Est 7 min read
The World Health Organization defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmary.
This is really important to think about. In our culture, we often define health as being thin and we don't look at what's going on with your actual physical health. Regardless of your body size, how is your blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, energy, and vitality? In addition, mental health and social well-being are not considered.
Studies show that having a good social network is more important for your health than avoiding smoking. It's critical to have good social support. It's important to look at that in the context of your overall well-being and systems of oppression, such as anti-fat bias, and how that will impact someone's health if they are in a larger body. In our culture, anti-fat bias sets people up for a feeling of social isolation, othering, marginalization, and oppression. It's important to consider the dynamics of the culture you are navigating and how that impacts your physical health, mental health, social health, and well-being.
Secondly, it's important to look at the focus on thinness as health and how that works (or really how that does not work). Basically, the external body is looked at as a measure of wellness rather than looking at what's actually going on physically. When you believe that thinness equals health, you're more prone to diet (restricting), and focusing on losing weight. Weight loss is then pursued in unhealthy ways, which doesn't work long term, causing weight cycling and weight gain over time. Diets fail 80 to 95% of the time short term. When you look long-term, it's an even higher failure rate. Diets also reduce your metabolism, reduce your muscle mass, and cause many physical problems. Even if dieting did work, they are harmful-causing mental health issues, leading to a high rate of disordered eating, shame, and generally not feeling good enough.
When we equate health with thinness, we're contributing to the anti-fat bias diet culture messaging that your health depends on your size. You're also potentially harming yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally as that messaging is internalized as shame.
If diets don’t work, what does work? Eating “healthy”?
When it comes to health, I want you to consider how much time you are focusing on food as the way to get “healthy.” When I talk to people about health, they say they want to eat in a “healthy” balanced way, eat more vegetables and exercise more, so primarily focusing on food and exercise.
I want you to zoom out. The statistics are only about 25% of our health is impacted by lifestyle choices. 25%. This is the entire lifestyle choice spectrum, so food and exercise have a small impact on our overall health and well-being. It's primarily genetic and environmental, having to do with life stressors, access to care, social support, and financial resources. The 25% is what we have control over and what we can impact. In that 25%, food and exercise are a small amount, but when I talk to people, I would say at least 90% of what they're talking about in terms of health changes you can make, people focus on food, body, and exercise. Again, that's because of diet culture messaging. You are told that is what you need to do to be healthy. We're not looking at the whole picture; those systems of oppression that I mentioned, social support, environmental and financial factors.
Even if you wanted to zoom in entirely on that 25% that you could impact, to be balanced in that approach, you would have to look at all of the things you can do in terms of your health. What percentage are you spending focusing on food and your body versus acknowledging all of the stressors in your life, acknowledging all of the circumstances, and then looking at supporting yourself as you navigate those things. How much of your focus goes to holistic things that you can do in terms of your overall health and well-being that you do have an impact over?
If you are like most people, you're focusing on the “shoulds” around food and exercise. I'm not saying that you don't feel better when you exercise regularly or eat veggies. But many people are impacted negatively by feeling like you “should” do these things, that there is an ideal to achieve, which affects your mental health, has a negative impact on your body, and adds additional stress to your body. In addition to those things, if you zoom out and look at other things, you can care for yourself on a much deeper level.
What are the things that I think are important in terms of overall health and well-being?
One of the number one things you can do is simply get better quality sleep and more of it. Google sleep hygiene and experiment with what works for you. Typically, it's things like not looking at screens right before bed, having a dark room, a cooler temperature in your room, and wearing an eye mask or using blackout curtains. If you have small children who wake you up regularly, consider hiring a sleep coach to help you get those babies resting well so that you can also rest well or make sure that you're adding in additional sleep time so that you're getting enough sleep.
Work on stress reduction and stress management by learning how to navigate your emotions and body sensations, build body attunement, honor your emotions, and consider getting therapy if you need to address unhealed wounds or trauma stored in your body. This is a huge one that I work on with clients, and it has a tremendous impact on your life and allows you to feel more balanced in navigating the world and feeling much more joy.
There are other things you can do that aren’t food and exercise focused, like taking supplements, drinking more water, getting more sunlight (paying attention to your vitamin D levels), building good social support, making sure that your relationships feel good, and finding ways to access more job satisfaction and engaging in things that fulfill you or give you a sense of purpose in your life.
There are many other things you can do, but I encourage you to start by looking at what percentage of your time you are thinking about health in terms of needing to change the way you eat or exercise. Instead of looking at it globally, look at your overall health and well-being, the conditions you're facing, and recognize what you have to navigate as you are moving through the world. Then look at, of that 25% of your health that you can impact, are you looking at the full spectrum of things you can do? Something like quitting smoking can have a tremendous impact on your health. If you have barriers to health or things are causing you to feel unwell, make sure you address those- for example, pain management.
The point is, zoom out, look at the whole big picture, recognize that food and exercise only contribute a small percent of your overall health and well-being, so why are you spending 80% of your focus on health on that food and body piece instead of the whole big picture?
Download your free hunger scale now!
The first step to healing our relationship with food is reconnecting with the signals our body gives us. One of the ways to do that is by checking in with your hunger before you eat. Here's my spin on the traditional hunger scale.