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Why ‘Healthy’ Is Subjective in More Than Just Eating Disorder Treatment

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Editor's Note

If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

I honestly hate the word “healthy” in regards to anything related to eating and exercise. “Healthy” is such a subjective thing, and it is rarely actually about one’s health. It is proven to be incredibly subjective time and time again as newer research shows that the diet fads and myths we as a society once religiously worshipped (and still worship) are debunked.

Our current idea of a “healthy” body and lifestyle is more often than not based on racist, classist, ableist and incredibly harmful ways of thinking. And who are our guides for this quest for healthiness? Doctors are held to be one of the most knowledgeable sources of information on health and the body, yet they aren’t even required to get any nutrition education before, during or even after medical school. Nurses, similarly, are not required to take a significant amount of nutrition education — some programs may require one basic class. Other medical professionals are equally lacking in nutrition education. What about the so-called “health gurus” who found themselves in their studies of Asia and are now the yoga champions of the Instagram influencer world? Nope.

So then, why on earth do we trust these people to tell us what is healthy in regards to our diet, nutrition, weight and exercise, when they lack the appropriate knowledge to have any say in the matter? Why do we believe fads, myths and outdated research that clearly are rooted in some ridiculous and oppressive systems? This isn’t even coming from a sense of righteous anger fueled from a lifetime with an eating disorder (although yes, that’s there) — it’s from anger that so many people profit off making others not only miserable but also putting their lives in danger. Pressuring, shaming, guilt-tripping and ridiculing people to conform to an idealized and seriously warped image of “healthiness” can seriously impact a person’s actual health. These harmful ways of thinking and the normalization of these practices have killed and continue to kill people, all in the name of “healthiness.”

If you want an idea of how pervasive this kind of stuff is, let me give you a real-life example. I’m in a partial hospitalization eating disorder program at a famous and reputable hospital, renowned for their treatments as well as their research. Now, right next to papers full of factoids and other helpful information on eating disorders, on a table set up for National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, sits a newsletter called “Women’s Nutrition Connection.” In bold print, it says: “Say Goodbye to Unhealthy Cold Cuts” along with other “health” tips.

The newsletter had the hospital system’s logo and had medical professionals who helped contribute, yet right on the first page was an editorial piece calling for an end to cold cuts (along with a lengthy list of other “forbidden” foods). Any person who didn’t know better would trust the information coming out of this newsletter. After all, it seems to be from a reputable source; why would anyone question it? But here’s the thing: food is not some moral dilemma as these people and our society will have us believe. No one food is bad or good. Yet, people to whom we defer can’t even be sensitive and knowledgeable enough when it comes to these issues for people with eating disorders. Which then begs the question: what chance does the rest of the population have?

To label foods as healthy or unhealthy, good or bad, is at best irresponsible and at worst destructive. We as a society need to recognize that healthiness has always been and still is very much subjective and not objective facts. You can’t make blanket statements about nutrition, diet, exercise and health when there are so many other variables that need to be considered. You can’t label food as inherently bad or unhealthy for everyone. Everyone’s bodies work differently. Everyone’s circumstances differ. What works for one person may not work for another. We shouldn’t be trained to fear foods or body types, nor should we feel guilted into exercise or feel guilty for eating and enjoying foods.

As a doctor in the making and the third generation in my family to have an eating disorder, I’m telling you that most of my peers and people in my field don’t know enough about nutrition, diet, exercise or eating disorders to say anything about it. If they do, it’s their own personal opinion and not a scientific fact (which also is not infallible). I know too well how harmful this kind of rhetoric is; I have suffered its consequences my entire life and have witnessed people I love dearly suffer growing up.

I know how normalized these things can be and how they seem so true and so objective, but “health” is not objective — it is subjective. So, in the spirit of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, say goodbye to unhealthy food myths, diet fads, exercising and idealized body images,

Photo by Alev Takil on Unsplash

Originally published: March 1, 2019
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