Healthy vs Healthful

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A reader wonders about the use of the adjectives healthy and healthful:

Would you please do a segment explaining how, when, and why “healthy” and “healthful” should be used correctly. My tentative belief is that people are “healthy” or not so; and that foods are “healthful” or not so. Am I correct?

Many speakers like to draw a strict difference between these two adjectives, but it’s not necessary.

The argument

Some speakers insist that healthy must be applied only to someone or something that enjoys good health:

The healthy children ran and played in the sunshine.

Every country desires a healthy economy.

Healthful, on the other hand, is to be used only to describe something that promotes or contributes to bodily health:

The parents petitioned the school authorities to provide more healthful school lunches.

The healthful ingredients include broccoli and cabbage.

The reality

When it comes to standard usage, healthy is used with both meanings by the majority of speakers and writers. In The New York Times, for example, one may read about both “healthy children” and “healthy breakfasts.”

Both adjectives have been in the language for a very long time. The first OED citation for healthful with the meaning “wholesome, health-giving” is dated 1398. The first example of healthy with the same meaning is dated 1577.

If making a distinction between healthy and healthful gives speakers a sense of satisfaction, then they should do so. However, they needn’t criticize the majority of speakers who use healthy with both meanings.

The usage that pains my grammar nerve is this:

How to Eat Healthy

New Year’s Resolution to Eat Healthy

A few speakers may say, “Eat healthfully,” but the online evidence suggests that healthy is about to morph into an adverb.

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5 thoughts on “Healthy vs Healthful”

  1. This is one of those “should be a” rules that aren’t. You are right that the 2 terms have been around a long, long time and it looks like healthy has always been used for both possible definitions; so healthy meaning conducive to health can’t be condemned as wrong. It is undeniably true, however, that the distinction of the 2 is sensible and “oughta be”. Someone could serve you a nice big plate of boiled oleander that they could honestly assure you was perfectly healthy, after all.

  2. “Eat healthy” versus “Eat healthily”

    I understand the aversion to “Eat healthy” but think it is perhaps unnecessary, and no reason to fear the loss of the adverb “healthily”.

    I see “Eat healthy” not as adverbial use of “healthy” but rather as a case of leaving the noun, “food”, understood.

    To me, the two messages are different: “Eat healthy” means “Eat healthy [or healthful] food”, TO BECOME HEALTHY, while “Eat healthily” is something you do when you are ALREADY HEALTHY — a meaning similar to that of “Eat heartily”.

  3. @Nicholas Rose: I agree with the last part that “eat healthily” implies a good appetite and therefore isn’t really synonymous with “eat healthy”. I think “eat healthfully” would be the better way to communicate “eat to promote health”. To me, “eat healthy” sounds incomplete, like “eat nutritious”. Eat healthy what? Eat healthy people? Good advice to a cannibal, I’d bet.

  4. Long and erroneous usage does not eliminate separate meanings. Healthy and healthful are not synonyms. A poisonous mushroom can be simultaneously healthy and unhealthful. Likewise a morsel of food on my plate can be healthful and not healthy since it is dead.

    The simple fact that people cannot distinguish the difference between the two does not eliminate the difference.

  5. I agree that a history of erroneous usage does not eliminate separate meanings. The colloquial usage of a descriptive by the majority of English/American speakers of the term, “healthy”, as an adjective to a human noun (persona) and “healthful, healthfully and healthily as adverbs describing the “how” or manner of a verb, is generally accepted as the correct conventional usage by the majority of American speakers. This is one example of the tendency to use the adjectival word form also as an adverb to a verb. For non-irregular adverbs using the suffix -ly, there is the tendency to omit the -ly suffix and use the shorter adjectival form. Living languages of native speakers feature changes in word usage over time, unlike dead languages such as latin, that are used in some contexts but is not the native language of any living descendants and maintains traditional word usage.

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