Staci Gulbin, MS, MEd, RD
Five mind-blowing facts that being healthy is more complex than what's on your plate
A simple scroll through any health news page or social media wellness section would have you believe that what you eat is the end all be all to health. It can become even more confusing when those same people, claiming to be health experts, tell you to cut carbs and processed foods from your diet in one breath, but then recommend "healthy" cocktails in the next.
The fact is that if you want to be your healthiest self, it is more than just what you eat. This may be surprising coming from a registered dietitian, but believe me when I say that the job of a dietitian is more than just meal plans. As a dietitian, most of my job is helping people with overall behavior modification in daily life. Read below to learn about five likely surprising facts about being healthy that go beyond what is on your plate.
Interlude on Nutrition
Before listing out five non-food ways to become your healthiest self, keep in mind that nutrition does matter, but it only makes the most impact if the rest of your daily lifestyle behaviors are in check. For example, you could be the best water drinker in town and have the highest fiber intake in history. However, if you are in stress mode all the time and drink alcohol in excess, then your body will still be in unhealthy shape and at risk for chronic disease.
Also, what is "healthy" eating for one person may be different than what it is for another based on health status, food allergies and intolerances, food preferences, and financial budget. But I think most would agree that the nutrition basics below apply to just about anyone:
Consume plenty of fiber-rich fruits and vegetables daily. The amount of fiber your body will need differs from person to person. However, try to have at least one serving of produce at each meal, on average daily. One serving of produce is equal to about one medium piece of fruit, one cup of raw vegetables, or 1/2 cup of cooked vegetables.
Have enough protein daily to support lean muscle mass. As a basic rule, the average adult should consume about 1 gram of protein daily for every kilogram of body weight. You can convert your weight in pounds to kilograms by dividing it by 2.2. For example, someone who is 220 pounds would weigh 100 kilograms and would therefore need to eat about 100 grams of protein daily. You may need to consume more protein if you are more active or have an illness or injury.
Drink enough fluid daily to maintain hydration. Most adults should consume between 2 and 3 liters (64-96 ounces of fluid) daily. This can include water, tea, coffee, juices, milk, and fluid from broths, water-rich fruits and vegetables like melons and cucumber, for example. Alcohol and sugary beverages should be limited or avoided for optimal health.
Include whole grains daily for important nutrients. Though many wellness influencers will tell you whole grains are "bad" for one reason or another, quite the opposite is true. Whole grains like oatmeal, rice, oats, and wheat can provide important nutrients like fiber, folate, and iron, for example. Research shows that consuming whole grains daily can help reduce your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers, likely due to its role in supporting gut health.
Five Mind-Blowing Facts on Being Healthy
Now that you have the nutrition basics covered, let's talk about five things that are vital to a healthy lifestyle, but are often overlooked.
1. Alcohol, low carb or not, does not provide any health benefit for the body or mind.
It's ironic that many health and wellness blogs will give you advice on how to create low-carb cocktails and influencers will post pictures of drinking wine regularly. However, these same media sources will call sugar and processed foods "poison," and will make you feel bad about eating anything outside of a low-carb lifestyle. It's ironic because drinking alcohol on a regular basis is worse for your health long-term than any food item you could consume.
Working in a public hospital, where nearly half, if not more of my patients, have some underlying alcohol or substance abuse issue, it's easy to see how alcohol harms the body. And it's not just those that drink alcohol in excess that are at health risk. Research shows that any amount of alcohol intake regularly can increase risk of heart disease and other diseases like cancer over time. Therefore, experts suggest that the safest amount of alcohol you can consume for optimal health is none. This is especially true for those under the age of 40 years, according to a newer study. Not only can alcohol intake harm liver health, but it can also cause inflammation and disease in the brain, kidneys, and intestines.
And research shows that moderate intake of alcohol or more (moderate being 1 standard drink daily for women and 2 standard drinks daily for men) can increase the risk of cognitive decline in those with high blood pressure. One standard drink is equal to 12 ounces of beer, 8 ounces of beer with 7 percent or more alcohol content, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor.
Even the health and wellness industry's favorite spirit, red wine, is not going to help you become your healthiest self. The small amount of resveratrol in red wine does not outweigh the harm that the ethanol content in wine can cause over time. Although that antioxidant may help heart health in moderation, more than a moderate intake can do the opposite.
2. Too much or not enough sleep can cause poor health.
Research shows that for every hour over the recommended sleep duration for adults, there is around a 7 to 17-percent higher risk of stroke, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. And for every hour under the recommended duration of sleep, there is an increased risk of 3–11 percent of all-cause mortality, heart
disease, osteoporosis, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. The National Sleep Foundation states that most adults should sleep between seven and nine hours each day. Lack of sleep, known as sleep deprivation, can reduce quality of life, increase pain perception, and negatively impact mental health over time.
3. Chronic dieting can cause more harm to your body than an "imperfect" diet of processed foods.
No matter what the latest commercial or influencer will tell you, dieting all the time to try and attain some impossible body standard is not healthy for you at all. Not only can it lead to disordered eating behaviors, but it can place a lot of stress on the body and mind. In turn, your body becomes a cesspool of inflammation from the stress from trying to gather enough "willpower" to avoid the "temptation" of that cookie in your pantry. Experts report that repeated periods of stress can actually contribute to inflammation in the circulatory system and in turn increase the risk of heart disease. And research shows that dieting specifically can have a negative impact on mental health over time due to the stress it can cause.
Not to mention that a 2022 study shows that the trendy diet known as intermittent fasting is highly linked to eating disorder behaviors. And it's no surprise that a 2022 study finds that eating disorder prevalence is on the rise. It's no surprise because the internet is chock full of body-shaming and food-shaming influencers. Unfortunately, no amount of reporting the harm that such influencers cause to their followers' mental health stops them from staying on the site and selling their "health" products and supplements while spouting endless misinformation. Hopefully, this will change over time.
4. Optimal health starts with a healthy relationship with your body and food.
Ultimately, when it comes down to basics, the best way to be your healthiest self is to listen to your body. In the throes of diet culture causing us to restrict, relapse, and repeat, many of us have forgotten how to recognize when we are hungry, when we are full, and when our body needs rest. So, instead of signing up for another diet program this holiday season, make the choice to learn how to love your body again and listen to what it needs. Recent research shows that intuitive eating practices can not only help improve ones' relationship with food, but can also help improve body image, quality of life, and body appreciation. There are a number of intuitive eating dietitians that can assist you in your efforts. Just remember that if a dietitian starts to tell you to count calories and portion foods, then they are not truly an intuitive eating professional.
5. What you consume on television, social media, and the internet can be detrimental to mental health
and overall well-being.
Just as what you eat is important to health, what you consume on the screens in your life can also impact your overall health. If you watch a bunch of content where influencers are body and food shaming, and labeling foods as "good" or "bad," then you are filling yourself with more toxins than that bag of corn puffs supposedly holds (according to the influencer "health experts").
A 2022 study shows that social media use to help decrease loneliness and for entertainment led to poorer mental health outcomes. Also, the longer a person spends on social media, the poorer the mental health outcomes. The only time where social media use helped improve mental health was when it was used for its actual purpose: socializing with friends.
Therefore, be cautious about what you scroll. Avoid fearmongering influencers, like anyone who uses phrases like "poison" or "toxic" to describe food, or anyone who uses phrases regularly like "Big _____" to describe any industry they don't like or know much about. Also, if someone is selling supplements or diet plans, or other related products that claim to "cure" diseases or "detoxify" the body, then unfollow immediately since there is no evidence of any food or drink that can cure anything. And before you start listening to any health or nutrition advice online, make sure the person who is saying it has graduated from a program of studies in that field and has ample work experience in that field of study. Some basic things to remember are:
Fitness and nutrition are two different specialties: A personal trainer, certified health coach, or certified health (fill in the blank) is NOT a nutrition expert unless they are also a dietitian who has a four-year degree and dietetic internship experience that a registered dietitian must have.
Just because someone works with food, that does not mean they know anything about nutrition. Chefs, cooks, or cookbook authors are not necessarily nutrition experts unless they have a degree in the field of nutrition.
Check influencers' credentials: If you see health blogs or videos online talking about health information, make sure the person in charge of the post uses evidence-based research to support their claims. Also, make sure they are a specialist in the field they are talking about. For example, if a skin doctor starts talking to you about vaccines (like a certain doctor on YouTube talking about blood clots), then you should not trust a word coming out of their mouth since vaccine specialists are virologists and immunologists. After all, would you let a podiatrist (foot doctor) advise you on brain surgery? Another example is that if a chiropractor tells you they can "cure" your gut with a spinal adjustment or they start spouting which foods are "good" and "bad," then run the other way. Chiropractors are not medical doctors or dietitians unless they also have such specialized degrees.
It's important to remember that many mixed messages clog up the social media pipelines on a daily basis. And seeing thin, muscular influencers online may make you want to listen to whatever they say in the hopes to look like them. But just remember that behind every highlight reel, especially with macro influencers, there is usually a salesperson trying to sell you a supplement or to gather enough clicks to make money from advertisements online.
For your healthiest self, feed it with positive reinforcement, no food or body shaming, healthy coping mechanisms, and plenty of stress management and self-care. And if you need help in doing this, contact a healthcare expert in the field who has the proper credentials and experience to know what's best for you.