Sometimes it is the simplest questions that are the most difficult to answer. How about the question ‘what is healthy’? On the surface it seems pretty straightforward, but strangely it’s not. The more I work with clients, the more I discover how few people really know what it means…and therefore how few people know how to achieve it.
Our perception of health is largely made up on how someone looks. The appearance of health is what people chase these days, confusing it for genuine health. If someone is losing weight then they instantly believe their diet is healthy; if they are putting on weight it must be unhealthy.
We also have the idea of healthy foods firmly planted in our minds, typically thinking in terms of black and white. Salad is healthy, steamed vegetables are healthy, oily fish is healthy. The same is true of unhealthy foods. Fizzy drinks are unhealthy. Chips are unhealthy. Pizza is unhealthy.
But if someone is trying to improve their health, what are they really trying to achieve? On one level they are trying to improve the functioning of their different body systems and the body as a whole. What is interesting is a lot of the ‘healthy’ foods don’t actually help people to do this (well at least not all the time).
Context is one of the most important words in the vocabulary of health. We have got into a habit of thinking about things in terms of absolutes. This is a mistake because the context of how a food is eaten and the body it’s going into will largely determine the outcome.
For example salad is considered universally healthy but there are lots of people who do terribly when they eat it. Same thing with lightly steamed vegetables.
Both of these foods can be difficult to digest. We aren’t ruminant animals and have limited ability to break down cellulose and other component parts of above ground vegetables. In small quantities, it’s typically not a problem. When cooked well, instead of raw or lightly steamed, they’re also easier on digestion.
But as someone’s digestion weakens, their ability to break this stuff down reduces. Gas, bloating, gurgling, pains, even undigested food in the stool. All indications that this food isn’t working well with your digestion.
And when someone chooses to make these foods the basis of their diet, common for those on a health kick, the results are less than spectacular.
In my opinion, the focus should shift from thinking about things in absolutes and start concentrating on what works for your body. Stop thinking about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food and be open to all foods. See what works for you in reality, rather than basing everything on hearsay or theory. And kick the habit of jumping from diet to diet, blindly following them to the letter of the law and instead figure out what really supports the demands of your life.
Moderation, like context, is another word that is crucial to health but is regularly forgotten. In our time of ‘life hacks’ and ‘6-week-total-body-transformations’ rapid changes and extreme results have become the new norm for our expectations.
There are specific times each year where people will want to make quick changes. When the weather turns warm and summer pops its head out of nowhere, people instantly want that better body. When going on a beach holiday people feverishly diet and hit the gym four weeks beforehand. After Christmas and in the New Year there is a vow to get stricter and make this the year you get the body you’ve always wanted.
In these cases again people run the risk of confusing a better aesthetic body for improved health. But more importantly, it’s failing to understand the importance of moderation.
Health comes about by following simple practices day in and day out. It might not be sexy but it’s true. It takes time for cells to regenerate, for organs to improve, for systems to start functioning better. And this happens by providing the body with what it needs, not treating it like some infidel that deserves to be punished.
If I’m being honest, I really feel for people. As nutritionist I spend my life studying about food and exercise and anything that can affect health. I know how confusing a topic it can be and this isn’t made any easier with the 100s of different diets released each year and the contradictory information that they provide.
So I would like to offer a few suggestions.
First off, my advice is to take a big picture approach. Food and exercise are important and are key factors for improving health, but they are not everything. Things like your work (do you enjoy it, what are the hours), your sleep (how many hours do you get, when do you go to bed), relationships, finances, relaxation/down time, hobbies and beliefs are all hugely important. Think about how these factors could be impacting on your health and what you can do to improve them.
Plan for the long term. Losing weight is easy; keeping it off is another story. Hitting the gym four times a week when you are new and enthusiastic doesn’t seem so hard; still doing it a year later is a different ball game.
Make changes that you can envision keeping up long term and be realistic. This normally means starting out slowly and increasing with time. You start all guns blazing, you’ll crash and burn in no time.
But most importantly, you’ve got to enjoy it. For so many people the idea of getting healthy fills their head with words like restriction, starvation, boring, and bland. And if this is the case, how is anyone expected to keep this up? Getting healthy shouldn’t feel like a punishment and if it does, you’re unfortunately doing it wrong.
The secret to this again is moderation. Start out slow and have a couple of changes become normal and part of your everyday life, then add in a couple more. Go for the low hanging fruit or the things that you get obvious enjoyment from. Once you’ve got momentum then you can tackle the more difficult stuff.
Health can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. My advice is to start out easy and to remember context, moderation and sustainability. And above all else focus on and listen to your own body, because ultimately it’s going to dictate what works for you.
This is the first article in a series on how to improve your health. While this one has taken a big picture approach, future articles will look at the specifics to give you a better idea of how to do this in practice. We’ll be looking at different markers that you can use to judge whether your eating habits and lifestyle are supporting you. We’ll look at the importance of sleep and how you can maximise it (it’s not just about getting 7 or 8 hours, there is more to it than this). We’ll look at exercise and how you can make sure it’s increasing your health instead of just draining you. And we’re going to look at beliefs about food and weight, because these dictate the choices you make and how happy you are with the results you get. I did a recent webinar covering some of this stuff, so if you want to get a head start, you can watch the replay here.
Chris Sandel is a nutritionist and health author, and runs the company 7 Health.
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