I’m going to present you with a few scenarios, and I’ll bet a nickel that even if you don’t fall into one of these categories, the majority of people around you do:
It began after graduation. Instead of walking, biking, playing sports, and dancing up a storm like you did in your collegiate days, you now find yourself sitting at a desk all day. When you finally get home you’re exhausted. All you really want to do is eat something tasty and easy, and sit on your couch and watch TV. And so you’ve gained a little weight, or a lot of weight. It kind of snuck up on you and you’re not too happy about it. And thus you’ve found yourself trying to focus your attention on weight loss, because you’ve heard that being overweight comes with a slurry of health-risks that you’d rather avoid.
Or maybe you had a baby, or found out that you have a legitimate metabolic issue, or you experienced a major life set-back, and now you’re heavier than you’d like to be. And maybe you’ve tried a few restrictive diets, or boot-camps which have you up at 6 a.m. every morning, but the numbers on the scale never really shift or stay the way you’d like them to.
* A little side note, if you’re interested, check out this beautiful photo series of what women’s bodies look at after pregnancy.*
Even if you haven’t been through any of these scenarios, maybe you just want to look like those fitspiration pictures you see on pinterest, because that’s what healthy looks like, right?
. . .Not necessarily. . .
Okay, I’ll concede. There are a few people who have just the right combination of genes to make them naturally slender or muscular. They’ve won the constitutional lottery of the social ideal, and that’s great for them.
These individuals often gravitate toward show business, but once they get there they’re usually told that they’re not good enough, they still need to lose weight, even though they’re already on the lower end of the Body Mass Index (BMI) chart.
The pressures placed on celebrities are well known, but what most people don’t realize is that the same holds true for the rest of us as well.
Magazines and health advocates have adopted the unified chant that losing weight will make everyone healthy, happy, and beautiful, but in truth it’s not that simple.
The thing is, some people are just meant to be a bit heavier, and the vast majority of the population won’t ever look like the pictures when they’re actually healthy.
The BMI chart is based on averages that are grossly imposed on the entire population. These numbers oversimplify a very elaborate equation.
Is it possible to be in the overweight category on this chart and be healthy? Absolutely. Are many seemingly fit people actually unhealthy? Absolutely.
Health is a bit more complicated than the number on the scale (tweet this here).
Now I’m not advocating obesity. Far from it. The western world’s gluttonous tendencies are a huge problem (no pun intended). But even though the American Health Association is now labeling obesity itself as a disease, the fact remains that being severely overweight is actually just a symptom of a larger, systemic issue.
Serious health problems can also arise for those who, through exercise and diets, force their bodies to conform to this societal ideal of a svelte physique when they’re not supposed to look like that. (Most people are not supposed to look like that).
I’ll even go so far as to say that our culture’s preoccupation with health itself is obsessive and unhealthy, and can become downright dangerous (tweet this here).
To make matters worse, the media only advocates weight loss, celebrating any famous person who loses 20 pounds and making a huge fuss over those who don’t adhere to the prescribed image.
But just because someone cannot be diagnosed as anorexic or bulimic does not mean their regimented exercise routine and/or restrictive diet are good for them.
“So, Smarty-Pants, What IS Healthy Then?”
Good question! I’m so glad you asked 😉
Healthy is when you eat good, clean ingredients at (almost) every meal.
Healthy is when you eat slowly and mindfully enough to enjoy your food thoroughly.
Healthy is when you eat because you’re hungry, and don’t eat when you’re not.
Healthy is the ability to know when you’re full, and stop eating until you become hungry again.
I will add here that if you are prone to overeating, portion control can be helpful. Many people can rewire their neural circuits and (re)learn to listen to, differentiate, and understand their body’s hunger signals. Learning to honor these signals is also necessary on the other end of the spectrum, with eating disorders.
Talk to your health-care practitioner if you find you have difficulty knowing when you’re hungry or full.
Healthy is when you know what foods are good for you, and you eat those predominantly.
Hint: The foods that are good for you are mostly vegetables.
Healthy is knowing which foods you’re sensitive to, and eating less of those.
This is a personal issue and is definitely not the same for everyone.
Common sensitivities include any, all, or none of the following:
Gluten, grains, dairy, processed sugar, nuts and seeds, eggs, soy, nightshades, red meat, pork, shellfish, citrus fruits, mushrooms, corn, alcohol, and caffeine.
Other sensitivities are also possible, and may change throughout one’s lifetime.
Healthy is the ability to recognize when your body is becoming stagnant, and move it in a way that makes you feel better.
Healthy is when you include a variety of physical activity in your life, and move your body every day.
Or, even better, when physical activity is such a part of your life (because you love to go on hikes and bike to the grocery store, for example,) that you don’t need to hit the gym.
Healthy is being outdoors and in nature as much as you can.
But stay bundled up in cold weather, and make sure you wear warm socks and a scarf!
Healthy is when you rest because you are tired.
Yes, exercising too much is possible.
There are people who go to the gym every morning, attend a bikram yoga class during their lunch break, and do a power walk every evening and still can’t lose weight. They’re probably stressing out and exercising too much.
Many people make themselves work out for a certain number of hours every week, regardless of circumstance, because they think they won’t be healthy if they don’t. They’re probably exercising too much too.
Strenuous physical activity is not necessary if you move your body throughout the day, every day. In fact, a practice as gentle as taichi can do just as much good, or even more, as an hour-long session on the treadmill.
If you find yourself building up a sweat on a daily basis, you’re probably doing too much. In Chinese medicine it would be said that you’re using up all of your essence.
Sweat every once in a while if it feels good, and keep yourself active every day, but don’t overdo it. Rest is just as important as activity.
Healthy is when you sleep as much as you need to every night.
Although 7-8 hours of sleep are recommended, some people need 9 or 10 (or more!) hours of deep, solid sleep to feel fully rested. Part of listening to your body also includes allowing yourself the flexibility to need more sleep some nights, and less on others.
Healthy is when you’re able to recognize your emotions objectively, and figure out what internal and external triggers make you feel balanced or out of balance.
Your emotional state will have a huge impact not only on your weight, but on the quality of your life.
If you can figure out what makes you feel content, and avoid things (thoughts, activities, people, etc.) that stress you out, you’ll have more capacity to take care of yourself, and a better quality of life overall.
Healthy is when you ask for support.
Nobody can do everything on their own. Whether you’re starting off with a laundry-list of health problems, or you just want to learn to eat better, it’s helpful to have a community around you for support.
Expressing your needs to friends and family is great, but when you’re trying to get your life on track it’s a good idea to get the help of a professional too.
Find a nutritionist, Chinese medicine practitioner, or naturopath in your area so you can work on the root cause of your weight issues, and find solutions that work specifically for you.
Healthy is loving your body for what it does for you, not reprimanding it for what it looks like.
Think about this last point for a moment. Your body is a miraculous machine.
Actually, I take that back, it’s so much more than a machine! Your cells are literally star-dust, made from the same matter as the whole universe.
When you eat, you’re eating substances directly from the earth, and those substances become the building-blocks of your structure. You are literally made of the earth, inseparable from it.
But your body is not just physical. It can move! Your body is animated by a magical life-force we can’t fully understand. A force we can only feel and observe, but so far only have theories as to where it comes from and where it goes when we die. This force is powerful enough to make you move, digest, feel joy, shed tears, connect with others, and make things happen in the world.
And this life-force can even heal itself. With it, your body knows how to run the show, fighting intruders like viruses and bacteria, mending injuries, sending messages to its various parts, and keeping homeostasis when things shift.
Regardless of all the things you might think are wrong with you, you are housed in this body right now, and it’s amazing (tweet this here).
Your ego might want it to look a certain way, but if you just step back and meditate on the mechanisms behind something as seemingly simple as breathing, appearance may -at least temporarily- seem a little less important.
In conclusion, if you want to be healthy, then give your body the respect and care it deserves, no matter what it looks like.
Stressing out over calorie counts and what the scale says isn’t going to make you healthy, and it’s definitely not going to make you happy.
Watching your weight closely will inevitably result in brief thrills when the numbers go down, constant anxiety about maintaining a weight-loss momentum, and disappointment, or even shame, when the numbers aren’t what you would hope.
Everyone has a weight and shape that is unique to them. What healthy looks like is different for each individual. If you stop focusing on losing weight and start focusing instead on living a healthy, fulfilling life, the pounds you need to lose will probably come off on their own. But my hunch is that when you get there, the number on the scale won’t compare to the feelings you have gotten from truly taking care of yourself.