What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “health”? Is it about feeling your best? Or something else? We seem to have lost sight of the fact that as humans, we are meant to be inherently healthy – it’s our natural state. It actually fascinates me that we have come to struggle with health so much, both the concept and the reality – it shouldn’t have to be so hard! So why do we struggle? Is it because we’re not taught what it is to be healthy as we grow up, or because we don’t know how to look after ourselves? Why is it that no other animal needs to be “taught” how to be healthy once they are adults?
While this is a huge question with a complex answer, I thought I’d take a look at some beliefs we have about health that are not helpful.
Here’s some things that health is definitely NOT – ideas that many of us have so deeply ingrained that we don’t really think about them. I’d love for you to think about how these beliefs show up in your life, and whether they’re serving you the way you need them to.
1. You can tell how healthy a person is by looking at them
This is a complicated topic and one that you’ll find carries lots of inbuilt assumptions instilled from an early age. While it is indeed true that a person’s appearance can provide many clues to their overall health, and physical observation is something that any good health professional will use as part of their assessment process, that should not be confused with the assumption that a person’s body mass, shape or size can tell you important or useful information about their health. We associate the idea of “health” with the idea of a very specific visual image of the human body – lean, strong, usually tanned, young, you don’t have to look far to find these images surrounding us every day. But how does this have anything to do with health? What does it tell you about how you should live?
2. Health is a destination and you’ll know when you’ve arrived
Have you ever said “I’ve got to get healthy” or “I’d be healthy if I stopped eating all this chocolate” or “I can’t wait to get healthy and lose all this weight”. These statements all include an assumption – that health is a specific, defined point that you will someday arrive at, if you follow a specific set of rules, and once you’re there you can move on to other goals. Our bodies don’t work like that. Health is a state of being – a continuum that we are all sliding up and down to a greater or lesser extent. What you need to be healthy today may be totally different to what you need in ten years, or two years, or next week, or tomorrow. It changes based on your age, your situation, your activities, on whether you’re training for a marathon or trying to get pregnant or living with a chronic condition or having a really bad day.
Think of it like keeping your house in order – you don’t do the laundry once and then that’s it, you’re done – your clothes keep getting dirty, so you keep washing them. Sometimes they need ironing. Sometimes they need mending. Some fare better if they’re hung on a hanger, others prefer to be folded. The more attention you pay to your clothes and how to care for and maintain them, the longer they will serve you. Same with your body and your health! The better your understanding of what you need and how to take care of yourself, the better you will feel and the better your body will serve you. Once you really understand how it feels to be healthy, you realise that it’s a continuous journey, never a destination.
3. Health = the absence of disease
Have you ever been to the doctor for a checkup and been told you’re in perfect health? The modern reductionist view of medicine is that the human body exists in a state of health as long as no active disease states exist. So, if your blood tests, your BMI, your blood pressure are all within the accepted healthy range, and you are free of any diagnosable diseases, syndromes or symptoms, then you are healthy.
But the reality is, we all know that our personal health is dependant on many other factors – how well we sleep, what our energy levels are like, what our moods are like, if we suffer from pain or headaches or digestive discomfort or anxiety, how happy we are – basically, how we feel. Being told that “there’s nothing wrong with you” just because your symptoms don’t fit a recognised picture of disease does not make you healthy, as I’m sure many of you who’ve been to the doctor because you’re not feeling well, only to be told “there’s nothing wrong with you” will know. I know many parents also experience the frustration of having an unwell child who doctors tell them is perfectly fine.
Until you feel whole in all the corners of your life – your relationships, your vocation, your creativity, how you meet your financial needs, how you feel in your body and your mind – you will not feel healthy. We need to move away from the idea that so long as you don’t have a disease then you must be healthy – we need to raise the bar and start remembering how good it feels to actually feel well, to feel whole. What does healthy mean to you?
4. You have to lose weight to be healthy
So many patients come to me with an imperative to lose weight in order to improve their health. Almost exclusively these women will feel despondent, disillusioned, and with very little hope that they’ll actually succeed – and therefore that they’ll ever be healthy – because they know from previous experience that losing weight and keeping it off is easier said than done.
From a practical point of view, advising a person to lose weight in order to improve their health outcomes is not motivating. If anything, in many cases it can have the opposite effect, particularly if you’ve ever tried to lose weight before (and it’s a pretty safe bet that you have). I think most of us understand that it’s not that simple.
So what’s the alternative? How about this – let’s redefine our understanding of “health” to mean that your body is functioning well and you are feeling well, that you feel strong and energised, you sleep well, you listen to your body and enjoy eating and moving and playing and resting in synch with your body’s natural rhythms. You understand your capabilities, you know how to take care of yourself, and you respect your body and its needs.
Once you take the focus off weightloss as an end in itself, and instead focus on health and how to shift behaviours that are impacting your health rather than your weight, then you can start to tap into your body’s innate wisdom and really learn how to take care of yourself again. This is how we move towards health, not by punishing our bodies and trying to reach some arbitrary number on the scale.
5. Eating healthy foods is the key to a healthy life
It’s one of the most common things people ask me when they know I’m a nutritionist: “is <insert specific food> healthy?” If you’re wondering why I would have a problem answering this seemingly simple question, and one that surely a nutritionist would be expertly qualified to answer, I encourage you to read this article – and if you don’t feel like it right now, here’s the gist: no food is healthy. Food, generally speaking, is nutritious – it contains nutrients and compounds that your body needs – but no one food is “healthy”, and thinking of food this way can be dangerous (fruit is healthy? I’ll eat nothing but fruit then. What could possibly go wrong?). Our food isn’t healthy – we are healthy (or not). We can be healthy if we eat nutritious food, in addition to engaging in other activities that support our health … and while this may seem like semantics, I would argue that the words we use are a key component to our understanding of health.
Trying to find the one set of perfect diet rules that will allow you to decide if every food is either healthy or not healthy – it’s a fool’s errand, that depends on there being one single set of criteria that you can evaluate food against. Think about this for a minute and you’ll see the problem. Instead of asking yourself “is this food healthy or unhealthy”, instead come at it from a different angle – first, understand what “feeling healthy” feels like to you, and then assess your food choices against this baseline. I like to feel calm, energised, strong, and clear-headed – will this food move me closer or further from that? I feel like having a glass of wine – will depriving myself of that because I’m worried about the calories make me feel better or worse? I want a piece of cake but know the flour will make me feel bloated – do I want to eat the cake more than I want to avoid the bloating? These are the choices you can make for yourself, every day, without having to consult a professional or a list or a rule-book. (If you feel like there might be some gaps in your diet – then absolutely, consult a professional who can help guide you in the right direction, but always look for someone who can empower you and add to your understanding of what your body needs.)
The ultimate goal here is for you to understand yourself and your body well enough to make these decisions for yourself, rather than chasing some external idea of “health” that has grown up around us from – basically – a bunch of advertisers and businesses with a vested interest in making you feel like you’re not there yet, you don’t know how to take care of yourself, you’re not healthy until you do what they want you to do (i.e. buy what they want you to buy). Don’t buy into their picture of what “healthy” is – it’s not true. Come back to yourself, to your body. Listen to what it needs and you’ll be well on your way down your own path to wellness.
What do you think? Are any of these 5 particularly ingrained beliefs for you, or perhaps for someone you care about? Feel free to comment below or message me on Facebook if you’d like to discuss these ideas more!