When asked to imagine a healthy person, what do you picture? For a lot of you, images of toned bodies holding kettlebells, eating salads, or drinking protein shakes probably pop into your mind. This is the image of health that most of us have been sold our entire lives. We picture a “healthy person” as the person who looks fit, eats “clean,” or never misses a spin class. Living in diet culture, it makes sense that this is where our minds immediately go. But is what we picture actually an accurate depiction of health? If so, what does that say about those of us who don’t fit these conventional standards?
Redefining what it means to be a ‘healthy person’ has been a crucial part of my own eating disorder recovery. I first took an interest in learning about health/nutrition in middle school, and over the years I have spent countless hours educating myself about the “right” way to eat. Come to my house, and you will see my bookshelves filled with books about nutrition, diets, cleanses, etc. I was the person who would remind everyone around me of how much trans-fat or cholesterol was in the foods that they were eating (SO annoying, I know). Friends and family would come to me for advice about the latest diets, cleanses, or workouts, and I loved it. Being a “healthy person” quickly became a huge part of my identity. “Healthy” became more than just a word to describe me; it became who I WAS.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, chronic dieting, or orthorexic tendencies, you can likely relate. When you have been dealing with any form of disordered eating for a long time, it’s easy for it to start to feel like your entire identity. This can make the [already scary] process of recovery even scarier.
When I started recovering from my eating disorder, I was forced to make huge changes to the way I had viewed food, health and nutrition throughout the majority of my life. All of the sudden, I was being asked to allow foods into my diet that had been put on my blacklist years ago. I was being asked to allow my body to gain weight, when for as long as I could remember, the pursuit of health meant constantly trying to LOSE weight. I was being asked to prioritize things like relationships and self-nurturing over my workout regimen. The more that I felt these things changing, the more I feared that I was going to lose myself in the process.
How can I be a healthy person if I’m being asked to eat pizza for lunch or go multiple days without working out? How can I be a healthy person if I’m continuing to gain weight without doing anything to stop it? If I’m not a healthy or thin person, WHO AM I?
It felt like a total identity crisis, and it made committing to recovery really scary.
I realized that moving forward in recovery was going to mean examining my core values and re-evaluating what makes up my identity outside of health and my ED. But it also meant redefining what health really means.
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of health is “the condition of being sound in body, mind, and spirit.” Health is also defined as “a condition in which someone or something is thriving or doing well.” There are a few other definitions listed, but not one of them mentions anything about diet, nutrition or exercise.
Because the truth is, health is holistic. It involves the mind, body, and the spirit, and not one of these is more important than the others. True health is about balance; it’s about listening to your body and honoring your physical, emotional and spiritual needs. The things we think and say to ourselves are just as important to our health as the foods we feed our bodies.
I look at myself now compared to where I was several months/years earlier, and it seems crazy that I ever thought the years of chronic dieting, obsessive exercise, shaming, and refusal to accept my body size were healthy. The way I had been treating my body was harmful, dangerous, and abusive. Not words I’d typically use to describe the concept of health.
And, as it turns out, recovery didn’t mean I had to lose the piece of me that identifies as healthy. It just meant that I needed to shift my perspective and start to view health as the holistic, flexible concept that it is. I do eat a lot of nutritious foods that are going to fuel my body, but I also eat things like donuts or chips when I crave them. Eating pizza for dinner doesn’t negate the salad I had for lunch, and it’s not something that I have to punish myself for later. Our bodies are built to get pleasure from foods that we enjoy, because we are supposed to be eating those foods. Honoring our bodies’ cravings is healthy.
Recovery is a process, and my relationship with food still isn’t perfect. I’m still learning to listen to what my body needs, and I’m still trying to get back in touch with hunger cues that have become muted by years of diets and restriction. There are still days when I do feel guilt around food, and I have to remind myself that it’s okay to honor my cravings or eat foods that I enjoy. I am a healthy person, and being healthy means treating myself with kindness and respect.
The bottom line is that health isn’t black and white. Despite what diet culture tells us, health is going to look different for everybody, and is it going to look different for you throughout different stages of your life. Learn to trust and listen to your body; it knows what you need better than any diet book, website, or nutrition “expert” possibly can.
If anyone reading has also had similar experiences with shifting your own definition of health in recovery, I would love to hear about it in the comments below! I think it’s always helpful to hear about others’ experiences in recovery.
Thank you for reading!