When to use 'healthful' in place of 'healthy'


Traditionalists have long argued that “healthful” means “promoting good health” while “healthy” means “in good health.” So a person can be healthy but a diet or lifestyle cannot. It must be healthful.

If that was ever true, it’s not now.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary:  healthy. adj. 3. healthful

Merriam-Webster’s online. healthy. adj. 3. conducive to health

I think most people would say that “healthy diet” is more popular and more natural-sounding than “healthful diet.” So why do some publications still use “healthful” and, just as interestingly, why do I often change “healthy” to “healthful” when I’m copy editing marketing pieces?

It’s because, in language, you have to pick your battles. And, when you do so, you have to take into account your reader and the context in which you’re writing. Readers who believe “healthful” can’t mean “healthy” notice what they believe to be an error. And errors, real or perceived, are distracting. So you may want to make the safe choice by opting for “healthful.”

Context counts. If I were editing articles for a well-respected major publication, I would choose “healthy diet” instead of “healthful diet.” But much of my editing work is for smaller, less respected, sometimes advertorial publications. Readers might assume, rightly so, that editors and writers of smaller publications are less knowledgeable than wordsmiths working for the big boys. So they might be quicker to assume that a “healthy diet” in one of my publications is the result of ignorance and not a choice.

That's why, often, I cave in to the misinformed sticklers and change all "healthy" to "healthful."


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