“Health.” It’s a simple one-syllable word with a deceptively simple definition: “the state of being free from illness or injury.” What I have come to realize over the decade-plus that I have been practicing nutrition therapy as a registered dietitian is that health means many different things to different people. Health is not black or white, but a million shades of gray. But the wellness industry (diet culture’s shapeshifted cousin) would have us believe that health is not only easy to define and simple to identify, but also easy to achieve, if we just try hard enough. Well, sorry, it’s not that simple.
When I was a preteen, I remember feeling like my body was wrong, too big, taking up too much space. My mother and I would go to my pediatrician appointments, where my doctor would hem and haw about my weight. I had always trended on the 95th percentile on growth charts, and every year my pediatrician would comment on it in a concerned way. My mom would echo these concerns at home, gently reminding me that my doctor was worried for my health. When I would cry to my mom about being in a larger body than my peers, she would always come back to this statement: “You are a beautiful girl. We could make some changes to how you eat and exercise. I just want you to be healthy.”
“I just want you to be healthy.” These words ring in my ears as they have been spoken to me in different iterations throughout my life. From concerned college friends after I had gained a significant amount of weight during my freshman year (post diet, of course): “We are just worried about your health.” From my first adult PCP when I was 22 years old: “We just want to make sure you are healthy.” From my mom when I announced that I would be going on a low-carb diet at age 25: “as long as you’re healthy!”
Everyone seemed to say that my health was the most important thing and that being healthy meant being in a “healthy-looking” body. When I actively engaged in dieting, restricting, tracking every morsel, weighing myself multiple times a day, exercising even when I didn’t feel like it or was sick or injured, eschewing lunch outings with friends, losing my period – during these times, everyone marveled at how “healthy” I was. “It’s so nice to see that you are finally taking care of yourself!” my family would crow. “Keep going, get healthy!” my doctor cheered. Little did they know the personal hell I was living in. But at least I “looked” healthy. Or at least my body fit the social norm for what we collectively believe is healthy, i.e., it was no longer considered fat. But inevitably as the weight would come back on, the concerns for my health would resurface.
When I finally gave up on dieting and learned about Health at Every Size® and intuitive eating, I was ready to hear the message. At last, I didn’t need to micromanage my intake and output. I didn’t need to obsessively count and weigh and measure. I didn’t have to give lunch outings with friends a second thought. It was like a freedom I hadn’t felt since I was a child, before I was told that I had a body that was “wrong.” I began to realize that health is not one-size-fits-all and that it looks different for different people. With individuals who have chronic illnesses such as celiac disease or cystic fibrosis or those with physical disabilities such as paralysis or amputation, they would never be able to achieve a state of being “free from illness or injury.” How about the millions of people who deal with depression or anxiety? Are they unable to achieve health as well?
I feel that we need to change our beliefs and expectations around health. In my opinion, health is a multifaceted amorphous concept that is not always attainable. It is also something that changes during our lifespan for a multitude of reasons. Even if we engage in all of the “health-promoting behaviors” we have been told to do, there is no guarantee that we will be healthy. In addition, there is no moral requirement for us to engage in these behaviors. As the wise Ragen Chastain so eloquently states: “Health is not an obligation, a barometer of worthiness, completely within our control, or guaranteed.”
The wellness industry loves to prey on our fears of illness and death. It purports to give us the answers to living longer, healthier lives. All we need to do is buy their program, supplement, or detox, and we can unlock the secret to immortality. It’s a brilliant marketing scheme that swindles millions upon millions of people every year. What if we decided to care more about our mental health and wellbeing? What if we made healthcare accessible to everyone? What if we eradicated weight stigma from the medical field? What if we decided that health doesn’t look the same on every body and that this is okay? My guess is the wellness industry would lose billions of dollars. Worrying about and obsessing over our “health” is most definitely not good for us. I wonder when our society will figure this out.