A good friend of mine invited me to contribute to a book she was writing, about what it takes to “Be the Exception.” It’s a wonderful project about steps to overcome hardship and live an exceptional life. She asked me to describe one of the steps, in my own words, about what it means to “be healthy.” It’s an interesting question. In fact, most of my clients will tell me exactly that: “I just want to be healthy.” To which I respond, “What does that mean? How will you know when you’re healthy?” Most reply that it means “to get in shape.” Others say that it is “to have more energy” or “to feel better.” It seems like a simple question, but what does it really mean to “be healthy”?
The above picture is the image that propelled me to think differently about what health means to me. I was at a turning point in my life after years of excessive, compulsive exercise, restrictive eating, and the never-ending battle to be “as healthy as I could be.” A painful divorce; sinking into a crippling depression; and, cycling into emotional, binge eating made me realize I had to figure out how I was going to be “healthy” for my two young children. My world had changed dramatically and no amount of exercise or eating well was going to change that.
The word “health” means different things to different people. In fact, it’s taken on new meaning to me over the years. I was brought up to value health, but most of what I understood about “being healthy” was related to physical health. And, most notably, if you weren’t thin, you weren’t healthy.
So, I pursued thinness. Right along with the rest of our culture, I pursued the belief that if you have the “right” body size and eat the “right” way, your problems will be solved and you will live happily and healthfully ever after. And, being a perfectionist, I’m quite certain I did it the “right” way. Unfortunately, there was no “happy and healthy” for me during this time. Now, there’s nothing wrong with trying to eat well and stay physically fit. However, when this is your number one priority in life, it turns out, it can become quite “unhealthy”!
Although I struggled with my distorted beliefs about health early on in life, I went on to pursue a master’s degree in nutrition science and completed the requirements to be a Registered Dietitian. I’m fascinated by science and really do love food and eating. So, in many ways, my education was an important part of correcting some of my misunderstanding about physical health. With some practice, my personal relationship with food, eating, exercise and weight began to come into balance.
My quest for finding peace or a healthy relationship with food, eating and weight; however, has less to do with what I eat or how much I exercise, and everything to do with my mindset, priorities and learning to manage adversity.
Over and over again, people try to quantify “health” by referencing weight, body fat percentage, BMI (body mass index), calories consumed, calories burned, how many steps you’ve taken, hormone levels, and on and on. Ugh! This is just madness! I know, I’ve tried it all.
Of course there is a correlation between many of these indices and one’s physical health, but it really doesn’t tell us anything about the person’s overall health – which includes how they manage stress; whether they have healthy, intimate relationships; if they smoke; do they get productive sleep; or what their overall emotional state is. Unfortunately, there is too much room for misinterpretation and judgement of a person’s true health with this preoccupation of numbers. The principles of Health at Every Size are a great example of expanding the definition of a person’s overall relationship with food, eating and weight.
Truly, the pain inflicted on people because of our culture’s obsession with weight bias and stigma (at every age these days) is far from healthy!
So, if these numbers don’t give us the complete picture of health, what else matters? Well, what keeps a person functioning when stress, trauma and pain strikes, while another falls to pieces? Resilience. Physical health certainly plays a role in a person’s ability to be resilient, but there is much more to it. Plenty of research has demonstrated that nutrition and activity are important, but faith, sleep, positive relationships, and stress management are the difference makers for overcoming hardship and staying well.
A great example of this is illustrated in a landmark study, called The 90+ Study, of thousands of members of a retirement community in Southern California. This study is revealing factors that may contribute to living longer. It’s no surprise that researchers have found that smoking leads to shorter lifespans, while those who exercise live longer. Other findings have been unexpected — vitamins did not prolong life, but carrying some extra weight did.
My personal experience of overcoming divorce, loneliness, and stress along with my professional experience as a clinical dietitian working in mental health has clearly demonstrated to me that “being healthy” is more than a person’s body size.
My dear friend’s book, Be the Exception: Your 7 Steps to Transformation, dramatically illustrates this truth through her sensitive, kind and inspiring words.
And…most important my parents have demonstrated what optimal health is. At that dark, pivotal point in my life (over 15 years ago now), I saw my 60+ year old father pushing my kids up the hill in front of our home and realized, that’s what I want! I just want to be able to do that when I’m a grandparent.
Still today, my parents continue to role model a healthy lifestyle. They’re active, travel regularly, remodel and restore homes, climb houses (my dad pictured below oiling their weather vane), have healthy relationships, are devoted to their faith, eat intuitively and enjoy quality time with friends and family.
For me, I’ve learned to balance my time by living what I teach – eating intuitively and staying active. I don’t always do it perfect, correct and right, but my priorities of faith and family first, certainly keep me grounded. My greatest joy is my kids and cooking, family meals and quality time with friends and family.
Pictured below is our family trip to Key West, Florida to celebrate my parent’s 55th wedding anniversary! Life is tough – that’s for sure – but truly enjoying good food, eating and fun activity is just part of everyday life.