I write a lot about diet and nutrition, and there’s absolutely no doubt that the food we eat is one of the most important factors that determines our health.
But it’s a mistake to assume that food is the only consideration that matters when it comes to health, and that all health problems can be solved simply by making dietary changes. Unfortunately, this seems to be an increasingly common assumption in the Paleo/Primal nutrition world these days.
I see a lot of people in my practice that have their nutrition completely dialed in, but don’t take care of themselves in other ways. Maybe they don’t manage their stress, they don’t exercise, or they don’t sleep well.
Even if this person eats a perfect diet, are they really healthy?
And what about the person who doesn’t eat particularly well, but sleeps like a baby, gets a massage a couple times a month, has a lot of fun, spends lots of time outdoors, and doesn’t have any health problems?
What is health?
Moshe Feldenkrais, the creator of the Feldenkrais Method, defined health as “the ability to live your dreams“. I think that’s an interesting way to look at it. Using the examples above, it’s entirely possible that the person with the perfect diet but the rest of their life in shambles is less healthy than the person who doesn’t eat that well but takes care of himself or herself in other ways.
If you were to embrace Feldenkrais’ definition of health, how would you live your life differently? Would you put more time and energy into perfecting your diet, or would you spend a little more time focusing on the areas of your life that you tend to neglect? Which path would take you closer to being able to live your dreams?
In a previous article, I argued that the biggest obstacle to optimal health is our mind. The more patients I work with, the more convinced I am that this is true. From the article:
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 crude analogy, let’s call this a weak link in our chain and assume that the chain represents 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 where the problem lies. No matter how much we strengthen the links in our chain that are already strong, if there’s still a weak link the chain as a whole isn’t stronger. It can break just as easily.
A better approach, of course, would be to focus our efforts on the strengthening the weak link. But that is much, much harder to do. Why? Because it usually requires us to step out of our concept of self and challenge our very identity. It asks us to grow and evolve and shine the light of awareness into the dark corners of our psyche. This isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s not as simple as popping a pill or eliminating nightshades from our diet. It’s a life’s work.
Yes, it’s important to pay attention to how much omega-6 fat you eat. Yes, it’s best to minimize phytic acid consumption by soaking nuts. Yes, it’s wise to avoid excess fructose, especially if you have digestive problems. These finer points of nutrition do make a difference.
But optimizing nutrition is only one variable in the equation of health. And if all of our attention goes there, at the expense of other variables that are also important (like sleep, exercise, stress management, pleasure, etc.), our health will suffer. That’s why only 4 out of my 9 Steps to Perfect Health are explicitly related to food and nutrition.
There’s more to life than health
In the same way that there’s more to health than food, there’s more to life than health.
I’m sure some of you have a friend or acquaintance that eats well and takes great care of themselves, but they’re a wreck in their personal or professional lives. Maybe they’re in a toxic relationship, they have a job that they hate, they can’t get along with co-workers or friends, or they feel lost, empty and unfulfilled.
And maybe you know someone that has struggled with a chronic illness for years, but has deep, rewarding relationships, meaningful work, a sense of purpose, and a rich, vibrant life.
Of course we all want to be as physically healthy as possible. There’s nothing wrong with that pursuit. But the cold, hard truth is that not all health problems are solvable. As much as we’d like to believe otherwise, we don’t have full control over all of the conditions of our lives.
What we do have control over is how we relate to ourselves and these conditions. In my opinion, this – more than anything else – is what determines our happiness and sense of well-being.
It’s possible to be physically healthy, but live in a constant state of struggle and dissatisfaction. Likewise, it’s possible to be ill, in pain, or physically disabled and be happy and at peace. I wrote about this in more detail in a previous article, Living with Chronic Illness: The Power of Acceptance.
I’d like to end this article by asking you two questions:
- What aspects of health do you tend to ignore? And how does that keep you from living your dreams?
- What areas of your life – beyond your health – could use more attention? How would addressing those areas bring you more happiness and peace?
Please leave your answers in the comments section!