What Is the Biggest Obstacle to Perfect Health? | Chris Kresser
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What Is the Biggest Obstacle to Perfect Health?

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Perfect Health
The biggest obstacle to perfect health is the mind. iStock/fizkes

This content is part of an article series.

Check out the series here


In this series, I’ve talked about the importance of nourishing your body, healing your gut, managing stress, getting enough sleep, and embracing other aspects of ancestral health. But which of the nine steps to perfect health is the most important? If you’re a nutritionist, personal trainer, or health coach, which step should you ask your clients to prioritize if they want to attain “perfect health”?

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My first response is that, despite the title of the series, there’s no such thing as perfect health. One of the few things we can be certain of in this life is that we are all dying from the moment we’re born. If such a thing as perfect health existed, and we could attain it, we’d be immortal.

However, we can all take steps toward perfect health and guide clients in that direction, and that’s why I wrote the series. Among those nine steps, it’s impossible to say which is most important because the answer will vary from person to person, from client to client.

Attaining perfect health is impossible—but by noticing and addressing our blind spots, we can greatly improve our day-to-day well-being and help others do the same. Check out this article for more about perfect health. #optimalhealth #changeagent #chriskresser

What Is the Biggest Obstacle to Perfect Health?

Most of us want black and white answers to questions like this because they provide the illusion of safety and certainty.

We want the answer to be the same for everyone because it’s easier to follow a system or a prescription than it is to find our own way. And as tribal animals, we humans like to be part of a group. Hence the power of social movements, whether we’re talking about the ancestral health lifestyle or another popular topic.

So, while I can’t tell you what the most important of the nine steps is for you, your friends, or your clients, I can tell you the biggest obstacle to perfect health for most people you’ll encounter: their own mind.

For Your Clients, a Chain Is Only as Strong as Its Weakest Link

What I’ve observed in myself, in working with patients, and in almost 20 years of meditation practice is that each of us has a significant blind spot or area in our lives where we lack awareness and insight. As a simple analogy, let’s call this a weak link in our chain and assume that the chain represents optimum health.

Most of us invest the majority of our time and energy strengthening the parts of our chain that are already strong. These stronger links are where we feel comfortable and confident, where we can operate safely within the bounds of who we think we are.

And this is the root of the problem. No matter how much we strengthen what is already strong, if there’s still a weak link, the chain as a whole isn’t stronger. And it can easily break.

This dilemma describes the situation of many clients who seek out health coaching. They might eat well and lead fulfilling, low-stress lives, but a lack of regular exercise is starting to catch up to them. Or perhaps they’re already emphasizing nutrient-dense foods and maintaining healthy, close relationships, but years of getting too little sleep is causing major health problems.

It makes sense to focus on strengthening the client’s weak link, whatever it may be, instead of building up and polishing the links that are already strong—but engaging in that focus is much, much harder to do. Why? Because it usually requires coaxing them to step out of their concept of self and challenge their very identity. We’re asking them to grow, evolve, make major lifestyle changes, and shine the light of awareness into the dark corners of their psyche. As you likely know, this isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s not as simple as asking them to add a supplement or eliminate nightshades from their diet. It’s a true challenge. It’s a life’s work.

Meet Joe Paleo and His Weak Link

To make this even clearer, let’s take a hypothetical person: Joe Paleo. He was a high school and college athlete and has been interested in nutrition and fitness his entire life. However, after taking on a new, high-stakes job with an investment banking firm, he’s no longer making healthy choices. He’s now less active, eating more than usual, and feeling pretty crummy.

So he starts to tweak his diet. Is dairy the issue? Should he add white rice or be completely grain free? How many carbs? What about intermittent fasting? He also tries some new supplements and makes adjustments to his exercise routine. He even seeks out professional help from a nutritionist and a personal trainer, but Joe still doesn’t feel better.

Why isn’t Joe getting better? Because he’s just strengthening the parts of his chain that are already strong—and ignoring the weak links. In Joe’s case, it may be that stress management is the weak link. But his first challenge in addressing that is that he’s not even fully aware that the increased stress from his new job is a problem.

This is where our own minds become the biggest obstacle in our quest for perfect health: we often can’t see what our weakest links are because, by definition, those are areas where we lack awareness or insight.

But even once we become aware of what our weak links are, it’s still difficult to work with them. We’re fighting against a lifetime of conditioned beliefs about who we are and what we’re supposed to do. In Joe Paleo’s case, perhaps he was raised in a family that didn’t value rest or pleasure but rather placed a high premium on success and accomplishment. This makes it hard for him to carve out time to relax.

My Weakest Links

My own weak links are pleasure and fun. I’ve got the diet dialed in. Exercise? No problem. I’m even committed to stress management. But what often falls through the cracks for me is making time for pleasure and fun.

I know this is the weak link in my chain because the periods of my life where I’ve emphasized it have been the periods when I’ve enjoyed the best health. But lately, as I’ve been immersed in running a busy private practice, teaching, launching products, and undertaking the day-to-day business of family life, I haven’t made much time for pleasure or fun. And my health has suffered as a result.

My commitment to myself is to try to do one purely pleasurable or fun activity each day. Some days I’m more successful than others, and I always have to look out for the tendency to fall back into my old pattern.

If Your Clients Want Perfect Health, They’ll Need Your Support

If you want to help your clients move closer to perfect health, you’ll need to help them deal with their own weakest link. Often times, it’s the area they don’t value, the place they feel most uncomfortable or uncertain.

And just a side note: I shared with you what my weakest link was. Though I was still able to help clients and colleagues alike, deep down, I knew I had to address my own weak link. Before you can give fully to your clients and others, take stock—are there weak links in your own chain that you should address?

Of course, addressing a client’s weakest link is often easier said than done. Part of what we teach students enrolled in the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program is to meet clients where they are. Most people don’t like being told that they have a weak link in their lifestyle. They tend to feel unengaged and even resentful when someone else directs the process to change their health.

Think back to our example, Joe Paleo: If he came to you for health advice and you offered a strict plan for addressing his blindspot—stress management—you would probably be met with quite a bit of resistance. Joe might not even be ready to admit that he has an issue handling the stress of his new job, and it’s likely he wouldn’t feel motivated to try incorporating stress relief techniques into his lifestyle.

Joe might be better served by someone using strategies like motivational interviewing to empower him to come up with his own strategy to improve his health and support him throughout his journey. Filling that need and offering that support is a major reason why I think health coaches are essential in the fight against chronic disease.

  1. Success has many avenues and contribution is one of them. I appreciated reading this article and I am inspired to touch more lives by sharing a better approach to life aspects. I will definitely work on my weakest link. Im competitive with myself and I hardly appreciate my accomplishments. Thank you Chris

  2. My weakest link is attempting to be perfect. I thought I would also alert you all to the biomedical research being carried out by sens (see website) whose main aim is to reverse the accumulated damage we incur as we age.

    According to sens we have a 50/50 chance of bring age related disease under control in approx 25 years.

    Definitely worth having a look at!

  3. Change your thoughts, change your life! I became a neuro-positive lifecoach. By working out the “emotional gym”, you can be in a positive state more of the time. The science of neuroplasticity is solid in showing that we can affect change on a cellular level. And, I suffer too, from the “finding time for fun” issue. I watched Dr. Lissa Rankin on PBS last night talking about her book “Mind Over Medicine.” I’m starting again. Even armed with this knowledge, it was hard to stay on the path when I suffered an extreme amount of loss and challenge over the last two years. My current Hashimoto’s meltdown is the result of that. I lost my way. Thanks for bringing to light that we must have an all-over approach to wellness including our emotional well being. I am 100% certain of how stress and trauma have affected my health currently.

  4. Thank you for this wonderful post and insights and ideas. And thank you Alan for the Dalai Lama beautiful quote. I finally recently woke up to my blind spot. I went very low-carb 5 years ago after I read Taubes’, ‘Good Calories, Bad Calories; 100% stopped separated Franken’food’ ‘oils’ 4 years ago after Lierre Keith’s ‘The Vegetarian Myth’. 2 years ago after reading William Davis’, “Wheat Belly” removed the very last of any grains in my diet (they were mostly gone with low-carb, but now I don’t eat wheat at all). This has all helped me tremendously. I think better- and I teach better- I teach biochemistry. I have dabbled back and forth and read everything by Loren Cordain and on Paleo blogs about dairy and its elimination (or severe curtailing). Could not fathom doing so! It was my one leftover from the bad old days BT, before Taubes. I could not entertain that dairy was causing me trouble. Denial, denial denial.
    But, for me and my Northern European physiology, which permitted me to consume without obvious gastro distress……. getting it out of my diet was one very important aspect of my improvements in health, and my walking away from the land of de nial.

  5. `He who is good at nourishing life is like a herder of sheep – he watches for stragglers and whips them up.’ — Chuang Tzu