Health is often thought of as the outcome of food and fitness, but mental health is health too, and if your behaviors around food and fitness are damaging to your mental health, then it’s not actually healthy.
When I was in school to become a dietitian, I had a very narrow view of what was healthy. It became even more narrow after I graduated, started practicing as a dietitian, and discovered the world of healthy living blogs and clean eating.
As I’ve gotten older, wiser, and more experienced, my beliefs have become a lot more nuanced…and that’s not just with food. Science tells us that health is so much more complex than food and fitness, yet most of the advice you see is centered on how to eat “better” or workout longer/harder/more efficiently. As a result, everyone is fixated on diet and exercise, overlooking the fact that mental health has the greatest effect on wellness and longevity.
In the past, I put a lot of energy into eating healthy. For awhile, healthy meant being careful about calories and portion sizes. Then healthy eating became “clean eating.” I also tried to get regular exercise, taking advantage of my college gym, and later my apartment gym, usually with a goal of exercising five days a week (rarely did that happen, but that was always my goal).
I was doing a lot of behaviors that most people would consider healthy. And really, I was never really extreme about my behaviors. I ate all foods (but felt really guilty about it) and never overexercised because I hate exercise (again, I felt guilty for it). From the outside looking in, I was healthy. I thought I was healthy.
But looking back, I was kind of a hot mess. I completely overlooked the fact that mental health is a part of health. Even though my eating and fitness behaviors looked healthy, they were a major source of stress. I was struggling with pretty debilitating anxiety, was always exhausted despite getting enough sleep, and had stress related IBS. Yet, I completely overlooked these things as normal because I was only looking at health through a food/fitness paradigm. When I finally recognized my health issues, I tried to fix them….through diet and exercise. (insert facepalm emoji that I apparently need to update my mac to get).
Nowadays, I move my body regularly, mostly by taking my dogs for long walks around the neighborhood once or twice a day. I do more formal exercise when I feel like it, usually a yoga class or two each week, and a short (or sometimes long) run or two each week as well. Some weeks, I do no formal exercise. I eat lots of plants and cook at home regularly, but I also eat something sweet most days, scrap cooking at home for takeout or a burger and beer with friends when I feel like it, and truly believe leftover pizza is the breakfast of champions.
My behaviors may appear less healthy than they used to be, but right now, I feel the healthiest I’ve ever been. That’s because when I make decisions on behaviors or goals, I keep my mental health in mind. In my opinion, if doing something makes you feel bad mentally, then it’s not actually healthy, no matter how good it’s supposed to be for you physically.
Going to a fun exercise class could be considered healthy….unless you’re spending the whole hour comparing your body to everyone around you.
Spending a few hours on the weekend planning and prepping for meals during the week could be considered healthy…unless it means you don’t have time to relax and connect with your family.
Pounding out 30 minutes on the elliptical could be considered healthy…unless you’re absolutely miserable and hating it the entire time.
Eating a big, bright and colorful kale salad could be considered healthy…unless it leaves you feeling unfulfilled and unsatisfied.
Take a step back and think about all the things you do in the name of health. Make a list if you like. Next time you engage in that behavior, ask yourself how you feel afterwards, both physically and mentally. And don’t just answer what you think you’re supposed to answer, like, “running makes me feel alert and refreshed!” because maybe it doesn’t. While a ton of people love to run for stress relief, maybe it makes you feel exhausted or numb or generally miserable. If so, that’s OK. “Healthy” behaviors may not always be healthy for you.
Remember, mental health is the cornerstone of health. I don’t care how many green smoothies you drink and how many miles you can run, if you’re not taking care of your soul, you’re not taking care of your body.
What behaviors do you currently, or used to engage in for health that were doing the opposite?