What Is ‘Health’? And How Do We Define It?

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What is health and how do we define it? It’s a pretty complex topic and our interpretations will vary as much as our personalities. In 1946 the World Health Organisation defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (1) at the International Health Conference. This definition was put in place as of 1948. I don’t know about you but aiming for complete health in each of these areas feels like quite the daunting task, much like asking your crush out face to face in year 8 it isn’t going to happen.

“It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver”
– Mahatma Gandhi (2)

Well-being focus and all the buzz around it is booming. Gone are the days when it’s a popular idea to starve yourself to nothingness in order to achieve a fashionable “look”. The greater the engagement from each of us with our health can only be a good thing. With all this focus on healthy living, healthy eating and “living my best life” what happens when the foundations of understanding what health is and is not are poorly understood? In this sense, striving for health can be like navigating the maze in a Triwizard tournament with an extra catch, you’re blindfolded and there is no cup to be found. Bah ha! You’ve been Tango’d. Except when health is concerned, the consequences can be a bit more dire than a double happy slap. 

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Being aware of and taking responsibility for our health can help us in many ways, whether it’s feeling able and capable, happy and content, experiencing sadness in proportionate bouts and even saving us money on health visits and prescription charges. With the age of the internet however, the health messages we receive can be combobulated and skewed – identifying fact from fiction is a bit of a tough cookie to crack.

So how does the evidence for what is and isn’t healthy translate into simpler ideas? Is it being a certain “ideal” weight? Having the “right” body fat percentages? Is it healthy to living in one emotional state? Is avoiding the GP unless you think you might be legitimately dying mean you’re healthier than everyone sat in the waiting room for said GP? The waters become murky very quickly and it’s easy to lose sight elusive Goblet of Health whilst sashaying amongst the currents and tides of fads, shock factor headlines and public health campaigns that are somewhat not accurate anyway – think Weight Watchers in American schools and the Ob_s__y campaign by Cancer Research UK earlier this year. 

The crux in relation to nutrition and our relationship status with food doesn’t boil down to one measurement, or one aspect of health. What we eat and how we do or don’t eat affects countless aspects of our bodies and functioning. Some very real questions in relation to health and nutrition is currently in an antler head bashing contest amongst those in the field, whether accredited and qualified or not. Is it healthy to marginalise a population group because of a pattern of association without identifying causation? Is it healthy to drill diet culture into young minds, and thus setting them up for a lifetime of living “healthily” on diet culture? Is that even possible? I’m not convinced. I’m also not convinced that everything stocked in Whole Foods is automatically healthy – sorry not sorry. I’m also not convinced about the healthiness of many modern day normalities, such as our phones becoming an extra part of the human anatomy, using social media to gain self worth and validation, or extreme approaches to anything much at all. 

With health food shops donning more supplements than we can possibly afford or swallow, and health influencers donning skimpy clothing to show off abs, glutes that can crush walnuts and who can do more chin ups than an excitable dog can tail wags, does being healthy have to be so extreme? I’m going to go out on a whim here and speculate that there’s no extremes in being healthy. It’s actually more about a balance and happy medium as boring and unexciting as that may sound.

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A little secret not pushed by those cashing in on the trend, you don’t need an extreme diet to eat healthily. You don’t need an extreme exercise regimen to be healthy. You don’t need to always be happy and content to be healthy. Nor do you need to spend crazy dollar on fancy ingredients and farfetched meal plans. Health isn’t even a number on a scale. The BMI is a tool for guidance and definitely not definitive – many athletes have a BMI considered obese and I’ve never seen someone typically considered to be ‘obese’ competing at the Olympics.

Each of us will define health differently drawn from our lived experiences. The most important point to be made though is that health is not a destination but a tool for living. It isn’t the be all and end all, merely a snazzy individualised car for scooting through your days with. Yeah, you want to keep the gear box in check but you don’t want to be obsessing over whether your gears are always sliding perfectly. You also need to keep your oil and waters tanks topped up, but you don’t want to be watching them furtively whilst missing out on the enjoyment of your drive. It would be a shame to not enjoy and take in the views.

Sources:
1. http://www.who.int/about/mission/en/
2. 
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3705649/

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Ditching The Weighing Scales For Good!

How I moved away from compulsively weighing, through the weight anxiety to finally ditching my scales for good.

My set of scales are pretty standard and I’ve had them for years. I don’t even remember where I was in my journey with food when I bought them. I’ve read many times that an important step in recovering from an eating disorder is to get rid of your scales. There were a few reasons as to why I’ve resisted taking this step.
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Initially it was because I know banishing them from the house would not stop me from weighing myself or ease my anxiety when I was still recovering. I knew that I had to get to a place of using them less and placing less importance on their result with them around. Otherwise I would just buy another set, or would obsess when I went to someone’s house who had a set. It just didn’t feel like the right approach for me at that time.

Once I was more recovered I was put on medication that affects weight. A third of people on Quetiapine in the long-term develop diabetes and become overweight enough to negatively impact physical health. I was anxious about this happening to me and how not feeling in control of my appetite and weight could potentially trigger old behaviours. I did gain weight each time I went on Quetiapine.

Despite this, I stuck it out and have been taking it for the longest time that I ever had previously. Finally, I decided that the positive effects of Quetiapine outweigh the weight gain, and potential metabolic alterations it can cause. The decision to push on with taking it despite weight and appetite changes that at times felt bordering on out of control is that those side effects have eventually subsided. Who knew? I have stopped taking Quetiapine many times previously out of fear and anxiety of potentially feeling out of control with my appetite, and the unknown. Each time, I get very unwell again. It’s just a general shit show.

14 months later and I am not scared anymore. I’ve adapted. Yes I gained weight and ironically since I’ve stopped weighing myself regularly or trying to control my diet in any way there have been no drastic changes. I’ve pretty much stayed about the same and in this time, despite being near my highest weight I am more comfortable with my body than I have ever been.

Possibly due to some radical acceptance being practised. Ultimately though, this disproves my earlier theory that I had to monitor my intake and weight because of my medication. It also proves that my body has a way of adapting, staying well and maintaining some form of homeostatic harmony.

According to the BMI chart I’m probably still overweight, and I’m also pretty healthy. Most would agree that the BMI is an outdated and archaic measurement of health but it’s still used. There’s another myth disproved by my own experience, that BMI is important. I could play Bingo with previous misconceptions at this rate!

I fend off infections and illnesses well, I exercise, I enjoy it, I’m not unfit, I eat pretty balanced and I’m partial to a pain au raisin lately. Yeah I’ll look at food labels sometimes to see if it’s particularly high in sugar or saturated fat but it is more of a glance over to understand the composition of different foods. It is not the be all and end all, just more of an awareness about what’s in my food choices.

In general I feel the need to follow the path I’m advocating.  No hypocrisy, no secrets, and full transparency.It’s time to listen to my body. It finally feels like the right time to take such a  step. I feel confident that I won’t buy more in a panic or feel lost without them. This is a pretty big step and hopefully perhaps the final one in moving completely out of eating disordered behaviour, comforts and rituals.

 

How to Tell If Health Media is Unhealthy?

How to identify unhelpful media messages for body image and dieting.

Health and fitness advice is everywhere. You could read all day every day and reach no consensus on how to best eat and exercise for your health.  There are entire businesses that rely on our need to transform ourselves in search of an elusive sense of happiness and ease in life. The TV is full of programmes showcasing different diets, including crash diets and their success stories. Advertisements bombard us with how their product will help us shape up as if we’re all too shaped down. That’s before we’ve even delved into the unfiltered and unedited online world.

Sometimes media outlets and their messages can be a bit of a trickster, packaging themselves as having our best interests at heart but really the underlying tone of the messages can ultimately make us feel a bit shit about ourselves. This only serves to fuel the diet and fitness industry because why would we be so desperate to spend our money on their products if we were satisfied with ourselves and our lives?

Laura Thomas PhD edited the Women’s Health Cover

There are some ways to identify unhealthy media for your diet and lifestyle, even if they have ‘Health” in the title and pictures of 6-packs throughout their content. Below are 5 red flags that mark out the shit I should ignore from the shit I should really take on board, and get this, remain balanced.

  • They’re sure that you need to change in order to be happy.
    You can’t be too comfortable with yourself. You just can’t because if you were then how would magazines be a leading monthly seller? Unhealthy media assumes that you’re unhappy with yourself, and if you’re not it will give you reason to be unhappy with yourself. Then they’ll tell you how to change in order to not be unhappy with yourself. Of course it will seem like a simple and decent plan, but of course it fuels a cycle to keep you coming back for more like a crack addicted mouse chasing its next hit in a lab.
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  • They have astounding “life changing” promises.
    If the author of the media is promising to change your life phenomenally then tread with caution. There is no one solution to all of life’s problems; they are too complex and varied. Being a certain weight, size or body shape also won’t make everything in your life easier, smoother and happier. You won’t breeze through life just because you’re a size 10. Life doesn’t work like that. Your boss will still be annoying. Your landlord will still be difficult and your overdraft won’t pay itself off.
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  • They ensures that if you didn’t want XYZ before, you do now…
    They will tell you what you want in life. If you didn’t want what is being prescribed before you do now. This can sway you away from what really matters in your own life and values to what someone thinks you need or ought to want. Abs is a big one, with ab workouts and cheat sheets everywhere. To be honest, maintaining my health is more important to me than abs.
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  • They’re judgement loaded
    A classic lines includes, ‘if i can you can too’, and buzz words are: lazy, should, ought, and why not? If someone is self-righteous about upholding their lifestyle regime, as if anyone who doesn’t isn’t seeing the light yet and are stupid because of it, then that’s pretty unhelpful. Health is different for different people.
  • Just because someone is following a particular plan and another person isn’t doesn’t make one better than the other. Greedy, pig, and lazy are also unhelpful contexts within which to frame anyone and their habits or behaviour.
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  • You feel shit after reading it and you didn’t before you started.
    I noticed this in particular with an image that circulated around Insta earlier in January. People who had achieved a level of self acceptance about their bodies were upset and feeling pretty damn shit about themselves. If you have a level of acceptance before reading or seeing something, then afterwards you’re finding yourself self-doubting yourself then put that shit down. Right. Now.You don’t need that shit in your life. Unless you’re feeling empowered to be healthy, I mean genuinely healthy not washboard abs super woman “healthy” then it’s likely not useful for you.
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If you really do feel that you need help with your weight for health reasons, a qualified health professional is best equipped to help you out. Check credentials and go for dietitian or registered nutritionists as these are the only regulated nutrition professionals by government standards. There will be a post about this at some point.

How Healthy is Veganism Really?

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The vegan diet has gained immense popularity. A dietary lifestyle that once seemed extreme, picky and difficult to cater for has become one of the hottest topics in heath and nutrition right now.  There is an onslaught of persuasive vegan media, vegan critics have gained more of a louder voice, and with tenacity the campaign is really quite intense.

Let’s be clear. I’m not anti-vegan. I am an omnivore and I’m not a passionate meat eater either. I don’t eat much meat and vegan cook books make up the majority of my collection. I am however concerned with some of the veganism claims floating around that are based on pseudo-science, skewed claims and the judgements that scoff at anyone who isn’t following a vegan diet because we’re so unenlightened and stupid for not seeing the light.

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Instagram: @noraspiration

A lot of the momentum for veganism was gained on social media; social media influencers have a massive power over our health and well-being choices (Byrne et al, 2017). This is important in relation to influencing public health amongst the general population with influencers often having more impact than traditional advertising campaigns. It seems that fruit and veg finally have some momentum to compete with food manufacturers. One study found that 41% of participants agreed that social media influencers motivated them to make healthier food choices sometimes, and for 32% of participants the motivation to eat healthier overall (Byrne et al, 2017). This news could only be bloody brilliant right? Finally, we have an effective way of influencing the nation’s diet for the better?

Uhhhmmm, not always. There is a downside to the influence of social media trendsetters. A big proportion of influencers are not qualified dietitians or nutritionists (Byrne et al, 2017), which is important when misleading nutritional information is being shared (Byrne et al, 2017). This makes the dietary choices they’re recommending potentially health damaging as they advocate choices such as gluten-free as a healthier choice for those without coeliac disease, and diets that can include eliminating whole food groups and lead to nutritional deficiency (Byrne et al, 2017).

I’m not saying you can’t have a complete diet whilst being vegan, but you do need to spend effort covering all of your bases to prevent malnourishment (Cramer et al, 2017). A main and legitimate concern for those following a vegan diet is bone health over time. Insufficient intakes of calcium, vitamin D, Vitamin B12, zinc and n-3 fatty acids can lead to a higher chance of developing osteoporosis and  fractures (mangano and tucker, 2017).

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Instagram: @naturally.jo

I have many burning questions about veganism which I will be exploring in a series of posts including topics such as:

  • The role of supplements
  • Maintaining bone health in the long run
  • Whether vegan really is the healthiest option
  • Where pseudo-claims are coming from
  • Whether the reason for being motivated to follow a vegan diet affects compliance over time
  • Endurance training
  • Environmental impact of diet and lifestyle choices
  • Eating disorders and veganism
  • Mood and veganism

Let’s go on a journey of discovery and see what science says about veganism. If you have any specific topics you’d like to read about you can comment or email me at ninjaontherunblog@gmail.com

Ciao for now.

References:

Byrne, E., Kearney, J. & MacEvilly, C. (2017) The role of influencer marketing and social influencers in public health. Proceedings of Nutrition Society. 76(OCE3) .

Cramer, H., Kessler, C.S., Sundberg, T., Leach, M.J., Schumann, D., Adams, J. & Lauche, R. (2017) Characteristics of americans choosing vegetarian and vegan diets for health reasons. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behaviour. 49(7) pp.561-567.

Mangano, K.M. & Tucker, K.L. (2017) Bone health and vegan diets. In: Mariotti, F. (ed.) Vegetarian and Plant-Based Diets in Health and Disease Prevention. (1st) London: Academic Press. pp.315-327.