Our society is highly focused on health and reaching the pinnacle of wellbeing. It is difficult to exist in the United States without coming across messaging about weight loss and diet pills, the newest workouts, social media posts about the nutritious foods friends and celebrities are eating, and photos of glistening athletes smiling as they exercise. While these are the things we associate with vitality and wellness, there is far more to the picture. We buy into many lies about our health that are simply not true. Some of these lies are slowly being exposed as people realize there must be a better way, and even with social media moguls such as JP Sears creating mock accounts to highlight some of the ridiculous exaggerations we believe.
Health is often portrayed as a cookie cutter way of living that we are all expected to live up to as a means to prove our worth in this world. Little space is permitted to think about our own bodies and what they are telling us about what we need and whether we are okay. While the messages we are subjected to about health and wellness are unlikely to change, let’s investigate where these lies are being shared, recognize that they are untrue, and refocus on caring for our whole selves and the many aspects of our beings that allow us to achieve what we feel is healthy for each of us, individually.
- Health has to do with weight and fitness only. The World Health Organization (WHO) (LINK 1) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Though this definition can be (and has been) criticized as categorizing most people as unhealthy due to the use of the word “complete,” it does highlight the importance of a multi-faceted view of health that includes more than just the physical body. Weight and fitness are the most commonly used assessments of health, but mental and social health are also critical factors in a person’s total wellbeing.
- A person’s health is indicated by their body size. False. The only thing that the size of a person’s body reveals is just that: the size of their body. Body size does not demonstrate whether a person is kind, has high blood pressure, sits at home and eats cake all day, runs marathons several times each year, loves their body, cares for themselves, is able to find love, has valuable friendships, is intelligent, is mentally healthy, or literally anything else other than the size of their body. Progressively more research supports the idea that people can be healthy at a variety of shapes and sizes. Just because someone is in a larger body doesn’t mean they’re unhealthy, and someone in a smaller body is not necessarily healthy. The Association for Size Diversity and Health is committed to the principles of Health At Every Size ® (HAES) and works to disseminate research demonstrating that people can be healthy in bodies of all sizes (LINK 2).
- We have to be on diets to be healthy. There is no such thing as “good” or “bad” food – all foods are created equal and all foods fit a healthy diet. A term coined by two registered dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, Intuitive Eating is a method of tuning into one’s body and caring for it based on those cues, rather than external stimuli, rules, or restrictions. The research is supporting this, too: as more research is conducted on Intuitive Eating, we are learning that it is a great way to find physical health, and to relieve the mental stress of dieting (LINK 3). Anyone who has ever gone through the agony of a diet can attest to the mental and social strain of following strict rules and struggling to enjoy a meal out with family or friends, and many have thought there must be a better way. Intuitive Eating is a better, liberating way.
- Health requires intense, painful exercise. In a world seemingly bursting with ultramarathoners and extreme CrossFit athletes, it is hard to believe there is a way to be healthy without immoderate fitness ventures. Human bodies need to move, however, these movements don’t have to be as taxing as commonly thought. The American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes of moderate-intensity (think: breathing harder than usual but still able to hold a conversation) exercise 5 times per week for a total of 150 minutes (LINK 4). This can include going for a walk, swimming, dancing, horseback riding, bicycling, and really any activity that includes movement for your body. Listening to our own bodies is the best way to go. Pain is not something to be ignored and “pushed through,” rather, it is an indicator to check in with our bodies to determine whether we are causing damage with the movement we are doing.
- Health is dependent on willpower. This is just not true. If we are relying on willpower, we are forcing ourselves into unnatural, non-sustainable behaviors and labeling them as “healthy.” What makes these behaviors non-sustainable? Research shows that our willpower gets worn out. The Cornell Food & Brand Lab has found that, on average, we make over 200 decisions about food every single day (LINK 5). It is easy to see how that could lead to decision fatigue, in which our ability to make food choices diminishes as we tire (LINK 6). The more we depend on willpower and “discipline” to make health and food decisions, the less success we are likely to have as a result, as our brains tire of making these choices. By listening to our bodies, the pressure to decide is relieved and instead we simply respond to internal cues.
- If you are healthy, you are more virtuous than someone who is less healthy. This is just nonsense. In our society, health is tied up with being a good person. The healthier you are, the better person you are – especially if you are also busy with a career and family. In that case, you are considered an exceptionally good person if you are also able to maintain health. Truly, however, our health has absolutely nothing to do with our character. They are separate aspects of one whole being, and they do not inform each other. In fact, the National Eating Disorder Association explains that, for those who suffer from an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating termed Orthorexia Nervosa, recovery includes a realization that healthy eating does not make the survivor a better person (LINK 7). Given how reverently we tend to think of those who demonstrate strict health behaviors, it is clear how a person could take this to the extreme of an obsession and disordered eating.
- Your health is completely in your control. There is a whole lot about our health that science has yet to figure out. Just read any news on nutrition – it is confusing and seems to constantly change because there is a lot we don’t know yet and a lot we are continuously learning. Additionally, our genetics play a big role in our health, and sometimes, there just is not a whole lot we can do to change that. The WHO explains that several noncommunicable diseases and some mental illnesses are heavily influenced by a person’s genetic predisposition (LINK 8). While there are some lifestyle factors that may impact those genes, it is not possible at this time to know from one person to the next whether or at what dose those lifestyle factors will or will not cause disease.
- Weight loss is healthy. There are all kinds of ways to lose weight, and let’s be honest: most of them are unhealthy. Any type of diet that promises rapid weight loss or requires broad cuts of entire food groups is sure to be unhealthy in the long-term (LINK 9). Additionally, there are numerous disease states in which weight loss is rampant (cancer, AIDS, and for example) and clearly does NOT benefit health. It just leaves the sufferer even weaker and less able to combat disease than before. Also, remember that Health At Every Size research from before? It applies here, too (LINK 2). There is no proven way to lose weight and maintain weight over time that will not eventually cause a nutrient deficiency or malnutrition. Further, strict diets are stressful and difficult to follow for long periods of time, not to mention they are frequently expensive and can result in financial strain.
- Health looks the same for everyone. Absolutely not. There are myriad ways of being healthy. So you do not like kale? No sweat! No one food will make or break anyone’s health. There are lots of other nutritious options out there. There is no nutrient that is found in only one food, and no one food contains every necessary nutrient in sufficient quantities. That means that, as long as we all eat a variety of foods (LINK 10) to consume the nutrients we need, we do not all have to eat the same foods. Maybe one person prefers to get their Vitamin D from salmon, and someone else prefers to get it from eggs. Either way, both are getting the vitamin. The same goes for exercise: not everyone is able to do the same workouts, and not everyone enjoys the same kinds of body movement. The goal is to move our bodies in ways that we like, which makes us more likely to continue and develop a habit of movement.
- Health is important to us. Nope. Our health is not important to us. That sounds outrageous, right? Think about it this way: we want health, but not only for the sake of being healthy. We want health so we can have more time with our families, enjoy our lives more, and feel better while we do the things we actually want to do. We want health as a means to accomplish more with our lives. We want health as a means to achieve peace of mind free of concerns about medical bills and appointments. University of Wisconsin Health encourages people to focus on what gives their life meaning (LINK 11). Health in the here and now really does not benefit us without serving its purpose as a stepping stone to all those things. We each get to choose our own path and decide what matters most to us, and which health behaviors help us reach get there.