What does it mean to be "healthy"?


She's so fit and healthy! Look at her yoga body. Wish I could be healthy like that. We hear the term "healthy" all the time. There is no clear-cut definition of what it means to be "healthy". In our society, especially within the health and wellness industry, "healthy" is often a lean person who exercises, is fit, and eats "clean". We see a thin, muscular woman jogging down the street and most of us automatically think "she's so healthy". We have a guest over for dinner who skips the bread, piles on the veggies, and sips water, and we think "Wow! They're so healthy! And I'm such a pig (shame)". But we really don't know anything about a person's health by judging their physical appearance or what's on (or absent from) their dinner plate. We really have no idea as to whether our dinner guest is or isn't healthy. They might be overly restricting their food. They might have nutritional deficiencies. Their obsession with food might be affecting their mental health. There's a lot that could be going on.


It isn't uncommon to experience some level of disordered eating in our Western culture (and many other cultures I'm sure). Disordered eating is an umbrella term that describes a disordered relationship with food, exercise, and our bodies (1). Disordered eating might look like chronic dieting, anxiety around having to eat certain foods, skipping meals, restricting, rigid rituals and routines around meals and exercise, feeling guilty a lot of the time when eating (especially when eating "bad" foods), binging, exercising to make up for indulgences, or an obsession with healthy or "clean" eating, among others (2). It can have serious consequences on a person's well-being, particularly on their mental and physical health.


The stress that's created as a result of the guilt or shame - whether it's because the food wasn't healthy/clean enough, or it was bad /junky, or because you ate something you shouldn't have on that diet - is often worse for health than the "bad" food or act itself.

There is a lot of emphasis - and blame- placed on individuals' health choices and behaviours in our society. Health behaviours include our food choices (nutrition), exercise habits, smoking, alcohol consumption, drug use, etc. We go on the internet, check social media, and it would seem as though individual health choices are the be all and end all to good health. This isn't so. Health behaviours account for only 30% of a person's overall health (3). Socioeconomic status is a much greater predictor of health. Money gives us access. Access to quality health care (especially in countries with privatized health care), access to education (which help us make choices that are "good for our health"), access to clean and safe neighbourhoods, access to nutritious foods, access to quality mental health care.


Of course, this doesn't mean that health behaviours aren't important. Many public health efforts are focused on helping individuals improve health behaviours, like smoking (i.e. images on cigarette packages, prohibiting indoor smoking, increasing taxes on cigarette sales). If one can afford nutritious food, a gym membership, good running shoes, or a counselor, these are all things that can contribute to good health, on an individual basis.


But being obsessed with one's food and healthy eating does not make a person "healthy".


And even if we only focused on health behaviours, it's problematic to assume a person is or isn't healthy based on their looks or food choices. Assuming a person is healthy because they're thin and they load up on the veggies or skip the bread is a product of diet culture. Dieting, restricting, food guilt, food obsession, body obsession, clean eating are all products of diet culture. These beliefs and behaviours are deeply engrained in all of us. Please be aware of that. You didn't 'out of nowhere' decide to be obsessed with food and eating. You didn't 'out of nowhere' feel the need to lose weight because your body isn't ideal, according to diet culture.


According to Christy Harrison, a registered dietitian, intuitive eating counselor and author of the book "Anti-Diet", diet culture is a system of beliefs that (4):

  • worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue

  • promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status

  • demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others

  • oppresses people with its supposed picture of "health"


To be healthy is without a magic formula.


To be healthy goes WAY beyond specific food choices.


To be healthy is not to be perfect.


To be healthy is not to go on a diet.


To be healthy is to care about the well-being of others.


To be healthy is to make peace with food and eating.


To be healthy is to give yourself a break.


To be healthy is to enjoy whatever food you decide to eat.


To be healthy is to ask for help.


To be healthy is to find peace.


Breathe in... and exhale. Another deep breath...exhale.



Disclaimer: This is an opinion piece only. Please speak to your health care practitioner if you have any concerns about your health. If you think you suffer from an eating disorder, please speak to a qualified health care provider. There are many health inequities I did not mention in this article. This article is meant to be reflective. It is not meant to blame or judge (only diet culture).


References

  1. https://changecreateschange.com/disordered-eating-vs-eating-disorders-whats-the-difference/

  2. https://www.eatright.org/health/diseases-and-conditions/eating-disorders/what-is-disordered-eating

  3. https://www.countyhealthrankings.org/explore-health-rankings/measures-data-sources/county-health-rankings-model?componentType=factor-area&componentId=3

  4. https://christyharrison.com/blog/what-is-diet-culture