Because health is not actually a competition. It is not a dress size. It is not a weight. It is NOT a number.
I am healthy – how do I know? It’s just the vibe. Because despite what many think, health is not defined by a single number like weight or BMI; it’s dependent on much more that. For instance, the fact that I eat everything in moderation and get 5 serves of vegetables every day. I eat dairy (and get at least 2 serves per day through my coffees) and try to get enough iron in my diet. Red meat isn’t my favourite thing but I do aim for lots of other iron rich foods like eggs and lentils. I’m also active enough– I don’t run or cycle 20KM a day but I get in enough exercise through my walks with Miss S and Pilates. My weight and blood pressure are in the healthy range. My pap smear is up to date. I meditate occasionally, sleep well 99% of the time and right now my mood is pretty good. Sure I get stressed sometimes, but who doesn’t?
I am a size 10. I have a “pudgy” bit below my belly button that appeared after Miss S and I suspect will stick around regardless of how many crunches I do – truth is, I don’t care anymore. Granted it has taken me 18 months to say that but I am now genuinely comfortable with my new padded bits because I know I am healthy regardless. I currently weigh 60 kilograms. I don’t fit into my wedding dress anymore, and likely never will. I don’t look good (in my opinion) in lots of Sass and Bide clothes because that stuff is made for people taller and thinner than me. But I look cracking in my high waisted pair of blue jeans on most days. The truth is that my days of competing with models and friends who naturally have a different body shape to me are over.
Many young people define healthy by the photos on their Instagram feed – the girl in the red hot bikini is attractive I agree– but she is not always the picture of health. Restricting one’s food intake or exercising to the point of exhaustion is not ideal regardless of how good you look in a bikini. Likewise, the mega buff dude at the gym who can bench both his mum and sister isn’t necessarily the healthiest person either – gaining muscle mass and shredding fat through use of anabolic steroids or guzzling natural remedies like Garcinia Cambojia certainly isn’t heathy (by the way many natural remedies like the one mentioned can cause liver failure). Social media and the media are shaping what we see as healthy and being “healthy” has become a competition or a badge of honour – “but look at how much greener my almond milk low fat, chia seed loaded smoothie is.” Damn it I don’t drink smoothies– does this mean I am not “healthy”?
When does the drive to be healthy become pathological and obsessive and ironically, bad for your health?
I often see patients aiming for a lower weight and smaller waist size when their BMI is in the healthy range. People eliminate meat and dairy completely from their diet for no good reason proudly proclaiming they are “healthy”. Wait a minute- what about your iron deficiency anaemia? And have you thought about your now increasing risk of osteoporosis? (We reach our peak bone mass in our 20s so cutting dairy can be very problematic!) Exercise can start to become addictive – patients can’t go a single day without a 10-kilometre run. Or they tell me they feel guilty if they don’t do something calorie-burning in their day. The quest for “healthiness” can in actual fact tip the other way and become unhealthy for both body and mind.
To be honest with you, being a type A personality, I am at serious risk of this healthy quest becoming an obsession. And if I’m honest with myself when I was in 5th year medical school it did all get a bit unhealthy – my weight went too low, I cut out food groups convincing myself that I didn’t need carbohydrates or meat because hey, no one else seemed to need it either. And I couldn’t go a day without doing something active. I was young. I was using the wrong ruler to measure healthiness. I was measuring up to people around me, to the girls in the magazines. Now I know I’m healthy without measuring against any of that – but it took me 10 years to get to this place! I look at the guidelines, the suggestions for preventative health and I know I’m close enough. I want to be very very clear here – I am not perfect, I do not live my life perfectly but I am doing OK.
There are so many guidelines I could spout off at you, but these are the ones that I choose to care about:
2 serves of fruit and 5 serves of vegetables per day
30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise on most days
2 1/2 serves of dairy daily for someone in my age group
7-9 hours of sleep per night
No more than 2 standard drinks of alcohol per day
2-3 fish or vegetarian meals per week for cholesterol management
They are GUIDELINES. At the end of the day we can’t strictly live by all of them – it just isn’t possible! I certainly follow them “loosely” but there are some days I literally cannot fit the exercise in. There are some days when I eat no fruit at all. There are lots of days when I don’t get enough dairy or sleep (hello we have a toddler). And there are certainly days when I have more than the 2 standard drinks. I love lots of naughty things; smoked cheddar, chorizo, bacon – and yes, I do eat them all in moderation without feeling guilty. Please don’t think I am promoting perfection or a strict lifestyle where you live by guidelines and don’t actually “live.”
To me, a GP, being healthy is trying your best to follow the evidence-based guidelines to reduce your risk of chronic disease and certain cancers. It’s trying to eat a balanced diet, restricting the bad stuff and bumping up the good. It’s trying to be active and taking every opportunity to do so. And it’s keeping a note on your mental health – managing stress/anxiety/depression as it creeps up. To me, the person who walks through my door with a varied diet, who gets fruit and vegetables most days, who exercises 3-4 times a week and whose weight is in the healthy range is healthier than the person who obsessively cuts numerous food groups from their diet and exercises regardless of the weather, life commitments, their mental health or injuries.
I am a size 10, I eat everything (in moderation), I love wine, I am a working mum who can get stressed but is pretty content 90% of the time, I exercise 5 out of 7 days most weeks and meditate occasionally using the Smiling Mind app. No six pack, not a model (definitely not a model!) but healthy. You won’t see me posing in a red bikini on a beach anytime soon (or ever FYI) but I can assure you I am still healthy and I shouldn’t need to strip down and show you my six pack (or lack thereof) to prove it.