There's More to Health Than Food & There's More to Life Than Health
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There’s More to Health Than Food, and There’s More to Life Than Health

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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:

  1. What aspects of health do you tend to ignore? And how does that keep you from living your dreams?
  2. What areas of your life – beyond your health – could use more attention? How would addressing those areas bring you more happiness and peace?

I hope you take some time to think about your answers, or even write them down. They may surprise you!

  1. Somehow articles like this make me feel pessimistic. I don’t know anyone in NY who eats SAD and is healthy; and I’ve seen obsessive, depressed people get much better on a gaps/paleo diet (AND getting out of toxic relationships once they regain clarity of thought, as written over and over again at Mark’s daily apple friday success stories.) Once diet has been addressed, other aspects of life fall naturally into place, or at least you have energy to deal with difficulties. Some of your readers are people like me, committed to getting better through diet and gut flora repopulation and healthy living. We need all the help we can get to fight our chronic conditions and get better. I am in a great relationship, got over depression, and enjoy my few hours of work, BUT being sick is still so tough and I DO want to get better and AM getting better with broths, ferments, good fats, spices, etc.

    • Mar, it sounds like this article doesn’t apply to you. But as you can see from the other comments, the tendency to obsess about diet at the expense of other aspects of health is quite common. The point of this is not to condemn continually tweaking and improving one’s diet and striving for better health (it should be fairly obvious that I support that 100%), but to shine some light on other factors that are sometimes neglected.

  2. LOVE THIS ! After a major rabbit hole journey to ‘healing’ from my CLL (chronic Leukemia) I realized what the most important factor in my life was.
    Friends, family, laughing and loving. Spending time, making those my focus is probably the best thing I have done for my health. And that time includes ‘me time’ to just relax, take a nap, go for a walk etc.
    It is so very easy to focus on nutrients, foods to avoid, toxins, freaking to the point that you are thinking those folks in the tin foil hats must be on to something.

    Thanks for the huge breath of fresh air. It is so true
    deb

  3. Great article. I love people in the mainstream such as yourself help encourage people to take a step back. You’re right on- there’s so much focus on “perfect” nutrition (whatever that even means) that the rest of our lives get only an afterthought.
    To answer your questions I, as most people, have let sleep and stress management take a back seat. I would also like to devote more of my food prep time to wrestling with my two young boys!! Thanks again for a great perspective article.

  4. Another gem from you Chris. Yep you can’t have one without the other, if I mess with your body exercise wise I also mess with the other 2. We are mind, body, and spirit, as my hero Gary Gray repeats every now and then. Feldenkrais saw this link, as well some of the other past masters who wrote on this subject. Tensegrity within the human body also i feel applies to food. As with tensegrity not one pattern fits all. Thanks for all your hard work.

    • Oh! Just reading your blog post, noticed you’re a neurofeedback technician – how interesting. I am doing some LENS treatments – almost up to 40 treatments, but have put it on hold temporarily while I work on some nutrient issues (copper overload specifically). What sort of neurofeedback do you practice?

  5. Love this post!

    Truth be told, the times my diet was the most “perfect” were also some of the times I was most depressed — I’d use nutrition and internet surfing to distract myself from how morose I was. Now I pay attention to eating well but I’m not OCD about it. If eating a few bites of gluten is the price I pay for hanging out with a big group of friends for a picnic every now and then, I’ll pay it.

    Sleep’s always been a problem for me because it’s the first thing I’ll let slide when it’s crunch time. I function decently with too-little street but it’s an uphill fight against feeling haggard and strung out. Need to work on that one, haha.

    • Wow Mimi, you sound just like me. I definitely slip into my nutritional and fitness OCD phases too, and it doesn’t make me healthy or happy in the long run. All that pain-staking discipline for nothing! Orthorexia can also can be very isolating. Every time I think I’ve discovered an absolute principle for living (low-carb, gluten-free, or whatever.), I eventually reach a point where I’ve let it get the best of me. Balance, balance, balance… I’m going to get off the internet now and have a glass of wine and some peanuts (horror of horrors!).

  6. Chris, articles like this are why you are one of my favorite nutrition bloggers. Health is important, but if you put aside the rest of your life for it then you might be missing the point of life. We are more than just biological robots who need perfect maintance. Finding the balance is the key!

    I also find that if I am stressed it’s harder for me to make good choices. So taking care of the rest makes the health part easier.

  7. When I decided to work on weight and health, I specifically did it cause I want to work on living my dreams, and I needed energy and health and self-confidence to do that, which I did NOT have at 300 lbs. I told my hubby, I need to get the weight/health thing in some normalized state before I and we can do x, y, z. I need energy and health to tackle A and B so I can do X and Y. I was very specific about my dreama nd goals and why being sick and fat were total impediments. It’s a huge project, getting fit. It took a lot of reading, time, work, strategizing, experimenting…huge effort. And it’s paying off. But the reason want to be healthier is to make my dreams come to life before I die…and it’s knowing I will never be perfectly healthy, and never have been, since infancy, but better is better.

    I am nearly at goal weigh. 20 lbs away. It’s not skinny weight, model weight, Hollywood weight. But I feel good and have hope and my dreams don’t seem dead like they did morbidly obese, depressed, and reclusive.

    My diet isn’t gonna be perfect. Some weeks, I’ll exercise better than others. But it’s all about life and those dreams, baby!

  8. Brilliant and thoughtful, balanced article. Well-timed too, for me. Health I would say is the optimal balance between all the factors you mention – and while I’m addressing the neglect of my nutritional needs [although I didn’t know HOW neglectful til I was lucky enough to find this blog] I’m aware I need to step up my exercise too. Yet it’s difficult because all this began just a month ago when I was floored by some unaccustomed demands made on me over a period of two weeks. I had a blood test and found I’m slightly hyperthyroid, hence the massive research which brought me here, and other places. My energy is almost zero but improving with two or so weeks of diet recommended here. The very thought of exercise or doing anything, going anywhere, seeing people or socialising is almost too much. My mood is wobbly.. sleep not good, I can lay awake for hours. Oh dear.
    But I’m trying, and taking chamomile tea before bed and just one cup of weak coffee first thing in the morning. I suppose balance and taking care of oneself means doing what one can within the limits of the present with hopes of an improved future, and being content with that. Or trying to!

  9. Amen to that! That is in fact what Ive based my entire blog upon really! I used to be OBSESSED with being healthy (to the ironic, yet cliche state where I made myself ill) and now I love eating whole real foods – and I do pretty much refuse to eat junk – but when it comes to macronutirent percentages or freaking out about a teaspoon of sugar – no thank you!! I believe that diet itself is less important than eating food which keeps us energised physically and socially – which is different for everyone and definitely NOT helped by obsessive behaviour!

  10. This is why I love the 80/20 principle. Reminds not to take anything to the extreme.

    Great article, and I could not agree more. When focusing on a goal we have a tendency to become a bit one-dimensional. We might become obsessed with losing weight, or avoiding certain foods at the expense of the other dimensions of our personality.

    This is one reason why I the paleo community is more than just a diet. Go outside, play, have fun, make sure you rest, sleep, exercise, and of course eat real food. Life needs to be balanced. Not every aspect of our lives will be perfect, but that should not stop us from enjoying ourselves.

  11. I actually see this a lot in my clients as well. They’re SO focused on food that they forget to just sit down, breathe and try to enjoy life. I recognize often that any time my food does get off track, it’s usually related more to stress, slacking on maintaining social connections, happiness and lack of sleep. It’s likely that everyone reading your blog, my blog, etc. is at a point where they actually already know what to eat, but it’s a matter of 1) doing it and 2) not fussing over every detail to the point where they become more stressed and obsessed than healthy and balanced. Thanks for posting this. I’ve had a post in the works for a while now on a similar topic that I’ll link back to once it’s live – part of my Monday Motivation series. 🙂

    Diane

  12. Thanks for this article! I’m always struggling to eat better, but when I get to the point where I’m depressed because I’m not enjoying what I eat, that’s when I fall off the wagon. And yes, there’s a happy medium somewhere, where I can maintain a healthier diet than I have now and not want to kill myself over skipping the cheeseburger. But it’s nice to have some validation that diet and physical health aren’t the alpha and the omega of life. If pursuing the perfect physical health makes you miserable, then what good is it?

  13. I think this is a brilliant article Chris and I’ve thought about it myself and I try to explain it to me clients, I mean who are we to say to someone they have to eat in such a way, I think nutrition is very important, but deciding that you can’t go out because the food at a restaurant is not ‘perfect’ is not really socially that healthy is it. I think people forget we have many areas of health, from physical, social, mental emotional and spiritual.

      • Yeah- no can do for a celiac/gluten intolerant. However sometimes just bringing along some food of your own that you can eat will enable you to enjoy most social situations when everyone around is imbibing on gluten. 🙂

        • I am tired of people telling me what “socially healthy” is. At work there was a girl constantly pushing M&M’s onto us; she had a fountain on her desk. We also had to buy them to replenish it from time to time. Nevermind the M&M-obsessed girl was always on abx for strep. If I said no I was called a snob. HR meetings meant bagel with margarine, coffee and creamers. Parties meant pizza and cheap alcohol. Going out on friday nights often mean chicken wings from a greasy sports bar. My family says it’s not “normal” not to eat what everyone else does (supermarket low-fat processed sugary carbs). I’m orthorexic for that. Ah! And according to many parents, 5 year old kids today apparently need to eat junk to “fit in” and not feel “different”. Aren’t we all different??? Can’t a non-restaurant person be a balanced, healthy, happy person? Please! Ollie, this is not about perfection, but common sense!

          • Agreed that sounds horrendous mar, and yes, we have to find our own balance which is always individual. To me, balance involves personal choice and the self must come first [by reason of the philosophy that to care for others we have to be fit and able and therefore must look to our own needs – and prioritise each in order of importance. Which in your case might involve an occasional night out knowing the dissonance and eating beforehand!] But in the long term it might be a healthy choice to seek more like-minded individuals to work/socialise with. But we all have to make some compromise eg we have to earn a living so if the ideal choice isn’t available we have to try to balance it with seeking groups where you feel a kinship. I know my happiest employment was about ten years of working with a great team of like-minded people. Lastly, if people attempt to pressurise you into their idea of kinship [remember it works both ways though – acceptance is the key to a balanced mind and heart, as Chris has mentioned elsewhere] it might help to just lightly remark you’d love to but your digestion can’t handle it and leave it at that?? Whatever you think fits… I think people, unthinking, may fear that refusal is a judgment on them… hence the neeeed for others to ;join in’ ?

          • mar I totally agree with everything you said, I didn’t mean you need to be ‘normal’ so to speak, and the eating out was just an example. I think not going to a restraurant you can of course be balanced and happy, I think you are right, its about common sense, sometimes you have to compromise but it should be because you want to, not because you are told to.

            And the end of the day, its about happiness and if you are happy then thats all that matters, whether you go out or not.

      • I think you misinterpreted me, I did not say eat toxins, I just think we need to except what we have and enjoy it. People should remember you can’t out exercise a bad diet, but you can’t out diet a bad lifestyle!

        I think Steve Jobs who just passed away said it best! “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

        Being healthy is great and I love it, but I will still die one day, so I’ll enjoy what I can now.

    • Excellent point about making compromise with diet when it comes to socialising. If we remain too rigid, that is a stress in itself. If I’m going out for dinner, I accept that compromise is inevitable.

      • Ya, people should just lighten up. A little gluten for someone who is gluten intolerant won’t kill you at least not today. Just one cig to fit in. Just one drink for the alcoholic. All good, fitting in is more important.

  14. More to life than health? Well surely, if one starts with a working model of health that has a biomedical origin. But the word health has its origin in the word “whole”. If we see health is a state of wholeness, one can begin to see how our confusion leads us in the wrong directions.

  15. Thought-provoking post. I find that I almost obsess about my diet because it’s the one area of my life over which I have control, unlike dealing with the elderly parent, the emotional teen, the difficult ex-husband, the long commute, etc. etc. I try to manage my stress, but alas, there are still too many sleepless nights.

    • This writer refers to Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais early in the article. He created excellent exercises for health and well being called Awareness Through Movement. You can easily find free ones to try by visiting openATM.org. Good Luck!

  16. While it’s certainly possible to have a good diet yet other unhealthy practices, I’m going to guess many of these things (diet, “stress,” exercise, mood, etc) are interdependent. I like to think Iead I am less affected by daily stresses than others because I have a good diet for example. Perhaps that positive attitude helps in and of itself, but maybe that’s a product of the oxtail soup I just ate…and maybe…

  17. I really like what you have to say here. I spent years trying to be happy without addressing health and good eating. I need to keep working on stress management. I need to work on doing art, I’ve started a blog about life on earth to this end, forcing myself to write, I had wanted to be a writer 10 years ago when I was in high school.

  18. We all tend to ignore the subconscious and patterned behaviors that drive health behaviors. Research is showing how much our health trajectory is influenced physically, emotionally, and chemically from the first 5-6 years of life. The most basic form of learning is through imitation via mirror neurons, so the best thing we can do to address health is to live by example, and surround yourself by others who are hoping to achieve similar goals, and will trigger you to pursue the goals of yours that are unique!