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Can Everyone Be Healthy?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what it means to be “healthy.”  Thanks to diet culture, “health” has become synonymous with thin, white, young, and wealthy. It’s a path paved with $12 cold pressed juices, $30 barre classes, and $60 vaginal jade eggs (thanks Goop, insert eyeroll here). But is that what health is really all about?

In my upcoming book, The Diet-Free Revolution, I dig into the research about health and ponder different definitions. What does health look like for someone living with a chronic illness? For someone who can’t access basic medical care? Is health really accessible to everyone? (Clearly, the Goop brand of health is not.) And what does health really mean anyways? Is it something everyone can achieve? Should we even try?

What is health, anyway?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” That’s a pretty high standard for health: not just an absence of disease, but also a state of complete wellbeing. With that goalpost, most of us will find ourselves striving for a destination that always remains out of reach. And ironically, we are often encouraged to do some really unhealthy things in this quest for “health.”  

Health is more than nutrition and exercise

When we reduce “health” to a matter of what we eat and how we move, we neglect other essential components of health, like sleep, social connections, stress management, and mental health.

These are things that get sacrificed when we, say, force ourselves to get on the spin bike at 5 a.m. and short ourselves on sleep or skip lunch with a friend because it won’t be as “healthy” as what we planned to make at home. We prioritize diet and exercise above sleep and social connections, believing that some aspects of “health” are more important than others.

If we’re too focused on what we think health looks like, based on a photo from a fitness magazine or our favorite Insta health guru (and these images are almost always thin, young, and white), we’re missing out on the big picture, to our detriment. When we allow ourselves to consider and take advantage of the full range of healthy behaviors available to us (like sleep, catching up with friends, therapy, and engaging in fun pleasurable activities), we expand our ability to achieve health in a way that works for us and move away from placing value on Photoshopped and unrealistic health and beauty standards.

Health is a limited resource

It’s important to understand that our ability to achieve “health” is affected not only by our current ability (and desire) to pursue it, but many other factors as well, including “the environments in which people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risks.” These factors are called the social determinants of health, and they’re at least as important as the food we eat, (if not more so), in determining how healthy we are.

In fact, research suggests that the conditions in which we live and how we’re treated have a major effect on us, up to and including our lifespans. Income is the largest determinant of health; as income decreases, so does life expectancy.

Some of the many other social and environmental factors that affect our health include:

  • Marginalization and oppression
  • Weight stigma
  • Access to healthcare
  • Access to fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Financial instability
  • Environmental pollution

Our culture has an extreme focus on individual responsibility when it comes to health that’s simply not practical or effective, given how many factors — many of which are completely out of our control — affect our health throughout our lives.

“What does “health” look like if we dare to reimagine it completely? To me, it looks like access and equality and a right to care regardless of the cost. It looks like recognizing that “health” is a sick system we need to break and rebuild into something new, where it is a collective responsibility.” – Linda Whillikers

Can everyone be healthy? 

Because we are all in different bodies and are starting from different places, health is simply not going to look the same for everyone. I think of health as individualized and incremental (we can be healthier) rather than a destination or static state (i.e., arriving at “healthy”).

Not only will health look different for everyone, for many people, the pop-culture version of “health” is simply not achievable, particularly for those with chronic illnesses. 

Health is not a moral obligation. We don’t owe anyone our health. It’s not a prerequisite for being treated with respect and dignity. 

If we choose to, we can practice healthy behaviors that work for our current bodies, lives and available resources. Here are a few healthy behaviors you might consider beginning or continuing:

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