What does it mean to be healthy?
Is diet and exercise the answer to being healthy or is there more to it?
There’s an image of health we have come to know. Thin bodies, salads and of course plenty of time at the gym. But often this narrative of health feels unachievable. Following a diet and exercise regime can even become stressful.
Let’s stop the stress and break down what health means. Learn how important diet and exercise really is and find the best way you can achieve your health goals.
Health by definition
A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. This is the definition of health by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Two things stand out to me with this statement. Firstly, the emphasis on mental and social well being which, in our society, are not given the same attention as that of our physical health.
The narrative of health depicted in our diet culture has a strong focus on physical health. Our mental and social health is often sacrificed in order to achieve physical health. Judgement of other's behaviours often comes with a “I just care about their health”, with health being physical. At the same time, this judgement of others is shown to harm mental and social health.
Studies on dieting show long term harmful effects to mental and social health but may show short term physical health improvements. So, as a culture, we justify prescribing weight loss diets for the perceived health benefits.
Health in our culture has taken on an ideal and with it, a sense of morality. It is about reaching what is portrayed as health, whether this is healthy or not.
“a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” - WHO
Secondly, by this definition, a complete state of health is really not achievable for any person at any time.
Health is fluid, complex and largely outside of our control. Our mental health, social health and physical health all change over time. Health is largely down to our genetics and our environment. Everyone, no matter how well we care for our body and mind, will suffer poor health at some point.
There is no morality to a cultural ideal of health.
The WHO also states “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition”.
Yet we know that health inequality exists. We know that the wealthiest people have access to the highest standard of healthcare and the most health promoting environments. We also know that racism still affects direct access to healthcare as well as mental and social health.
We also know that attainment and quality of healthcare is poorer for those in larger bodies. Professional bias, a focus on weight loss over physical, mental and social health and equipment not being designed for all bodies contribute to the inequality. And our cultural environment which normalises body shaming messages and weight loss dieting is not health promoting for those in larger bodies.
“The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition” - WHO
On a cultural level, the messages about health often negatively stigmatise and, directly and indirectly, harm the health of certain groups of people. The impact of racism, weight stigma, economic disadvantage, gender and more still harm an individual’s physical, mental and social health.
Another statement by the World Health Organisation is that Governments have a responsibility for the health of their peoples which can be fulfilled only by the provision of adequate health and social measures.
Yet we are constantly made to believe health is, for the most part, a personal responsibility. It is constantly put back on the population that it is our personal responsibility to choose to be healthy.
“Governments have a responsibility for the health of their peoples which can be fulfilled only by the provision of adequate health and social measures” - WHO
We are constantly fed messages that health is about diet and exercise. That our body size and chronic illness is directly in our control if we just eat right and move more.
We are fed an ideal of health in a non-disabled, white, thin body who eats perfectly and goes to the gym often. These messages turn us against each other. We blame each other for costing the healthcare system if we do not fit the health ideal. It stops us using our energy to advocate for equitable healthcare.
How much control do we have?
Quantifying how much of our health is within our control and how much is down to chance or environment is tricky at best and will vary for each individual. Data from government sources, the United Nations and health journals has been compiled to bring this complicated data into 5 broad areas of health determinants.
One of the areas is individual behaviours. By this definition, individual behaviours make up about 36% of our health determinants. Yet, diet and exercise is only one part of it. Individual behaviours also include risk taking behaviours, mood affects such as anxiety level, physiological assets such as life satisfaction, optimism and self efficacy and sleep behaviours.
Source: The Determinants of Health, GoInvo.
So, making some accessible changes to our eating or physical activity may help improve our wellbeing and feel our best, but not if it comes at the cost of mental and social health.
Intuitive eating and health
As we know health is much more than nutrition only, we need a new approach to nutrition that prioritises our needs as a whole. Using an intuitive eating approach, my clients learn to let go of stressing about food rules, and instead work with their bodies to allow food for nutrition, pleasure and social connection.
A fear with intuitive eating is when we take the focus off having rules and guidelines on what to eat, is that we will only eat unhealthy food. This is not the case. And while diets and food rules have been shown to increase food stress and anxiety; intuitive eating has been shown to reduce anxiety and hopelessness and increase self efficacy, optimism and life satisfaction. All of which are just as important for our overall health.
Health is complex.
Cultural ideals of health do not represent what health means as individuals or as a population.The stereotype of health is harmful as it creates discrimination based on health ideals and also drives bias within the healthcare setting.
A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being as the World Health organisation defines health is really not achievable by anyone. But that’s also ok. We all deserve to find what works for our own unique bodies.
Our cultural focus on diet and exercise rules promote and normalise disordered eating and a disconnect from our bodies. This, overall, harms our health. You deserve to eat in a way that is supportive to your physical, mental and social health. Learn how you can incorporate healthy eating without the diet rules to find your food and life freedom.
Written by Emma Townsin, Registered Dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor
Emma is the founder of Food Life Freedom and the host of the Food & Life Freedom Podcast. For personalised support to stop stressing over health and heal your relationship with food and your body, learn how you can fast track your way food and life freedom.
Determinants of Health. GoInvo. To see the determinants of health visualised and the references and methodology: https://www.goinvo.com/vision/determinants-of-health/
WHO’s definition of health: https://www.who.int/about/governance/constitution
Is there more to the equation? Weight bias and the costs of obesity, Singh et al. 2018. Canadian Journal of Public Health.
Weight stigma and physical health: an unconsidered ‘obesity’ cost, Angela Meadows, 2018. Canadian Journal of Public Health.
An Evidence-Based Rationale for Adopting Weight-Inclusive Health Policy, Hunger et al. 2020. Social Issues and Policy.
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