~ Virgil

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