What does it mean to be healthy?

Think of the healthiest person you know. How would you describe them?

  • The absence of specific diseases or illness?
  • Healthy behaviours that they follow e.g. eating well or exercising?
  • Healthy appearance e.g. good skin or shiny hair?
  • Emotional stability i.e. happy and stress free?
  • A good social life or family network?

healthy couple

The World Health Organisation defines health as:

“A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”

This is quite a holistic approach but still definitely brings up some questions!

Can someone with a disability be healthy? What about someone with a lifelong genetic condition? If someone has a chronic disease which can be managed and does not affect their quality of life, are they healthy? And what does complete well-being mean anyway and who can actually achieve it?!

The answer to these questions is that there is no answer. Defining health is actually a really difficult thing to do as it has various meanings depending on the individual. People tend to describe health based on their own situation and experiences. Someone with a chronic disease or disability that they are managing might be less likely to describe health as the absence of physical infirmity and focus on the emotional and social aspects instead. A shy person who might not have the most active social life can still feel healthy and happy and might describe health as fitness or the lack of disease.

Functional definitions of health include the ability to participate in and enjoy life. In this sense, it is also necessary to consider the influence of social, political and environmental factors on health as particular conditions may or may not impact the quality of a person’s life, depending on the systems which are in place to support them. Healthcare and medicine also plays a huge role as modern developments allow people to live much longer with chronic conditions and maintain a high standard of living.

Regardless of the specific definition, it is important that we see health as a resource for a fulfilling life, rather than the ultimate aim or achievement. A problem with the current health and wellness industry is that it abuses the use of “complete” health to keep people trapped and chasing an unattainable goal. Good health is a priority for many of us and we are willing to pay crazy sums of money for nutritional supplements, fitness programs and other products which promise to bring us closer to this panacea. We can quite easily revolve our life around “being healthy” but this obsession can take away from our emotional and social well-being.

I know for sure that my definition of health has changed over the last few years. I used to think I was healthy as I was slim, I looked reasonably well and exercised like a fiend. People around me thought so too and I was complimented for being the fit one! But looks aren’t everything and inside, my body wasn’t functioning like it should. I was stressed and anxious and my obsession with food and exercise was detracting from my social life. These days, I take a much more holistic approach to health and definitely focus more on keeping my stress levels down over everything else.

Good health is something many of us take for granted and we don’t think twice about neglecting our bodies until things start to go wrong. But a small amount of time and effort spent on learning how to look after ourselves and actually going out and practicing it can really make a difference. Think about how you would define health and what changes you could make to make the most of this valuable resource!

what the health

 

Resources:

http://www.who.int/about/mission/en/

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/150999.php

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Redefining public health

I watched a documentary on the BBC this week which focused on women suffering from  Diabulimia. This is a type of eating disorder where someone with Type 1 Diabetes reduces the amount of insulin they take in order to control their weight. Without enough insulin, sugar builds up in a diabetics blood and urine. Chronically high blood sugar, known as hyperglycemia, can cause irreversible damage to the eyes, kidneys and nervous tissue. If the body is starved of glucose for long enough, it will start to beak down muscle and organ tissue in a process called diabetic ketoacidosis which can be fatal if untreated.

I had never heard of the condition before but straight away I could relate to the women as I am well acquainted with that deep sense of inadequacy that could cause you harm yourself in this way. It was so sad to see these beautiful women causing such harm to their body in order to stay slim. It made me angry that as a society we have created such a fear of weight gain that people are willing to risk their lives to achieve the “ideal body”.

The lack of support for this complex condition reminded me so much of my own visits to my GP. Admitting that you have a problem can be so challenging and reaching out for help is often a shameful experience. To  then be told that there is nothing available because you don’t fit into the standard boxes of anorexia or bulimia is ridiculous. It is time for us to open up the definition of disordered eating to include all of those whose preoccupation with food and weight is subtracting from their quality of life. I think we would be shocked at the number of people, especially women, who would come forward.

There is a need for a general education on the harmful effects of dieting and support for building a healthy body image. Children are growing up surrounded by diet products and perfect insta-filtered bodies and they need to be prepared to avoid a generation of damaged self esteem. The focus needs to shift from focusing on weight to teaching people to eat well and move their bodies to improve their health and internal sense of well being. There are some great programs emerging in the NHS which are encouraging healthy habits but for some reason the scale always takes centre stage.

The Health at Every Size movement focuses on encouraging positive lifestyle changes for people in all body shapes and sizes, reducing weight discrimination and improving bodily acceptance and self-confidence. This is an area that I am really interested in and going forward into a career in Public Health, I hope I can help raise awareness and be part of bringing these ideas into the mainstream. This change won’t happen overnight – diet culture is well established and we need a total reprogramming of our beliefs and values. But I do believe the shift has started and it is only a matter of time before people wake up and take back the power over their own health.

haes_trees

 

Do you still believe in diets?

The fact that dieting works is one of the most widespread myths of the western world.

So many women are stuck in the constant cycle of calorie restriction, deprivation followed by rebound overeating and weight gain.

Diet cycle

The problem is that we don’t see it as a cycle. We see it as lots of separate, successful diets with periods of failure on our part in-between. We see the diets as being successful due to our initial weight loss and then blame ourselves for “falling off the wagon” and gaining back the weight. Then of course, we see the only solution as starting a new diet.

What we don’t realise is that with every cycle our body becomes better equipped to deal with the perceived famine.

  • Our digestive systems slow down in an attempt to squeeze every last calorie out of the food that we eat, leaving us feeling bloated and sluggish.
  • Our metabolism slows down so that we waste less energy as heat, resulting in a drop in our body temperature and symptoms such as cold hands and feet and sensitivity to cold.
  • Growth of our nails and hair slows down as our bodies try to conserve energy and we may experience disruption to our menstrual cycles.
  • Even we slow down as we start to feel the effects of being in a chronic energy deficit such as fatigue and muscle aches and pains.

Basically, everything slows down! Not only that, our bodies develop ways to persuade us to eat more, increasing our hunger signals and cravings for sweet and fatty foods making us feel like we just don’t have the willpower that we used to. Often, we feel like we have no control around food and start to think about it wayyyy too often.

Even though our society views dieting as the healthy and often even the moral thing to do, chronic calorie restriction and yoyo dieting are some of the most damaging habits for our bodies long term.

Really, calorie restriction can go one of two ways:

  1. Sustained weight loss / chronic calorie restriction

Yes there are people who lose weight and successfully keep it off. However, it is important to realise that those who lose weight through dieting need to eat less and less as they get older in order to maintain their weight. Sometimes this is referred to as “metabolic damage” but in reality it is actually our bodies getting super efficient!

Being in a calorie deficit is a stressor for our bodies, causing cortisol levels to sky rocket. Short term, this has the effect of raising our blood sugar and increases the breakdown of lean tissue for fuel. Long term, chronic stress affects all systems of the body causing digestive issues, a suppressed immune system and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease… and we thought going on a diet was healthy!

  1. Weight cycling / Yo-yo dieting

Cycling between extreme calorie restriction and rebound overeating is a trap that many dieters fall into. One of the issues with this is that we can end up depriving our bodies of essential nutrients. In the dieting phase, we might be eating healthy food (or not!) but if we are not consuming enough calories then it is unlikely we are getting the nutrients we need. In the rebound phase, our bodies are desperate for energy so we are much more likely to reach for calorie dense, processed foods that provide that quick surge of energy but still don’t provide the nutrients our bodies need. Of course, this is another survival mechanism as if we were in a true famine it is much better to survive with a slight nutrient deficiency than to waste away from lack of energy. But when we are practicing this pattern again and again throughout our lives we can get into trouble.

In addition, each weight cycle results in loss of muscle as well as fat which can change our body composition significantly over time. Reduced lean mass leaves us with a lower resting metabolic rate, meaning that each time we fall of the wagon we seem to regain weight quicker and each time we diet it gets harder and harder to lose weight.

So if dieting is off the cards, what is the solution?

Jumping off the diet wagon and learning to eat intuitively is one of the healthiest things you can do for your long-term health. I really recommend the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole as a guide to escaping the diet cycle and tuning into your body’s needs. It is definitely a journey rather than a quick fix as it take time to unpick old habits and form new ones but one that is so worth it!

Right now, I am in the healthiest place I ever have been with food. I probably weigh 15lbs more than my old “ideal weight” but in time I am realising how warped my view of ideal actually was. Plus, I am maintaining that weight on twice as many calories than I used to eat which is so liberating. I eat food that I love and that I know is nourishing for my body and eat A LOT of it. And when I want to treat myself I do. I go out to eat knowing that I can have whatever I want with no guilt and I eat until I am satisfied (sometimes more and that is ok too!).

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If you are currently stuck in the dieting cycle, please please please take a moment to write down a timeline of your dieting history and look at the patterns. I know for me it really helped to see on paper how long I had been chasing my tail – just how many times I had lost and gained the same 5lbs and just how many “fresh starts” I had had. Sit and really think about the emotions that you feel during each phase of the cycle and ask yourself whether it is worth it. And if not, know that there is a way to step out of all of that and into food and body freedom 😊

HA recovery diaries #11 It is ok to take a break

Just a quick update to let you know that I haven’t disappeared off the face of the earth. I am simply taking a break, easing off social media and the internet in general..

I know I am not alone in taking on too much. It is a common theme amongst women suffering from HA and disordered eating. That type A, constantly busy, doing everything for everyone and doing it PERFECTLY persona. This last year I have been working full time as an engineer plus studying part time at the College of Naturopathic Medicine and doing a foundation teacher training course with the British Wheel of Yoga. AND healing from HA along the way. So I have been very busy!

But right now I am at a point in my life where the opportunity to take a break has presented itself to me and I would be stupid not to take it. I recently left my job, moved house and my next adventure begins in September. I am coming to the end of my course at CNM so I have a few things to finish off for that but otherwise I am free to relax for a few weeks.

Recovery is hard. It sounds like the easiest thing in the world to stop exercising and eat food but it takes so. much. energy to do that. The constant mental battle is exhausting. But I am now at a point where the hardest work is done and I want to take some time to recharge.

So it might be a few weeks till my next post but I will be back 🙂

Remember that we are not machines. It is ok to be tired. It is ok to take a break. It is ok to rest and allow yourself some time out. In fact it is necessary every once in a while to destress, reevaluate and reprioritise.

Here is a great blog if you want to read some more

http://bewellplace.com/its-okay-to-take-a-break-when-youre-overwhelmed-and-reprioritize-whats-important/

HA recovery diaries #9 The scale, friend or foe?

A couple of weeks ago in my progress update blog, I mentioned that I had fallen back into the habit of weighing myself and that I was going to go scale-free for the next 30 days.  Since I started trying to get my period back 4 months ago, I stayed away from the scale for fear of setting myself back. But then thoughts started to creep in I wonder how much I weigh these days?  And this eventually I caved. Before long I was back into the habit of weighing myself every few days.

I wasn’t consciously trying to lose weight or change what I was eating as a result of the number and it definitely didn’t have the same power over me and my emotional state as it has in the past.  But I found myself experiencing mild disappointment if I saw the number rising and secretly was glad that my weight was finally pretty stable after my initial gain.  Even though I told myself I was ok with my new weight, I can’t deny that knowing it still brought some anxiety.  In the back of my mind I still had the thought that I was “big enough” now and I think on some level this was reflected in the choices I was making, whether I was aware of it or not.

I found myself questioning myself more often about whether I was really hungry for that snack.  Or whether I should have the fruit instead of the chocolate I was craving.  Or thinking that maybe I should go out for my usual walk even though its pissing down with rain outside.  When my third period didn’t come as I expected I had to reevaluate what I was doing.  I needed to ask myself some questions and be totally honest with myself. Where did this need for me to monitor my weight come from?  And was it really helpful in my recovery journey?

For sure it really is a tough topic with regards to recovery from restrictive eating and weight suppression.  On one hand, if you are trying to gain weight, weighing yourself can be a useful tool to monitor your progress and check you are eating enough to repair your body and get to where you need to be.  It can also be useful to have a goal to work towards i.e. the “fertile BMI range” of 22-23 where a lot of women tend need to reach in order to recover their menstrual cycles.  But for those coming from a much lower weight, this can seem like an unthinkable goal, a huge mountain that is near impossible to even imagine climbing.

And for those of us who are already close to this target weight at the start of our recovery journey, it can become more of a limit on how much we are willing to gain.  In order to fully heal, we need to surrender to the process and let go of all restrictions on our body, including the self-imposed limitations on what we should weigh.  For many women, it is necessary to go above the “healthy” BMI range for our bodies to feel safe enough to menstruate.  How can we label a BMI healthy if our body cannot perform one of its basic functions?!  BMI is such a generalised approach and is in no way suitable for all individuals but I will talk about this in more detail in another post..

Right now I want to focus on how weighing ourselves makes us feel in our bodies.  When you are trying to recover, there is always the risk of setting yourself back mentally.  For lots of us chronic dieters, weighing ourselves has been a regular ritual which we relied on to determine our self worth.  I know from personal experience that you can feel really good and confident and then step on the scale, see a number higher than you were expecting and all of a sudden your self esteem is through the floor.  Even with all of the work towards changing my attitude towards my body I still had a mini eeeeeshhhh moment in my head when I first saw how much I had gained a few months into recovery.  And bear in mind that this is when I had been trying to gain weight on purpose.

In the past I have often let the scale rule my life.  If the number was up I would try to restrict my food or exercise even more, constantly seeking that thrill of seeing a smaller number next time.  Often this restriction would lead to me over eating and feeling even worse when I stepped on the scale and saw an even higher number than before.  If the number was down it could go one of two ways.. either I would chase the high and continue restricting or I would go into self-sabotage mode and end up overeating. Total insanity.

And this time round the habit had got sneaky.  I wasn’t using the scale as a way to measure how good at dieting I had been but I was still judging myself based on what I saw.  I was assuming that if I was truly listening to my hunger and fullness cues then my weight should stay the same.  I was using my weight as an external guide of how successful I was at “intuitive eating” which of course goes against the definition of intuitive meaning that I wasn’t successful at all.  It is much better to rely on your own internal compass to determine how you feel.

SCALE-3

Our bodies provides us with all of the feedback to tell us whether they are happy or not, we just have to learn to listen to them instead of handing all of our power over to a useless piece of machinery.  Turning inwards and looking at our energy levels, our digestion, our mood and our quality of sleep provides us all of the information we need to know whether we are “on track” or not.

In my opinion, there is simply no need for anyone to keep track of their weight, regardless of whether they are in recovery or not.  It is not the weight that determines the our health but our behaviours and self-esteem.  For those who are underweight, adopting healthy behaviours and truly providing the body with the nourishment it needs will bring the body to a healthy weight.  The goal is full recovery, not just weight restoration.  We want to make sustainable changes to the way we treat our bodies, to find that inner caretaker who is going to help us look after ourselves through all of life’s twists and turns.

And to update on my progress – two weeks after my scale freedom I got my period right on time!  It has now been almost four weeks of liberation and I don’t see myself going back anytime soon.  I feel so much calmer and hadn’t even realised the underlying anxiety until it lifted.  It was as if I had been carrying around an invisible burden which was pressing down on me and suppressing my ability to relax and feel happy, without me even realising.

I hope that this post will give strength to anyone who still has that emotional attachment to the scale to just throw it out.  It is definitely not your friend. Make some new friends that will make you feel good about yourself and watch your whole attitude and outlook change.

Thoughts on Fitspo

This morning a friend posted this image on Facebook.

fitspo

I know she had the best intentions behind the post but it really got me thinking about the “Fitspo” trend and its affects on body image.  The Urban Dictionary definition of the word is:

“Images of active, strong, and fit women that promote proper exercise and diet. May also include images healthy foods. Much like thinspo (images of dangerously thin women used by people with eating disorders to motivate) but healthier.”

From the definition it sounds like a great thing. Replacing the horrible trend of “thinspo” and encouraging women to be healthy and active.. both of those things get a great big TICK from me.

However, what can’t be escaped is the fact that images like this still encourage women to focus on their body shape and size. They still provide a body ideal, a goal for women to aim for. They still encourage women to base their self-worth on their appearance and attach morality to food and exercise. And this results in the same feelings of unworthiness and disappointment for those women who don’t follow the rules and don’t look like the picture-perfect instagram babes.

The image above does an amazing job at showing us that the number on the scale is, well only that really. A number. The point here is that body weight and BMI are pretty meaningless and bodies of the same weight can have completely different body shape and composition. That’s all well and good, but what does the image imply? That we should be focusing on getting lean and toned instead of skinny? That it’s much better to be heavier and look like the photo on the right? Yes it may be successful in shifting the focus away from the scale but to what… the mirror?

Lots of women (myself included) are falling into the trap of shifting goals from trying to weigh as little as possible to eating clean and looking lean. What the images above don’t show is how the woman is feeling in each photo and what her life really looks like. What kind of behaviours is she engaging in to maintain her body? What is her overall health like? How are her relationships and social life? Is she following her passions?

There could be a whole range of things going on behind the scenes. We often assume that just because someone looks “normal” that they are not suffering and this is not always the case. Disordered eating can take on so many shapes and sizes. Bulimia and exercise bulimia, orthorexia, food fears, laxative abuse, binge eating. All of these can often go unnoticed as people can maintain a normal BMI and not end up looking like the skeletal eating disorder stereotype. I am not saying by any means that the girl in the photos is suffering from any of these issues but what I am trying to say is not to take photos like this at face value. Images mean nothing unless we know the story behind them.

For me personally, looking lean came at a great cost. I did all of the right things. I worked out daily. I ate clean. I drank plenty of water. But I didn’t feel good and I didn’t know WHY. I wasn’t healthy. My periods were totally absent. I started to wake up in the early hours of the morning for no reason. I felt fatigued all of the time and had to rely on caffeine more and more. I know not everybody will have the same experience but I am sure I am not the only one. It took a lot of effort to unlearn all of the so-called healthy habits I had developed and get back to focusing on feeling good.

For those of us in the health and fitness world, food and exercise and shaping our body can easily become the focus of our life. Yes it is fun to experiment with food and of course moving our bodies feels great. But it doesn’t have to be our sole purpose. It is very easy to get caught up in the bubble and forget that there is an outside world. Real life social connections and meaningful relationships where you can be yourself can do so much more for your health and wellbeing than following some online fitness guru and feeling connected to others by the restraints of whatever lifestyle they preach.

We all want to be healthy and lead a long and happy life but there is more to life than health than working out and eating salads. Having a passion and following your dreams gives you vitality and a sparkle in your eyes that no workout can ever bring. Getting in touch with your true values and finding a purpose in life will make you feel amazing . You don’t have to eat a certain way or look like a fitness model to feel valuable and do good in the world. And chances are you will want to look after yourself in whatever way feels right for you in order to achieve what you want in life. If that means working out a few times a week and feeling strong, great. If that means eating chocolate every day, also great 🙂