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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What It Really Means To Love Your Body

“I looked in the mirror and loved what I saw. If I can do it, you can too” – Insta Influencer

Of course you do, you epitomise the current beauty ideal: Gym Bunny Barbie, Health Freak Barbie, Can Survive In These Proportions Barbie – but this image is still unattainable for most.

#BodyPositivity #LoveYourself

Apparently loving how you look is still the secret elixir to loving yourself and your body. Loving yourself still equates to enslaving yourself to your reflection. I mean, it’s important to not hate what you see but apparently, according to this particular Insta influencer, aesthetics remain key to happiness and health.

Good for you but I call bullshit.

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When you love someone else how do you say what it is you love about them? Do you say, they have chiseled abs, a stunning jaw line and a booty worth twerking about? Of course you do during the lust phase, the honeymoon period of not being gable to keep your hands off each other. What about a year down the line, or five? After you’ve dealt with their death shattering snore, their farts at the airport security from nerves and little habits that are generally quite annoying, what do you say then? Valuing a partner on looks alone won’t sustain a relationship.

A deeper connection. The way they know what to say to cheer you up? The way they so badly don’t know how to cheer you up but you find it funny in hindsight? How about the conversations that never end and stimulate your mind and soul to no end? And the way they put a packed lunch in your bag even though you said you didn’t want one because they knew you’d get hungry and eat it anyway? None of those things are banging on about abs and jaw lines, so why should we focus on loving ourselves in this way? Putting the sole focus on body positivity on loving your reflection is pure, utter and complete bollocks.

The process of starting to love yourself includes more depth than this. It includes acceptance and appreciation, gratitude and developing core self-esteem. it is a process of the mind and a matter of perspective. I’ll use myself as an example. I don’t love how my body looks, far from it. I’ve gained a lot of weight these past couple of years from my medications, being unwell and generally neglecting myself at times. Self neglect when unwell with mental illness means more than not showering enough or brushing your hair, it includes not eating properly, not changing, not exercising, not sleeping, or over sleeping and neglecting every aspect of self-care there is.

I’m actually ‘technically’ according to the archaic BMI chart overweight at the moment. At the same time I don’t hat my body, far from it. In fact, I like my body more than I ever did and not because of how it looks. I accept that my body is at its biggest and I’m working on managing that in order to remain healthy. I accept my belly, and the scars on my arms and that a lot of my clothes no longer fit. I don’t like it and I accept it.

The reasons I love my body are more of an appreciation. My body allows me to run and climb. It allows me to have energy to do things in the day My heart beats and my lungs breathe with ease. My muscles are stronger than they one were and this allows me to progress at my sports activities if I put the effort in. I am capable of different experiences like the view from the top of a great big hill over a beautiful landscape, all thanks to my body. I feel different textures which can be soothing for me. I smell the beautiful wafts of perfume and baked bread thanks to my body. I can enjoy sex thanks to my body – here’s a hat tilt and wink to my nervous system and vagina for all the orgasms. I can see beauty. I can express myself fun entirely uncoordinated dancing. The list really is endless, but thanks to my body I am alive and can experience many wonders of living thanks to my body.

That’s some pretty dope shit and you know what the crux of all these things is? I can’t see any of this in my reflection or a picture alone. Yet I love my body for of these things.

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Through psychological work over many years I learned to respect, appreciate and accept my body in a holistic way. Becoming toned, health food obsessed and going to the gym most days didn’t change my perspective and feelings towards my body, therapy did. I didn’t even heal through an Eating Disorder service or therapeutic programme for eating disorders. I did it via a course of schema therapy. I am very lucky to have received this on the NHS I know, and I wouldn’t recommend going down the roads I did to land in the place. Now I’m on the other side of that part of my life though, I acknowledge this isn’t necessarily the answer for everyone. I also learned to stop caring what others thought of me and my body.

I enjoy my body and this provides my motivation to live a healthy lifestyle in order to maintain good physical and mental health. I exercise because it makes me feel good holistically in addition to reaping the health benefits over the longer term. I exercise because I love my body, not because I hate it to want to change it or look a certain way, and this is why I’m not buying the “I looked in the mirror and loved what I saw” as a phrase of self empowerment and body love.

Our love for ourselves goes deeper than our reflection, just as our love for other people does. It comes from our mind, our heart and a healthy dose of self compassion. Acceptance and gratitude are also helpful ingredients for the elusive loving yourself recipe. And if you don’t love yourself yet, but you are embarking on a journey of gratitude, acceptance, and self compassion honestly, it only gets better. It pays to pay attention to our mind and how we think about ourselves. Not everyone needs intensive therapy in order to achieve this, and if you do, that’s OK do. This is the part where I say, if I did it, so can you. You’ve got this, at whatever stage you’re at.

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I can honestly say I know how it is to hate yourself – and now look at all the things I think are pretty neat about my body. Reach out, ask for support, but most importantly work from the inside out and eventually maybe you’ll look in the mirror and say, “You’re not looking perfect dear body of mine, but I think you’re pretty neat and I love you anyway like I’d love a cat with three legs and one eye”.

*fist bump*

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Identifying Healthy Media Outlets

How to identify healthy media messages that can help harbour self acceptance and compassion.

Having written about identifying unhelpful media for helping on your journey to ditch diet culture, and protect yourself from a shit storm of dieting onslaught I think it would also be helpful to identify some pointers for identifying health positive media. It’s not all doom and gloom; there is a growing amount of people championing self acceptance, a holistic attitude to health and body positivity.

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If you’re considering swapping your magazine subscription, or clearing up your social media feeds then here’s a list of how to identify health positive media that will help and encourage you to be healthy and well without a one size fits all model.

  • They encourage self acceptance:

    Media that helps and encourages us to love ourselves can only be good. When we say “they love themselves” about someone it can be an insult for arrogance, but loving yourself doesn’t need to equate to arrogance. In order to love ourselves we need to first accept ourselves – so if your magazine or social media feed is encouraging you on a journey of self acceptance then it’s a winner. Keep that live.
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  • Encourages a healthy balanced lifestyle 

    By encouraging balance in our lives, for as unsensational as that is to sell, a harmony can be reached with ourselves, our bodies and our health. Some things you may do in your life may be technically unhealthy, however, often there are worse thing you could d be doing so, is the odd cigarette really the worst thing in the world? Or is a bit of cake really going to make you unhealthy?Balance isn’t about eating high sugar high fat food all the time. It also isn’t eating a restrictive diet of just mange-tout on Mondays, or carb free Fridays. I just made that up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it existed somewhere. It’s about eating healthy food and having some balance in your life so that cake isn’t stressful, you’re not panicking at a buffet and you’re not eating the whole pack of biscuits with the TV each night because you’re swearing you’ll never eat them again. By allowing all foods, regardless of nutrition content allows for a more balanced and healthy outlook and relationship with food.
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  • Advises being inclusive of all food groups

    A lot of diets cut out food groups. No grains, no carbs, no sugars… the list keeps on going. Some diets include only eating one food group, fruit for example on a restrictive fruitarian diet. Unfortunately, yes that exists.Nutritionally, excluding any food group can lead to being malnourished, physically and emotionally. Sometimes we need a piece of chocolate for comfort, or a hot drink can be soothing. Discarding any food group only furthers a disharmony in your relationship between yourself, your body and your food.

    So yes, if you like cake then cake has a place in your diet just as all the other stuff like grains, carbs, veg, protein.
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  • Gives the power to you over your priorities

    With our health, it is largely in our hands when it comes to eating. However, a lot of media will try to tell you what you ought to be eating or not eating. They’ll try to encourage that your priority should be weight loss, or abs, or building muscle. That isn’t for everyone and in fact, a media outlet that gives the power to you to define your own goals and your own priorities is empowering – and you wanna keep that live too.Why let some editor in an office living a completely different life to you define what your values and priorities with you health ought to be? We’re all different and we all have different lives – what is important for one person may be the bottom of the list for another. Therefore, media that helps you identify what you want by asking questions to prompt considering it can be helpful, but if they’re guiding you in the direction of their own priorities then shut that shit up!
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  • Comes from a place of non-judgmentalness

    When we’re learning to be self-compassionate the last thing we need is judgements from others infiltrating the good vibes. It can be extremely difficult to develop self-compassion and shut the nagging self-deprecating voice in our heads up. Therefore, it is important to surround ourselves with media and messages that come from a place of non-judgementalness. This stance in approaching not only ourselves, but others as well, can really harbour compassion not only for ourselves but for others.It’s a great lesson to learn to not be judgmental but being surrounded by judgmental media can only lengthen and challenge our journey towards being non-judgemental. It can be hard to identify judgement words, but basically emotionally loaded ways of describing can help sum them up. Lazy or stupid for example are quite harsh judgement words, and when they’re used to describe someone or ourselves can be quite damaging.
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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.