March 27, 2014

WHAT’S UP DOC: An Unhealthy Healthy

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Healthy. The word we say and hear without apprehension; we use it regularly, in many contexts and it is thrown about the news, talk shows and every new advertisement. But what is “healthy?” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, healthy is to be “in good health,” but what is that exactly? And, is there one state of good health or many?

Such an abstract concept is often applied widely to society as if there is one state of good health, as opposed to multiple, personalized forms. But who decides what is healthy and what is not? For example, dairy is widely accepted as a vital part of a healthy diet; however, those who are lactose intolerant would surely disagree. I have even heard that excessive alcohol consumption, partying and shopping are all “healthy” behaviors as they release stress — but do these activities really improve our health? Wouldn’t we be better to address the stressful stimulus directly and deal with it so that it would no longer cause such misery? That sounds healthier to me. But more healthy?  More in good health? This phrase suggests that there is a gradient of the healthy state, yet how does one know when they have passed from in good health to in poor health? Who designates these boundaries or are they as arbitrary as the status itself?

As a society, we are confused. We are constantly bombarded by advertisements, TV shows and magazines that tell us how to be “healthy.” I cannot even count the number of foods that have been endorsed by TV doctors, and which surely cannot be incorporated into one’s diet while staying in a “healthy” safe caloric range. Furthermore, how healthy is it to be so worried about our health? There must be some consequence to our mental health, potentially giving rise to stress and yes, more shopping. How does one achieve a balance between the physical and mental state when our current society clearly emphasizes the former and devalues the latter.

And what about this healthy food? Low fat and fat free foods that have so much added sugar to compensate for the lack of fat. Or the sugar substitutes which are slowly being shown to have adverse health effects. Is that healthy? We go from one diet trend to another without really questioning the validity of it and how it will really affect our body, aside from weight loss. We are a product of centuries of evolution and our bodies have been optimized to process basic, natural foods, so why give it something else full of preservatives and additives?

Then there is the modern workout culture. We spend a considerable part of our day at the gym, getting ready for the gym, getting to and from the gym, talking about the gym and procrastinating about the gym. Although gyms and the idea of working out have been around for ages, the current gym culture and habits are relatively recent. For decades people have been going to gyms and working out as part of a well balanced lifestyle, and not as a priority to all other aspects. What happened to maintaining an active lifestyle by walking the short distance to work or taking the stairs? Is it better to compartmentalize our activity to gym time or spread it out during the day? And is it healthy to expect both a gym trip and additional daily activity on your body? Or perhaps your body will be full of lactic acid, causing soreness and pain. And of course, instead of doing the healthy thing and listening to your body you will pop a pain killer and go on your way. Can the body handle all that we expect of it?

Gyms are not as common around the world as they are in North America, and yet we have some of the highest obesity rates. We have made the gym such a priority that it has become a religion. And rightfully so, we have also transferred the concepts of sin and penance — where you could be forgiven for all of your sins, dietary sins that is, by spending a 10 more minutes on the elliptical machine or 4 more laps. But is that healthy? Is it healthy to eat something fattening or deemed to be unhealthy by society such that you feel guilty and the need to compensate for it at the gym, slowly degrading your body image and your self-esteem? Why can you not just enjoy the pastry as a treat and not think about the potential consequences for your waistline.

I also like the gym. I have been going to the gym for years to take part in the fun classes and it can be a great way to meet people that also like to be active and “healthy. ” But I wonder if it is becoming excessive, and whether it qualifies as an obsession. Has healthy becomes unhealthy? Everything that is labeled as healthy is potentially unhealthy in excess. Too many nuts and you will have ingested a great amount of fat and will likely have a stomach ache, and too many clementines will make not only your stomach ache but your mouth sore (trust me on this one). Even drinking too much water can be lethal (“dilutional hyponatremia”). We are a society of overachievers, of competitors and those that want to go big or go home. So, when presented with the challenge of, we give 180 percent.

I believe in balance and not going to the extremes, but in a society where we routinely push ourselves to — and sometimes past — the limit, what is one left to balance with? Like many of you, I prefer eating well, being active and taking care of myself, and I think it is time that we all define for ourselves what it is to be healthy, and stop letting other people do it for us. It’s time to stop listening to the media and start listening to our bodies.

Brittany Carson is a graduate student at Weill Cornell Medical College. She may be reached at [email protected]. What’s Up, Doc? appears alternate Fridays this semester.