Rethinking health

Our concept of wellness should encompass what we serve to gain, not lose.

Bronwyn Miller

This year, I’m applying spring cleaning to more than just my overflowing closet. As the slush melts away and beauty is restored in nature, I hope to similarly renew my appreciation for the beauty I’ve lost sight of in my own life. In conjunction with the transition between seasons, I too am on an endeavor for change: new beginnings, new aspirations and a new sense of clarity.

If your life has gone anything like mine has this year, winter was rough. With the perpetual forecast of freezing and gray, my motivation for pursuing excitement — in other words, leaving the warm cocoon of my couch — dwindled, and I slipped into a monotonous routine. To add insult to injury, I faced an unusually long list of responsibilities and an ever-increasing level of senior year stress and anxiety. Somewhere along the way, my priorities became skewed, and taking care of myself physically and mentally fell by the wayside.

A particularly climactic series of events a few weeks ago served as my wakeup call, and I realized I needed an outlook overhaul to return to my happiest and healthiest. In my experience, one of the best ways to cause a revolution of the mind and spirit can be a focus on the body. Feeling strong on the outside can serve as an excellent shortcut to feeling strong on the inside, so my primary reaction to a stress-fest often includes a health makeover.

In the past, I’ve guided this lifestyle alteration with a pursuit of the latest and greatest tips and tricks to drop weight, believing triumph lied in a smaller number on a scale. Low caloric intake was inherently equivalent to progress, and feeling skinnier was how I could feel healthier and, thus, better.

It never quite worked as planned. Making stringent rules about how much I was allowed to consume and when was exhausting, and I quickly tired of the system of deprival that inevitably led only to self-disappointment. Though I may have momentarily felt better when I put on my looser-fitting jeans, it was not sustainable. I was not empowering myself nor pursuing a more balanced way of life. I was not taking control of my happiness or, for that matter, of anything; on the contrary, I was giving it away. I granted numbers, often founded on unrealistic expectations, the power to dictate my mood.

Back then, I was obsessed with discovering every diet secret, every list of “eat this not that,” every miracle workout — any and every piece of advice I could seize to feel confident that I was “healthy.” But the search for tips was overpowering; I was so inundated with information that it actually hindered my progress. I felt  comfort in feeling like I was omniscient in the realm of health advice, but I was overwhelmed into inaction. I was aiming for a materialistic type of health, not considering how to actually make my body feel good.

It’s not just me who has been led astray by what “healthy” means. The pervasive messages of the weight loss industry, worth about $60 billion in the U.S. and growing , relentlessly attempt to influence our self-images. Marketers play to our vulnerabilities while simultaneously promising the miracles we’ve been praying for. And in a perfect storm of false hope, insecurity and desperation, we buy into it. We flock to the low-fat, low-carb, fortified this and organic that without actually thinking about what we’re consuming, confident we can have our cake and eat it too (as long as it’s gluten-free).

In many ways, the colloquial concept of being healthy has become a punishment, with loss — more specifically, weight loss — inherent in its ideals. But it’s not getting us anywhere. Although the recently released results of two federal studies show that Americans are eating fewer calories than we did a decade ago, obesity rates are not tapering.  Clearly, there is more to the story than quantity; it’s the quality we must examine.

Moreover, we need a new outlook on health and nutrition that does not place weight loss as the sole marker of success. As the 2010 experiment of a human nutrition  professor at Kansas State University revealed, it is not unheard of to eat predominantly junk food and see weight loss as a short-term consequence. Mark Haub lost 27 pounds in two months on what he referred to as the “convenience store diet,” a steady intake of Hostess and Little Debbie snacks.  While it’s easier to focus on numbers on a scale than consider what we cannot measure — like long-term health — we’re not doing ourselves any real favors. The greater picture of what we are putting in our bodies, like the consequences of ingesting the chemicals, synthetics, preservatives and other additives in processed foods, must supersede our one-dimensional weight loss-driven view of health.

This time around, my idea of a “health makeover” is drastically different from my past approaches. I’m not counting calories and placing limits. For me, an important component of clarity and happiness is the sense of inner peace, achieved by a mind free of toxic thoughts. To wholeheartedly accomplish this goal, I want to take a holistic approach. What’s become most important is the knowledge that the food I put in my body, just like the thoughts I put in my head, is as free of toxins as possible.

Therefore, my mission is simply “back to basics.” I’m practicing clean eating and spending at least an hour each day being active in the fresh air. I’m not interested in a quantifiable, time-specific end result, like a goal weight. Instead, I’m changing my relationship with food, embarking on a journey with no end point. There are no all-or-nothing policies, but I’ve noticed that the longer I supply my body with only whole foods, the less it craves their processed counterparts, recognizing them as poison. So rather than polluting my mind and body with the latest diet fads and products, I’m going with grassroots — literally.