When I was 18 few things were further from my mind than health. Sure I enjoyed my status as a thin, relatively fit teenager, but there was virtually no connection in my brain between what I put in my body and how long or happily I would live.
At that time I saw healthy eating as a fringe activity, for granola crunching hippies or men over 60 with beer bellies. I had no reason to worry about heart disease at my age and organic food was way more expensive, so why bother?
But that wasn’t the only reason I avoided the issue. As a self-conscious girl from Southern California, I was very concerned with my weight. People considered me thin, and I had every intention of staying that way. I knew that my obsession with my body image and constant dieting was considered “unhealthy,” but I didn’t care.
From my perspective the message from the media was clear: healthy is the opposite of thin. And when you’re young and think you’re invincible, the choice is obvious. Getting kids to worry about something in the distant future is difficult enough, but when you set it up as the antithesis of their immediate goals you make it nearly impossible.
It wasn’t until years later that I started to appreciate the value of health as an objective. I now understand that healthy is beautiful, and that thin and healthy are not mutually exclusive. Your ideal size is determined largely by genetics, but if you eat well, exercise and take care of yourself not only will your body look the way you want, you’ll also have nicer hair, a clear complexion and brighter eyes. You’ll likely have more energy and feel happier as well.
Sadly, body size is still the focus when most people talk about health. When you’re “too thin,” healthy means eating more regardless of quality. When you’re overweight, healthy means losing weight no matter how you accomplish it. But in the long term health is a reflection of your daily habits and is determined by things like the quality and diversity of your diet, how often and vigorously you exercise, exposure to environmental toxins and other factors.
While body weight can certainly be an indicator of health problems and sometimes reflect improvements, it’s important to understand that the message we send about health can backfire if these two things are inextricably linked.
How do you define health?