What is health? This is a question that I’ve been asking myself lately, and one that I think is critically overlooked in traditional “weight loss” culture.
What is health? Is it a body size? Absence of disease? Serenity? Longevity? Lately I’ve been challenged to consider what true health really is.
As a dietitian, food and exercise habits are the primary behaviors I have been trained to consider when assessing a person’s health. However, as health research grows, I have learned that these two factors only encompass a small part of the picture.
It turns out that several other factors, such as sleep, stress, social support, socioeconomic status, relational connectivity, environment and genetics (to name a few!) all play a role in determining overall health status.
Health cannot be seen by appearances. Health is not a size.
I’ve been learning about a more holistic approach to healthcare called the Health at Every Size movement. This movement encourages health-promoting behaviors with the goal of health, not weight loss, as the gold standard. Health at Every Size considers the more “unseen” aspects of health, like fitness, social connectivity, eating patterns, relationship to food, relationship with self, sleep, stress, environment, and more.
As I continue to read the research backing this approach, I can’t help but feel more settled in my soul. THIS makes sense to me.
I am more than just my body’s physical appearance. I am a full person, with a body, yes, but also with a mind, emotions, relationships, and a spirituality. My health encompasses ALL of these things. Strict diets require that I neglect certain other parts of my health, and they leave me feeling empty. They also stress me out!
Funny enough, research shows that stress has a stronger correlation with developing chronic disease than do weight and body size. Social factors such as living in poverty, experiencing discrimination, and emotional trauma increase stress, in addition to everyday stressors like work, raising a family, and managing other responsibilities. Even exercise is a stressor, which can be a good thing in certain quantities, but too much can lead to a stress hormone overload!
Research shows that chronic elevated stress hormone, or cortisol, has numerous negative effects on our bodies such as blood sugar imbalances and increased diabetes risk, immune system suppression, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal problems, fertility problems, and other long term health problems.
The true pursuit of health is more than just a diet plan. We must consider all aspects of our long-term well-being.
As we begin to consider our health from a more holistic point of view- physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual- I think it’s helpful to take a look inward and become curious about which aspects of our health could use some more attention.
With this holistic definition in mind, I also challenge us to consider if what we’re currently doing “in the pursuit of health” is actually truly healthy. There are many fad diets and exercise regimens that may result in short term weight loss, but are actually really hurting our health in the long run.
From a research perspective, most of these extreme plans have not been tested for long term effects, therefore we really have no idea if they are even safe for long term use. Don’t be fooled! Health is not found in a body ideal. It’s much more complex!
To me, true health honors my physical body while also honoring my mental, emotional, relational, social, and spiritual health. The definition of honor is “to regard with great respect.” I am learning to respect my body, not change its size. I am learning to nourish my body with good foods and joyful movement, which for me looks like eating a variety of foods from all food groups, listening to my hunger and fullness cues, and moving my body in a way that feels good to me. I am learning to tend to my body in a way that honors all the other components of my health too, because I am more than just my body. I am learning to sleep more, make time for intentional relationships, laugh more, and even go to counseling. I am journaling more often, keeping up with my physicals, and spending more time outdoors. I am educating myself about the social factors that make it more difficult for others to enjoy the same health privileges I do, and finding out what I can do to help.
I am comparing myself to others less and cheering others on more, because health is NOT a size. And that makes me glad.
I recently read a quote that says “My body is an instrument, not an ornament”. This really spoke to me, as for many years of my life I treated my body as simply an ornament. I put my body through torture in order to make it look the way society said it “should” be. But really, that was the unhealthiest I’ve ever been.
I am so grateful for where I am today, realizing that my body is the vessel that allows me to live out the purpose for which I was made. I have learned my body is smart and resilient; it does not need to be micromanaged. I am learning that my body is my friend who can be trusted, not my enemy. And I am learning that true health is a lifelong journey, one that I can choose joyfully every day.
Jenna Le Kayworth, MS, RDN, LD