Wellness By Numbers
In this article, which I recently stumbled upon, John Robbins celebrates the success of a woman named Natala, who lost 200 pounds, but doesn’t say anything about what she had to go through to accomplish that. My argument is that, by failing to show us the struggle, Robbins only makes the reader feel guilty for not accomplishing what Natala has accomplished, and minimizes the bumpy reality of personal growth.
A friend of mine agrees. She said that the article is also unhelpful because it celebrates weight loss, while ignoring the fact that many people, particularly women, are underweight and need to gain weight to be healthy.
Hannah’s comment made me think about how we define health and wellness in American culture. We tend to want to quantify it. A food is “good” or “bad” if it has x grams of carbs and x number of calories. The numbers on the scale, we want to believe, are in direct correlation with how healthy we are. We should have 25 grams of fiber every day, 240 grams of carbs, etc., etc., etc.
But this is simply an ineffective way to judge one’s state of health. Of course, it’s helpful to have general guidelines, but too often we take the numbers as gospel. We become neurotic about staying within these numerically defined parameters of health. And that can be extremely detrimental, because it destroys our ability to intuitively listen to our bodies. Our bodies know what kind of food they need at a particular time, and in what amount. If we’re counting carbs, calories, and Weight Watchers points, we’re completely ignoring the inner wisdom of our bodies. Which means we’re not giving our bodies the kind of nourishment they need. And we’re driving ourselves crazy in the process.
Certainly, it’s helpful to understand approximately how many calories a food has, or about how many calories we should be consuming every day. But we’re constantly bombarded with messages from so-called health “professionals” about precise, numerical measurements of health.
And not only does this make it difficult for us to listen to our intuition, it also leads to dualistic thinking. That is, we want to believe that foods higher in calories are “bad” and low-calorie foods are “good,” for example. As long as the food is made with natural ingredients, though, that’s not necessarily true. There’s nothing inherently “bad” about a cupcake – it’s only if you eat three of them in one sitting that’s bad. If you have a generally healthy diet and you treat yourself with one (preferably organic) cupcake, that’s a good thing, because it brings you that moment of pleasure and enjoyment.
When it comes to health and our bodies, this dualistic thinking extends beyond food, too. We tend to think that being heavy is “bad” and being thin is “good” – so losing weight is preferable to gaining weight. Which takes me back to Hannah’s point. For many people – including myself at one point – gaining weight is what is needed to achieve wellness.
Health and wellness can’t be defined by generic, numerical standards. And it can’t be defined through dualistic thinking, which often leads us to incorrect assumptions and promotes unhealthy social values, like promoting thinness over health. The steps that are necessary to achieve wellness vary from person to person, and it’s important for us to recognize this and to celebrate this often bumpy process, rather than force one process and one set of standards on everyone.