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. I think health is a more holistic construct than just eating healthy and/or exercising. If a person does not have good stress levels, and healthy nurturing relationships in their life, they aren’t totally healthy. There definitely is a mind-body connection. Living a life that is good to you and nurturing is part of being healthy.

  2. I loved this article! It’s so true for me- I need to (and try to) work on my anxiety and stress, and when I am overly stressed or anxious, my stomach is bloated and painful, almost no matter what I’ve eaten. For me, cutting out certain foods (wheat, fiber, etc) help my stomach, but it doesn’t all come together unless I have looked at the big picture and reduced my stress for the day, week, etc. I also find that when I am not stressed, I can eat those foods with no or almost no side effects, although I try to eliminate or minimize for health.
    Thanks Chris, you’ve reminded me to keep looking at the Big Picture of health!

  3. This article serves as a gentle reminder for me. I have been an ardent believer in the Primal/Paleo template as a remedy for whatever ails you. I have seen this to be true in a lot of cases, and have to bite my tongue at times to not annoy friends and family with all my pesky answers. The thing is, regarding my lifelong issues with anxiety and depression I have experienced profound improvement in my mental health as a result of dietary changes. This blows my mind every day. BUT my marriage is stable, my kids are healthy and I have laid a foundation of healing through therapy, yoga, education and connection, through my creative writing pursuits and friendships. Paleo Template nutrition or as I call it, Born-Again nutrition, has boosted me to an even more productive level but there’s more to it than that, as you note. Thank you for putting this idea into such eloquent words. It’s humbling, in a very good way.

  4. YUP! This is a great reminder. Some people can’t fathom why it’s so hard for others to change their eating habits, and those people can’t fathom why it’s so hard for the former to change personal habits: “How can u not eat vegetables every day?!” “How can YOU not hang out with friends everyday or dump that psycho lover?!” The weak link – good analogy! Me on health: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PbWCQqq_DUE

  5. Hi Chris,
    I realize this post isnt directly speaking of food reward, but it certainly got me thinking about that whole debate. After I read this article, I think I realized that it is THE PLEASURE in our life, that we create, that contributes to our health. Would you agree that experiencing Pleasure eases stress and helps us stay in the present moment? (why would we want to let our minds wander anywhere else, if we are creating pleasure in the right here and now) So, whether we are getting a massage, playing with our kids, exercising, or getting an awesome night sleep it seems we are allowing ourselves to experience pleasure and in a sense, HEALTH is usually an organic side effect when we grant ourselves this permission.
    It makes sense from an evolutionary stand point too, wouldn’t it make sense that we are programmed to pleasure things that allow us to survive (or at least allow our genes to survive) and of course that would usually mean we would naturally be in good health. Isn’t this exactly why sex feels good and food tastes good? Aren’t we meant to experience that pleasure as motivation to ensure our genes survive through evolution? It also makes me think about our evolutionary programming for pleasure and gender differences . . . maybe it’s why women are more likely to “cheat” on their diets and men are more likely to “cheat” on their wives – were all just trying to ensure our genes ‘keep on keepin’ on.’ Maybe it also holds true that if we deny ourselves these programmed pleasures our bodies may become stressed, thinking they are in some kind of danger of not surviving. For instance, the stress our bodies endure when they aren’t receiving a good night sleep or relaxation, is the stress a result of not receiving the pleasure of sleep or is it not receiving the sleep itself?? And so, could there too be stress (disease) if we don’t receive pleasure from food? Or is it really only if we don’t receive the food itself??
    I just tend to think that as long as we stick with real food, there is no reason why we can’t grant ourselves permission to experience pleasure in food too. Maybe the problem only lies in eating food products that have been artificially modified to taste good. We keep on eating the artificially delicious food because we subconsciously associate the pleasure sensation with survival and we just end up sicker and sicker. Maybe there is no harm at all in restricting artificial flavor so that we can freely take pleasure in eating real, delicious food. Maybe allowing ourselves pleasure in real food really will help us live our fullest, survival of the fittest, healthiest life??
    Im not a scientist or a doctor, just a girl who never “cheats” on my diet (it brings me way to much happiness . . . and an organic side effect of really stellar health)
    I’d love to hear your thoughts! Thank you!!

    • Kell: studies have absolutely shown that pleasure eases stress and has profound effects on health. As long as we stick to real food, as you suggest, we can and should experience pleasure in eating.

  6. Hi Chris,

    Great post, Chris. I’ve found that I have to pay attention to much more than diet to enjoy a better sense of well being. That is not to say I don’t care a great deal about trying to eat real foods as much as possible.

    I’d like to try Feldenkrais and I live in the Bay Area (Marin). If appropriate, would you mind sharing where your wife leads classes, if she is doing so?

    Todd, I enjoy your blog. I’ve found Paul’s writing at saveyourself.ca to be incredibly useful, also.

    • My wife is not practicing currently because she has her hands full with our 11-week old daughter. I’ll check with her and see if she knows anyone good in Marin.

  7. Good points indeed. My case is, however, like this: diet and exercise are things I actually have influence over. They’re easy to accomplish. Getting into a relationship, on the other hand, is not. Having been permanently friend zoned for years on end, my life feels like a descent into grey pointlessness of constant rejection. I feel I have no influence over the matter: If I feel the slightest bit attracted to her, I’m “just friends”. I feel trapped in my futile mind, unable to rectify the cycle of self defeat.

    So I diet and exercise. Just to get the feeling I’m doing at least something on my own accord.

    (“Learn game”, you say? Bzh.)

  8. Great post, thanks. And an amazing coincidence because I just finished reading Gabor Maté’s book “When the Body says No” about the relationship between long-term stress and disease. In effect, you can eat the perfect diet and do just the right exercise and sleep the exact right number of hours every night, but if you are carrying around tons of repressed anger or otherwise living with chronic stress (and not even aware of it), your body will suffer for it biochemically. You have to look at the whole self, and that includes your mind – your patterns of interacting with other people, your ability to live a healthy emotional life. I think for many people it’s way easier to obsess about food than it is to work through psychological issues that have led to chronic stress. Just saying.
    I personally need to do LESS obsessing about exercise and food, and allow myself more time for creative activity and meditation.

  9. Hi Chris! Thank you for your site and your podcast. Every single episode is thoroughly thought and top notch. This particular post is important. Nutrition is a great part of health, but it is just a part. In any case willing to widen your perspectives on health and healing, you might want to read my paper on the subject:
    http://ollisintegrallife.com/2011/05/09/body-mind-spirit-and-healing-integral-approach-with-integral-methodological-pluralism/

    My writing uses the Integral Theory Model which combines interiors and exteriors of the individual and the collective.

    All the best, Olli

    • If you’re not patient enough to read the whole article, skim it through and skip to the “Zones”. Zones 5&6 are of the physical realm 😉

  10. It is impossible to have our diet “dialed in”. In fact it is impossible to get the nutrients our bodies need from the food we eat. The fact is, you can’t get something from nothing.
    As an example if you started with a $ 5,000 in your bank account and you continually made withdrawals with no deposits you would eventually run out of money and be bankrupt. Well that is exactly how our chemical and organic farming practices have done to our soils since the continent was colonized.
    When the chemical farming techniques came in early in the century they worked by stripping the nutrients off the clay and humus colloid and bonding them with the water molecule. In the beginning the farmers thought this was a gift from God as the plants. But as they drew down on their bank account of nutrients the plants began to become unhealthy and attracted pests and developed fungal and viral diseases. Farmers, not knowing better, started using more and more chemicals thinking this was the answer. However, most of the chemical fertilizers either went into the environment as run off or polluted our underground aquifers. With each added year the withdrawals continued until our soils are bankrupt and so is our health.
    Doctor William A Albrecht discovered the secret to unlocking the potential of plants through soil remineralization. Unfortunately, his voice, at the University of Missouri, was silenced at the prompting of the chemical companies who were funding most of the research. They saw the threat this remineralization was to their industry and so Dr. Albrecht had to go.
    Things have not changed today, most of the research is still funded the chemical/pharmaceutical companies and genetic terrorists who fund not only the research but also many of the college buildings. In short the colleges sold out our health for a bowl of pottage.
    On our farm we have remineralized soils according to the Albrecht model of soils balancing and over the past 10 years, developed organic fertilizers that supply plants with all the macro and micro nutrients as well as the trace elements. The result is healthy soils that grow disease and bug free plants. The produce is nutrient dense and the grasses all our cattle to produce great milk and the beef cattle provide meat with a different structure and wonderful taste. Our chickens free range and have thick shells and dark yolks. Our produce has a longer shelf life with no bugs or disease on our plants. And the taste and smell are totally different than anything you have tasted.
    So for good health we need plants that our nutrient dense. And to have plants that are nutrient dense you need soils that have been remineralized according to the Albrecht model of soils balancing.
    Not until we reform our farming practices and remineralize our lands will we have any chance of “dialing in” our diet.
    If you are interested in learning more you can subscribe to Acres USA magazine. Also you can purchase Neal Kinsey’s book “Hands on Agronomy” revised edition which is available thru Acres USA.

  11. Thanks for the article. I appreciate that you mention that diet is not the “cure all”. I think that in the health conscious culture is the idea that you CAN completely control your health and be disease-free, but the reality is that some day, each one of is going to die and there is nothing that we can do to stop it. So, the question remains: How do we want to spend the short time that we have on this earth?

  12. I spend over75% of a patients time discussing why they need to be “living life” instead of just “surviving” the one they are mentally stuck in. We need to eat so it may as well be great nutrients. Patients get that. It’s when I start asking when’s the last time you called your boss and said “I feel too good to come to work today. I am going to enjoy a bike ride and picnic lunch in the park while I read a trashy novel that has been looking at me from my night stand for the past month. Abby Miller L.Ac. “Improving Health Through Balance.”

  13. Your post makes me think of my current quest to address my adrenal fatigue and hypothyroidism. I thought I was healthy for much of my life because I didn’t get sick but once every two years while others around me (coworkers) would get sick sometimes every single month and were constantly on medications and antibiotics. But – I didn’t have much energy, I was having some depression, anxiety was growing worse, and I was overweight with a lot of aches and pains that I thought were just normal for growing older. I started on GAPS to address my fatigue and depression and it helped tremendously. I felt better than I had in a very long time, and was amazed at how many little discomforts went away, the depression lifted, anxiety ceased, I was able to get off the asthma meds I’d been on for eight years, and I lost weight. But then 2011 happened. It’s been a rough year, full of too much stress that finally wore me down after a few months. I have finally come to the conclusion that I have to do more than just eat “right”. I had already suspected adrenal fatigue and hypothyroidism for at least the last decade, and I think changing my diet helped considerably, but the stress from this year has caused me to realize that I may need more than diet, probably medication (like Armour for thyroid). I loathe being on medication, but it looks like I am not going to feel any better unless I address these other issues (I’m working on lowering the stress as much as I can, too). I had really hoped food would take care of it all, but I guess like you say, there’s more to health than food. I will know more when I have my appointment with my naturopath in a few days, but I’m hoping that finally I will begin to actually live my life with some energy, instead of feeling like I have only enough energy to sit at the computer. Hah. I used to think I had all this stamina in being able to stay focused at my computer and get work done. Now I’m thinking it was low energy because would a person full of energy and eager to live life really want to sit at a computer all day long?

  14. Chris,
    You’ve intimated about your past illness, but I don’t believe you have ever elaborated on what this was.
    It’s irrelevant in the big picture, but when you put yourself up on that pedestal, and preach advice, your reticence undermines your credibility to a degree.
    In my situation, I’ve managed to radically improve my physical health, Kurt Harris and archevore.com is the nearest to my diet for the past 5 years.
    The social/mental side is difficult, being a full time carer for my partner who has COPD and listens to her doctor and not to me. I believe she is very inflamed, but she will not follow my regime.
    This gives me massive stress, and I believe my diet keeps me from really suffering ill health with the mental stress. I’m mainly on my own with the caring, but getting out and walking a couple of hours a day has kept the demons at bay.
    I don’t really care whether you will ever tell the story of your past hardships, and good on you that you came through it and are so positive now.
    However, to me, without this background information on that aspect of your life being explained, it diminishes you to some degree.
    You are up there with the best in advice about nutrition and lifestyle.

    Sometimes when you are in a caring situation, you have to accept that there is not really much you can do about it, except keep yourself healthy physically, and just hope the mental/social side can be coped with until either you die in the process or see it through, to when you lose the chronically ill person you are caring for and survive to have a life beyond.

  15. Fascinating stuff. I tend to focus on food and ignore exercise and sleep. I like your thoughts on happiness and contentedness.

  16. I had a client tell me my expectations for her were too high because I actually want her to take care of herself physically and emotionally! It’s hard to get across to people that they can do both, but one doesn’t automatically take care of the other. And most of them would still like a pill that just made it all go away!
    It’s difficult to promote balance in a culture that promotes extremes.

  17. It is very easy in our mechanical-thinking, cause-and-effect culture to see ourselves as machines to be fixed, but of course, like the digestion the interactions between all our systems (social, financial, spiritual…) are intricate and multifactorial and can affect our health directly.

    And course the human being is a system, and the digestion is part of that system. So if I eat something that disagrees with me, then most likely my sleep will be impacted, my gut will produce inflammatory cytokines which will directly affect my brain, my cortisol levels will go up and so on.

    All of this will change my personality to some extent, making me take things more seriously than I normally would, make choices that I normally might not make, and impact on my relationships. If I am fatigued, challenges will appear more daunting than they normally would and I will avoid taking on work I normally might embrace.

    But it is easy to get into an all-or-nothing attitude when your health is unpredictable; especially if you are a bit of an obsessive problem solver, which is where your article on acceptance is so apposite Chris – http://chriskresser.com/living-with-chronic-illness-the-power-of-acceptance

    The trick, I am discovering, is to work hard to make yourself well, while at the same time remembering that you need to live your life while you’re doing it (just in case you never quite get there).

  18. I find stress plays a HUGE roll in how healthy I am. I try to prioritize eating right, but I don’t let it become a source of stress. So sometimes that means that we eat grocery store meat if I haven’t been to the grass fed butcher in a while, and I still use some canned (bpa) foods like coconut milk, and we use ziplocks and plastic food storage containers just for ease of use- all that glass gets cumbersome to deal with some times! And I put a priority on getting sunshine, fresh air, and exercise as well 🙂

  19. Excellent article Chris, this is something that I see as well. People can fixate on food and try to control it; however, you can’t be truly healthy if you aren’t taking care of yourself, getting enough sleep, exercising enough but not too much, etc. Food can often reflect what is going on in your personal life, but eating the “perfect diet” without taking into account everything else is short sighted. Thank you for the reminder!

  20. Nice article.

    I like the Feldenkrais quote! I hadn’t heard that one before, but it is very consistent with his approach, which was to make abstract ideas concrete. If a client came to him for help, he wouldn’t try to achieve some abstract goal like “alignment” or “balance” but instead asked them for a specific function they wanted to improve, like walking or sleeping, etc. Trying to achieve “health” can be as nebulous a goal as trying to be “fit.” It begs the question: fit what what?