The OED doesn't say much other than the two words have long been synonyms since the 1500s.

healthful - promoting good health

healthy - being in good health/condition

Why do we say that our bananas and tomatoes are healthy foods when it should be healthful?

Is there any substantial evidence on why this widely used terminology is bungled?

  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because its statement that healthy cannot mean healthful is a rant. Nov 11 '17 at 11:41

Actually their use as synonyms appears to be still an issue:

Usage Note: The distinction in meaning between healthy ("possessing good health") and healthful ("conducive to good health") was ascribed to the two terms only as late as the 1880s. This distinction, though tenaciously supported by some critics, is belied by citational evidence—healthy has been used to mean "healthful" since the 16th century. Use of healthy in this sense is to be found in the works of many distinguished writers, with this example from John Locke being typical: "Gardening . . . and working in wood, are fit and healthy recreations for a man of study or business." Therefore, both healthy and healthful are correct in these contexts: a healthy climate, a healthful climate; a healthful diet, a healthy diet.

Source: The American Heritage Dict.

  • This is a bit of circular reasoning... so then why did John Locke use the term healthy instead of healthful? Apr 17 '14 at 6:08
  • I agree, it appears that their use as synonyms is not resolved yet.
    – user66974
    Apr 17 '14 at 6:12
  • @RyeɃreḁd because Locke wanted to, and there's nothing that prescriptivists such as yourself can do to stop such usage . Nov 11 '17 at 11:43

Merriam Webster gives three meanings for Healthy:

  1. enjoying health and vigor of body, mind, or spirit : well

  2. evincing health

  3. conducive to health

I think the third meaning is the one that overlaps with "healthful."


This answer examines how dictionaries and usage commentators have treated healthy and healthful (and, crucially, a third word: wholesome). My purpose is not to reach some conclusion about the validity of current usage—since usage validates itself—but to trace how views of the three words evolved historically from the era of Samuel Johnson to the present.

'Healthy' and 'healthful' in Merriam-Webster's 'WDEU' and Ayres's 'The Verbalist'

Here is the first half of the entry for "healthy, healthful" in Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1989):

healthy, healthful In the Saturday Review of 17 Mar. 1979 Thomas H. Middleton wrote, "The sad truth is that healthy has so often been used to mean 'healthful' that any dictionary worth its flyleaf just has to list 'healthful' as one of healthy's meanings." This and a notice in a column by James J. Kilpatrick (28 June 1985) attest to the flourishing condition of the old issue of the distinction between healthful and healthy. Here is the gist of the prescription: healthful means "conducive to health" (it does) and healthy means "enjoying or evincing health" (it does), and never the twain shall meet. The trouble is that healthy is used for the sense of healthful just given. How long has this sloppy confusion of distinct words been going on? Since the middle of the 16th century—in other words, for more than 400 years.

The distinction itself was invented by Alfred Ayres only in 1881 [in The Verbalist]. It has certainly been repeated many times since, right up into the 1980s. But it should surprise no one that the distinction has often not been observed: there never was a distinction in the first place (unless you count the 150-year head start healthful had on healthy).

As the header to his discussion makes clear, however, the distinction that Ayres, The Verbalist (1881) is primarily concerned with is the one between healthy and wholesome. Indeed, WDEU's failure to address the role of wholesome in its analysis of healthful and healthy—and its failure to look at the meanings of the three terms in reference books from before 1881—calls into doubt its conclusions in the second paragraph quoted above. Here is the relevant entry in The Verbalist:

Healthy—Wholesome. The first of these two words is often improperly used for the second ; as, "Onions are a healthy vegetable." A man, if he is in good health, is healthy ; the food he eats, if it is not deleterious, is wholesome. A healthy ox makes wholesome food. We speak of healthy surroundings, a healthy climate, situation, employment, and of wholesome food, advice, examples. Healthful is generally used in the sense of conducive to health, virtue, morality ; as, healthful exercise, the healthful spirit of the community—meaning that the spirit that prevails in the community is conducive to virtue and good morals.

This is a surprising entry—not least because it presents us not with two words to sort out, but three. Complicating the situation further, Ayres gives his definitions of the three terms rather obliquely. Rereading the paragraph, we find only that healthy may mean "in good health," wholesome may mean "not deleterious," and healthful (more precisely than the other two) "conducive to health, virtue, morality." But it quickly becomes clear that Ayres does not restrict the meaning of healthy to "in good health," since he volunteers that surroundings, a climate, a situation, and employment may be healthy, and yet he does not seem inclined to mean thereby that they are in good health.

One thing we can conclude with a fair degree of certainty, however, is that if he were asked whether bananas and tomatoes are healthy foods or healthful foods, Ayres would answer, "Neither. They are wholesome foods."

Distinguishing 'healthful,' 'healthy,' and 'wholesome' through the years

One striking feature of early definitions of the three words is that the overlap in meaning comes not from expansive use of healthy but from expansive use of healthful and wholesome. Consider the definitions of healthful, healthy, and wholesome in Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (1756) [wording in square brackets appears only in the unabridged 1755–1756 edition of the dictionary]:

HEALTHFUL. a. {health and full.} 1. Free from sickness. South[ey]. 2. Well disposed. Shakespeare. 3. Wholesome; salubrious. Bacon. 4. Salutary; productive of salvation. [Book of] Com[mon] Prayer.


HEALTHY. a. {from health.} In health; free from sickness[; hale; sound]. Arbuthnot.


WHOLESOME. adj. {heelsam, Dutch.} 1. Sound. [Contrary to unsound in doctrine.] Shakespeare. 2. Contributing to health. 3. Preserving; salutary. [Obsolete] Psalms. 4. Kindly; pleasing. [A burlesque use.] Shakespeare.

Johnson also throws in an entry for healthsome, which he defines as "Wholesome; salutary." It seems clear from the three definitions above that healthful and wholesome carried multiple broad, overlapping meanings while healthy carried one relatively narrow one.

Jumping ahead half a century to Noah Webster, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806), we find that the definitions of healthful remains expansive, the definition of healthy remains limited, and the definition of wholesome has gotten narrower:

Healthful, Healthsome, a. free from sickness, strong, well-disposed, wholesome


Healthy, a. free from sickness, hale, sound, strong


Wholesome, a. contributing to health, salutary

Ayres's book came out at a time when the Merriam-Webster's dictionary of record was An American Dictionary of the English Language (1864). That dictionary broadens the definition of healthy without significantly reducing the reach of the other two:

Healthful, a. 1. Full of health; free from illness or disease; well; entire; sound; healthy; as a healthful body, a healthful person, a healthful plant. 2. Serving to promote health; wholesome; salubrious; salutary; as a healthful air or climate; a healthful diet. 3. Indicating, characterized by or resulting from, health or soundness, as, a healthful condition. 4. Well-disposed; favorable.


Healthy, a. 1. Being in a state of health; enjoying health; hale; sound; as, a healthy body or constitution. 2. Conducive to health; wholesome; salubrious; as, a healthy exercise; a healthy climate; healthy recreations.


Wholesome, a. 1. Tending to promote health; favoring health; salubrious; salutary. [Example:] "Wholesome thirst and appetite," Milton. 2. Contributing to the health of the mind; favorable to morals, religion, or prosperity; conducive to good; salutary; sound; as wholesome advice; wholesome doctrines; wholesome truths; wholesome laws.

At this point, the overlaps have become quite large and potentially confusing—and this is the background for Ayres's proposal regarding what he takes to be the proper meanings of the different words. Ayers was not, however, the first usage commentator to address the issue. Ten Years before The Verbalist, Charles Smith, Synonyms Discriminated: A Complete Catalogue of Synonymous Words (1871) offered this rather detailed treatment of the three words:

HEALTHY (A[nglo] S[axon] häldh, health) bears the twofold meaning of possessing health, and imparting health. A healthy person; a healthy atmosphere. WHOLESOME (whole, in the sense of sound) is tending to health or soundness, or not inconsistent with them, whether of mind or body or mind; as a wholesome appetite, wholesome air, wholesome advice. But both healthy and wholesome are commonly employed in in more than a negative sense, as when we say, "the situation is perfectly healthy," "the food is quite wholesome." Healthy or healthful stands to wholesome as the positive to the negative. The former promotes or increases our bodily strength; the latter does no harm to our physical constitution. And so healthy is more commonly applied to what comes to us in the way of exceptional benefit; wholesome, to the necessaries of life. Unwholesome food disorganizes the functions of the body; healthy air and recreation improve the physical powers. In like manner, a wholesome truth, wholesome advice, is preservative of morality and our interests. A healthy tone of mind tends to the improvement of our faculties. The wholesome is assimilated and acted upon by us; the healthy acts upon us.

Here, as in Ayres, the primary distinction that the author is trying to make is between healthy and wholesome. But unlike Ayres, Smith finds the primary distinction to lie in the promotional power of the healthy thing as opposed to the more passive utility of the merely wholesome thing.

Smith would agree, I think, with Ayres's assertion that "Onions are a healthy vegetable" is improper usage—because Smith considers food to be at best a passive good. Indeed, Ayres gives a nod to Smith's analytical framework when he says, "the food [a man] eats, if it is not deleterious, is wholesome. In both books, healthful seems to be unaccountably neglected, considering that its dictionary definitions are the most expansive of the group's.

Decades earlier than the works of either Ayres or Smith are books by two Englishmen—George Crabb and G.F. Graham—that don't mention healthful at all. The cited books of both of these authors ran through multiple editions in the United States and were used in U.S. schools for multiple decades. From George Crabb, English Synonymes, with Copious Illustrations and Explanations, second edition (1818):


HEALTHY signifies not only having health, but also causing health, or keeping in health.

WHOLESOME, like the German heilsam, signifies making whole, keeping whole or sound.


These epithets are all applicable to such objects as have a kindly influence on the bodily constitution: healthy is the most general and indefinite; it is applied to exercise, to air, situation, climate, and most other things, but food, for which wholesome is commonly substituted: the life of a farmer is reckoned the most healthy; and the simplest diet is the most wholesome. Healthy and wholesome are rather negative in their sense; salubrious and salutary are positive: that is healthy and wholesome which does no injury health; that is salubrious which serves to improve the health; and that is salutary which serves to remove a disorder: climates are healthy or unhealthy, according to the constitution of the person; water is a wholesome beverage for those who are not dropsical; bread is a wholesome diet for human beings; ...

From G.F. Graham, English Synonymes Classified and Explained; with Practical Exercises, Designed for Schools and Private Tuition (1846):

Healthy — Wholesome.

That is healthy which promotes or increases our bodily strength. That is wholesome which does no harm to our physical constitution, but possesses the quality of health. Pure air, exercise, occupations, &c., are healthy; plain food, diet, &c., are wholesome. The internal functions of the body are disorganized by unwholesome food; the physical powers of the body are disorganized by unwholesome food; the physical powers are improved by healthy air and regular exercise. In like manner, abstractly, a wholesome doctrine is a preservative to our morality; a healthy tone of mind tends to the improvement of out faculties. What is healthy acts upon us; what is wholesome, we act upon.

It's fairly clear that Smith took his cues from Graham, who in turn was beholden to Crabb. The main change between Graham and Crabb is that Crabb drops salubrious and salutary from consideration and adjusts his interpretation of the negative and positive aspects of wholesome and healthy so that healthy fills the void in positivity left by the departure of salubrious and salutary. The main innovation of Smith was to bring healthful into the picture after Crabb and Graham ignored it. However, Smith merely mentions healthful in passing as if it were interchangeable in meaning with healthy.

So on the one hand, Ayres is the first synonym commentator to insist on distinctions between healthful and healthy (although dictionaries had been identifying such distinctions for more than a hundred years), but on the other synonym commentators had been asserting differences in the objects of healthy and wholesome since at least 1818. And in the post-Ayres era, healthful acquired some of the old applications—most notably to foods—that commentators had formerly assigned to wholesome and withheld from healthy.

John Bechtel, Slips of Speech: A Helpful Book for Everyone who Aspires to Correct the Everyday Errors of speaking and Writing (1895) takes the crucial step of separating his discussion of healthy and healthful from his discussion of healthy and wholesome:

Healthy, Wholesome

These terms are not synonymous. Toadstools may be healthy, but they would not be regarded as wholesome. Plants and animals are healthy when the conditions of their growth are favorable. They are wholesome when, as food, they promote the health of those persons who eat them.


Healthy, Healthful

A lady wrote to a paper asking, "Are plants in a sleeping-room unhealthy?" The answer came, "Not necessarily; we have seen some very healthy plants growing in sleeping-rooms."

Persons are healthy or unhealthy. A plant or tree is healthy or unhealthy according as it possesses vigor. Food, surroundings and conditions are healthful or unhealthful according as they promote or destroy health.

It remains for Frank Vizetelly, A Desk-Book of Errors in English: Including Notes on Colloquialisms and Slang to Be Avoided in Conversation (1908) to complete the swing of attention toward healthy versus healthful by omitting any mention of wholesome:

healthful, healthy : Discriminate carefully between these words. A healthful thing is one efficacious in promoting or causing health; healthy denotes condition or characteristics; as "a healthy child"' "a healthy climate."

Conclusions: 'healthful' and 'healthy' today

The absence of wholesome from the discussion over the past century is quite remarkable. For example, Bryan Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage, third edition (2009) addresses only healthy and healthful:

healthful; healthy. Strictly speaking, healthy refers to a person or personified thing) in good health, healthful to whatever promotes good health. E.g.: "Low-fat dairy products ... will keep us feeling healthy and good about ourselves, she says. A vegetarian, Barnes takes healthful dishes to parties." [Citation omitted.] In fact, though, many writers use healthy when they mean healthful, and healthy threatens to edge out its sibling. Such a development would be unhealthful, since it would lead to a less healthy state of the language. LANGUAGE-CHANGE INDEX healthy for healthful: Stage 4 [At this stage, the new form "becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts (die-hard snoots)."]

It seems evident that usage commentators today have shifted the qualities that formerly distinguished wholesome from healthy to the word healthful. The most stubborn holdout in the general movement toward replacing healthful with healthy is food-related usage—and this makes sense historically. From the eighteenth century, when healthful had a considerably broader range of meanings than healthy did, through the middle and late nineteenth century, when healthy and healthful had a great deal of overlap, the one category that authorities continuously excluded from the proper reach of healthy was foods.

For many decades, dictionaries and usage commentators have endorsed the idea that bananas and tomatoes may be termed wholesome or healthful. But only in recent years, and even then rather obliquely, have they approved of calling fruits and vegetables healthy.

Postscript: Webster's Collegiate Dictionaries on 'healthful" versus 'healthy'

For 33 years—from 1916 through 1948—editions of the Webster's Collegiate Dictionary series included the following usage note explicitly addressing the difference between healthful and healthy:

Healthy and healthful are interchangeable within certain limits. But healthy oftener applies to that which is in a state of health or vigor ; as, a healthy (not healthful) man ; healthful (not healthy) food ; a healthful (or healthy) climate.

The Sixth Collegiate (1949), however, dropped any discussion of healthful from a usage note under the entry for healthy that compared the words healthy, sound, wholesome, robust, hale, and well—all of which "mean enjoying or indicative of good health." That note remains unchanged 68 years later, although for unknown reasons it was dropped from the Eighth Collegiate (1973).

For the Ninth Collegiate (1983), Merriam-Webster restored the usage note under healthy—and even more surprisingly, it added a new usage note under the entry for healthful, comparing that word to wholesome, salubrious, and salutary—a group whose members "mean favorable to the health of mind or body." This results in an odd relationship among the old threesome of healthful, healthy, and wholesome. The Ninth Collegiate (and the Tenth [1993] and the Eleventh [2003]) details how the modern meanings of healthful and wholesome differ:

HEALTHY implies full strength and vigor as well as freedom from signs of disease {a healthy family}. ... WHOLESOME implies appearance and behavior indicating soundness and balance {a face with a wholesome glow.}

and how the modern senses of healthy and wholesome differ:

HEALTHFUL implies a positive contribution to a healthy condition {a healthful diet}. WHOLESOME applies to what benefits, builds up, or sustains physically, mentally, or spiritually {wholesome foods} {the movie is wholesome family entertainment}.

But in the past six editions of its Collegiate Dictionary series, Merriam-Webster has avoided directly comparing healthful and healthy and discussing how they differ in current usage.

Update (August 17, 2021)

I ran searches of Early English Books On line (a database of texts published from 1450 to 1700) for instances of "healthy climate," "healthful climate," "wholesome climate," "healthy food," "healthful food" and "wholesome food"—all instances in which the word healthy, healthful, or wholesome carries the meaning "conducive to health." Here are the results:

healthy climate: four matches (from 1685, 1689, 1691, and 1693)

healthful climate: eight matches (from 1662, 1671, 1682, 1692, 1694, 1695, 1696, and 1700)

wholesome climate: three matches (from 1622, 1635, and 1651)

healthy food: nine matches (from 1677, 1682, 1691, 1692, 1694, 1694, 1695, 1695, and 1696)

healthful food: thirteen matches (from 1657, 1657, 1658, 1660, 1661, 1664, 1668, 1670, 1674, 1677, 1678, 1695, and 1700)

wholesome food: 291 matches (from 1593, 1597, 1600, 1603, 1605, 1606, 1608, 1609, ...)

These results suggest that wholesome in the sense of "conducive to health" was in widespread use about half a century earlier than healthful (in the same sense), with healthy (also in the same sense) joining the fray a couple of decades after that.

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