Health within our culture in the USA. How do we know what’s best for our health, our self-care?
Health experts vary from the self-proclaimed, like medical mediums, to MD’s and related professionals (dieticians, psychologists, therapists, exercise physiologists, etc.). All hold their own theories, all based on their own experiences, all with their own interpretations of science. Most rely on external resources, from spirit-guides to information from their college days that, some estimates say, could be seriously outdated. Some scramble diligently to remain up-to-date.
Add to that our cultural interpretations of what bodies should be considered positively, the roles of mental and emotional health as well as social connections, and the popular press with their watered-down versions of nuanced scientific studies.
Then there’s the statistical confusion about Causation. For example, I remember reading that people with creases in their earlobes were more likely to develop heart disease. The article suggested checking your earlobes and visiting a cardiologist. Do earlobe creases Cause heart problems? Of course not! Likewise, lots of similar media reports highlight connections (associations and correlations) inferred as causation.
So what happens when there’s some science that shows fat doesn’t equal unhealthy and that food itself has a relatively minor impact on overall health in comparison to environment, genetics, and other factors?
How do we even clearly define “healthy” and “unhealthy” in our culture?
According to the book Body Respect, there’s “research suggesting that guilt messes with your metabolism and weight regulation system”[i] and even radical bariatric surgery results long-term (10 years or more later) show weight regain as well as ongoing other health challenges created by the surgery.
Among those who do not diet, though, weight tends to stabilize. What’s up with that? Could it be we’re all not destined to be the exact same willowy size and shape?
Of course, as soon as we start thinking folks in the USA know exactly how and what to eat, look at the French. Their diet is not seen as the healthiest (animal fat, cholesterol, alcohol, oh my!) but apparently people who ENJOY their food are healthier and by eating food they love might even eat less! Shocking!
One of the first non-diet/anti-diet books I read was The Diet Myth (it was titled The Obesity Myth at the time, I believe, but has been updated by author Paul Campos). I picked up a copy of the newer version in which, in the Afterword, Mr. Campos comments “How much longer can agencies such as the CDC announce that we are on the verge of a public health catastrophe, while at the same time releasing statistics that illustrate Americans are living longer – and are markedly healthier – than ever before? Such inconvenient data is making it more difficult for the usual suspects to broadcast their alarmist claims without fear of dissent.” [ii] It appealed to the data queen inside me, but I couldn’t quite ignore the power of our popular culture that says, essentially, what one chubby large-bellied 50-something white man in a stained white t-shirt snarled at me in the aisle of a discount store: “People like you should be ashamed. You take up too much space that’s meant for people like me.”
When that happened, it took me by surprise. Shocked, I noticed I fit behind the shopping cart (I wasn’t overflowing into his shopping-space). I recognized I most likely weighed about what he did (though he was about 4 inches taller than I am) and I felt angry about his apparent notion of moral superiority and willingness to express his opinion about our worth. I thought about responses while he stormed off, and I felt so disappointed to know I lived in a country where people hold so little value for civility or differences among us.
After that experience, I looked for body-positive/fat-positive books. I read Health at Every Size, but didn’t jump on board because it sounded scary to give up what everybody accepted as The Diet Truth (eating less, exercising more is the One True Way to Slenderville). The “health at every size” (HAES) approach seems to show a lot of promise though it appeared to draw fire from folks who insisted on fighting the War against people whose greatest crime is their size. Evidence from six randomized control trials “indicates that a HAES approach is associated with statistically and clinically relevant improvements in physiological measures (e.g. blood pressure, blood lipids), health behaviors (e.g. physical activity, eating disorder pathology) and psychosocial outcomes (e.g, mood, self-esteem, body image)”[iii] What?! Healthier, happier, well-adjusted fat people? What’s the world coming to?
I’m not sure there’s a place for those kinds of differences in our culture today, but I’m hopeful that a revolution is coming.
Through the edX.org MOOC I audited an exercise physiology class through Magee University (Canada) and a nutrition class through Wageningen University (Netherlands). Both were great experiences though my take-aways were simple: (1) all food is broken down in the body into very basic substances, (2) people who enjoy their exercise are more frequent exercisers, and (3) fat people who exercise are healthier than thin people who don’t. [iv]
In the pursuit of self-care, my newest educational foray is a class on Intuitive Eating, taught by Registered Dietician Christy Harrison[v] online. It’s based on HAES principles as well as Intuitive Eating[vi] (3rd edition). It’s giving me time to consider what works in general and what works for me in a compassionate way. So far, I’m discovering habits I’ve developed (for example, postponing eating until I’m ravenous; in theory this gives less time to eat but, in my experience, leaves me unreasonably hungry and difficult to satisfy) and learning more about ways to employ my powerful intuition for the good of all (including myself).
Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the journey, still visiting the Y for classes that are fun, loving time with my grandsons, and exercising my creativity in multiple ways. Woohoo! All is well.
Here’s to a fabulous Spring (in the Northern Hemisphere) that propels us all into a great summer (and for those south of the equator, here’s to a lovely Autumn, with time to recharge during the winter months)!
[i] “Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift“ available (free) the following link: https://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2891-10-9
[ii] “Afterword: Ask Your Doctor If Cultural Hysteria Is Right for You” in the book, The Diet Myth, by Paul Campos
[iii] Body Respect: What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, and Just Plain Fail to Understand about Weight by Linda Bacon, PhD, and Lucy Aphramor, PhD, RD
[iv] As a lifelong learning fan, I can’t say enough great things about edX. My favorite course so far is The Science of Happiness (what a great opportunity!) and the most difficult was Jazz Appreciation (I didn’t know much more than I liked Louis Armstrong when I enrolled, so it was super-challenging for me but worth it because I really do appreciate jazz now!). Check it out at www.edx.org
[vi] Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD and Elyse Resch, MS, RD, FADA, CEDRD