Thursday, May 28, 2015

How Should We Approach Health?

Please hear me out on this. I know it’s an emotionally charged issue, but I think I have some insight that will prove helpful.

We in the West (and in many other places in the world) live in an age of plenty. Modern farming practices allows most of us of moderate means to have access to a wide variety of foods in all seasons. We can even buy ready prepared foods. We have an abundance.

We also have a more technologically advanced society, one that lets us be more sedentary. Many jobs require sitting behind a computer most of the day. We drive most places. The majority of us increasingly have to go out of our way to be active. It becomes harder and harder to move our bodies in a way we love.

Then there is the ever present need to do more with less time. We must produce more at work and work more hours in order to keep our jobs in this job market. We are stressed and constantly plugged into our career. To rest and to have time where you aren’t available to your company is to put yourself at a disadvantage for your career. We aren’t sleeping as much. We are putting our emotional and physical needs aside to be able to keep our jobs to provide only the most basic necessities of shelter, transportation, utilities, and food. Those of us who are lucky enough to afford more than that are so miserable from working so much that we invest our extra money in things we think will make us happier, and we are too stressed out to even think about our health.

Compounding this, we have a population that has more modest means, one that will go for higher calorie foods with the money they have because it is more filling and faster to prepare than a home cooked meal from scratch. They are working many jobs to survive. They don’t have time to cook, and, if they did, they wouldn’t know how. Some people live in food deserts and don’t even have access to affordable, healthy options if they want them.

We have a population in an environment that lends easily to health risks, be it obesity, inactivity, or a lack of healthy dietary options.

I’ve spent a lot of time reading about nutrition, diet, and exercise. I’ve also looked a lot into weight loss. The entire world seems to think there is an easy solution. The perfect diet.  The perfect exercise. Don’t eat carbs. Don’t eat fat. Go Vegan. Go Paleo. Many people blame those who are unhealthy, deeming them simply too lazy to Do It Right™.

The truth is, the only way to really be healthy is to be active. If you are thin but still inactive, you still are at risk for many diseases. The only way to lose weight is to consistently consume less calories than you burn off. It sounds so simple, but the reality is that, for many reasons, it isn’t simple in practice.

If you’re like me, then you’ve always been pretty effortlessly thin. I don’t have to think about my meals. When I was stress eating and gained too much while working, I switched some of my snacks to fruits and vegetables, started exercising, and easily lost 10 pounds. Based on my experience, I thought I knew how easy weight loss was. I thought other people just weren’t Doing It Right™. I didn’t realize then that I was basing my view from a pretty blind perspective without realizing the physiological and psychological factors that play into trying to lose weight. I also didn’t realize how lucky I was to have time to exercise, sleep, and prepare meals for myself.

I hadn’t heard back then that babies whose mothers were pregnant with them during famines were at an increased risk of obesity, Diabetes, and heart disease, suggesting that our weight can be heavily influenced by hereditary factors beyond our control, putting some people in a harder starting place than I had. I didn’t know the extensive devastation that depression, abuse, and mental illness can bring to someone’s weight loss efforts. I didn’t know about sensory issues that could cause people to gag over vegetables and have huge anxieties around food. I was young, and I didn’t know how stressful and exhausting being an adult and caring for yourself and your family is. I didn’t know how silly and uncompassionate I was being. I knew practically nothing.

I notice that a lot of people use their diet and lifestyle as a way to feel superior to others. We like to feel like we have everything figured out. We’re afraid of disease. We’re afraid of dying. Some of us project these fears onto others. We feel the need to shame people who are fat in order to try to help them be motivated to lose weight, even if we ourselves aren’t active! We pretend that we are bastions of good saving people from themselves. If a heavy person dares to express comfort with themselves, we are quick to try to rip that comfort from them for their own good.

The thing is, though, health is more complicated than weight, and positive, healthy habits come from self-love instead of self-loathing. Shaming someone and acting like they are a stupid and lazy glutton will probably make them feel less like taking care of themselves rather than more. Why care for someone who isn’t worthwhile? Beyond that, a fat person who is active greatly increases their own health, even if they are never thin. Study after study shows that the majority of people who do manage to lose weight do not manage to keep it off, and many gain back even more weight than they lost to begin with.

After knowing a lot of people who have tried to lose weight both successfully and unsuccessfully, I know some of the struggles that come along with actually losing the weight. Some people cannot psychologically handle all the effort that goes into weighing and measuring all of their food (I know I can’t.) They don’t have the time or they don’t have the energy due to all the stress their life or mental illness keeps them under. Some people feel so worthless that they take any “failure” in their diet really hard and binge on calories or stop exercising because they think they cannot actually change. Some people cannot mentally get the energy up to exercise. Some people suffer from Binge Eating Disorder. Some people cannot handle the feelings of hunger due to having been destitute as a child. Some people obsess unhealthily about food when they are trying to lose weight. Some people have a really disordered relationship with food and desperately need counseling before they can create a healthy one and lose weight. Some people don’t have time for that therapy. So many people do not have the tools for a healthy life available to them, and then, on top of that, they are constantly shamed for it.

Based on the reality of all these factors, I guess what I’m calling for is a different approach to health.

First of all, we need to stop obsessing so much about weight and, instead, focus on healthy habits first. We need to be supportive of people for the healthy habits they can manage to do, and try to support them in the ways they need in order to start and maintain those habits. We need to make better access to more affordable and healthy options. We need to makes awareness regarding mental illness and eating disorders and remove the stigma associated with them so that people are willing to seek out help for them. We also need to give people the space to be loved and cherished as they are, no matter what habits they can manage to do at the moment, with a huge dose of sympathy and understanding of where they are in life.

Healthy habits are sleeping enough, being active, eating fruits and vegetables, stress management and eating as wide a variety of foods as you can. Anything we can do to help each other achieve these habits will make us all healthier and happier. Any way we can help develop community gardens and other programs to bring healthier options should be looked into. We really need to think outside the box.

Not that aesthetics cannot be a worthy goal for exercise and diet. It can, but it obviously is not working in regards to making us all healthier to have that be the main goal.

We have to start somewhere reasonable. Somewhere attainable. We can’t heap a bunch of shame on people and then leave them struggling without the tools they need to take care of themselves and pat ourselves on the back like we’ve done the right thing.

Collectively, we need to shift how we treat ourselves and each other. We need to empower one another. This means letting us all be comfortable in our own skin and lending a helping hand and a sympathetic heart in the journey together. We’re so isolated nowadays. We really need to reconnect with one another and strive to work together to help us all.