Diet and Nutrition

A Picture of Health

What does “healthy” look like to you?

There’s a thousand answers to that question depending on who you ask, for example someone who has always battled their weight might picture “healthy” as being thinner. Someone with a health complication might think that “healthy” looks like not having to take any medications.

You get the point. We’re all different and we all have various things that play in to our overall picture of what’s healthy, but when we boil it down to the essential elements of what goes in to creating that picture, it’s the same for almost everyone: being in good physical condition, properly nourishing ourselves and having a positive mental state.

A lot of people will argue and say those elements are easier said than achieved, but I have to disagree. I think it’s harder to go through life tired, downtrodden, uncomfortable in your own body and being chronically stressed out, which is what the majority of people in our society claim to suffer from.

These ailments exist partially because some essential elements of health are being skipped over entirely, but more than anything, these elements are being handled in the wrong way (i.e. unrealistic body expectations, a hard-to-navigate food system and feelings of failure).

So if you’ve been feeling anything like what I described above, hopefully this post sheds some light on why your picture of health isn’t coming in to focus as well as what needs to change to make it happen:

 Working Out for Function

If you go type “fitness motivation” in to the search bar on Pinterest you’ll find enough content to keep your mood fluctuating for hours (also, please don’t go do that, it’s a black hole).

One pin says “love your curves” and “no thigh gap, no problem.” Other pins say “be stronger than your excuses” and “do it for the body you’ve always wanted.” A lot of these words also happen to be transposed over images of fitness models, who are obviously perfect pictures of health (ahem…sarcasm). It’s easy to see why we have such heated debates about what healthy is supposed to look like.

Women get slammed for being too skinny and others get judged for being overweight. No matter if someone views us as skinny or fat, some people are going to think we’re beautiful and some are going to think we’re ugly.

As said by one very body-confident woman, Dita Von Teese, “You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there’s still going to be somebody who hates peaches.”

So given what you’ve read so far under this section we can all agree that we can’t win when it comes to the looks department, right? So why are we still tying our health and fitness goals to appearances?

Now before this gets misconstrued, let me expand just a touch.

You know what it takes to make you feel beautiful, and being comfortable in your own skin is a HUGE motivator for many people trying to create a healthier lifestyle for themselves, but if you make your appearance the main focus of taking control of your physical health you will fail.

You will fail because the healthiest version of your body will look different than someone else’s healthy body and if you’re aiming for a particular pants size or waist measurement, you’re going to be disappointed. Why? Because you may think a size 4 is your “I’m going to look so hot” dress size, when in reality your size 6 or 8 is actually your best picture of health.

So what should we use to measure physical fitness if we’re not basing it off the reflection in the mirror?

  • Can you walk up a flight of stairs without getting winded? Or without using the hand rail to support yourself?
  • Are you exhausted after spending just a couple of hours out walking around when you’re running errands or sightseeing?
  • Can you use your body’s full range of motion?
  • How many medications are you on for ailments that could be resolved with a lifestyle change?

Obviously those questions are not the end-all, be-all for determining someone who is healthy from someone who isn’t, but notice how those questions relate to your ability to function throughout your day, not your ability to fit your leg through a pair of jeans.

Once we start focusing on physical fitness for function, we’ll see a permanent shift in our overall health and physical fitness because that shift will be sustainable. It will be sustainable because the motives will be tied to more meaningful and realistic things such as not being too exhausted to play with our kids, or being capable of seeing places we’ve always wanted to explore because we can walk all day and not be in pain.

These functional fitness goals are tangible, our appearance goals are not. We don’t know what our healthiest versions of ourselves is going to look like until we achieve it, and I promise you, the positive physical attributes will come on their own if you’re doing it right.

That’s why we have to detach from the appearances and focus on the main drivers. That’s the kind of fitness motivation that will keep you lacing up your shoes and breaking a sweat day after day and year after year.


 Shopping and Eating for Survival

Speaking of focusing on meaningful and realistic forms of motivation, here’s one for you:

“This is the first generation of American children expected to live shorter lives than their parents.”

This isn’t meant to be a scare tactic, it’s simply the truth. And as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to the circle of life, parents aren’t supposed to hold funerals for their children. And I’d be willing to bet that you agree.

So why, as a nation, are we continuing to eat food that is killing us?

It may be that we simply don’t care enough to change our diets, or it might be due to the fact that our country’s food system and government agencies surrounding it have led the masses in to food addiction.

Between marketing, food engineering, and genetically modifying, we have created a food system that captures kids in to this deadly diet before they can even speak.

What does that mean? It means there are 600,000 food items in America. Eighty percent of them have added sugar. Some of those items also include infant formula.

Of course, we have a choice in what we put in to our mouths and on to our family’s table. Most people know that every time you drink a soda you’re drinking pure sugar, and that every time you eat something from McDonald’s your body is incurring damage. We know this because at this point it’s obvious.

Let’s not blame all our unhealthy eating habits on the food industry, after all, there’s something to be said about common sense. However, we have also been horribly misled as to what foods are actually healthy.

We’ve been counseled to eat the lower-fat version of something, but when you take away the fat, many products don’t taste good, and the food industry knows that. So they have to add something else so you still like it and buy it, and that something else is sugar.

The food industry gets to coax you into believing you made the healthier choice by picking something that says “low-fat” or “less calories,” when in reality, the food you’re eating is just as bad if not worse.

The only way we can truly know if we’re eating healthfully anymore is to do our research because a lot of what you see at face value through advertising and marketing is lying to you.

We have to get informed on what we should be eating to properly nourish and fuel our bodies, and we have to become hunters and gatherers when we shop for food. Learn the language of nutrition labels and then read them when you go to the store.

Some good grocery store survival guidelines:

  • Don’t buy foods that don’t go bad quickly. That means it’s not a real food.
  • Don’t buy foods with tons of ingredients you can’t pronounce. If you can’t picture that ingredient it’s original state, that ingredient is not food.
  • Don’t buy food with added sugar. Look at the ingredient list to see if sugar is one of the first five ingredients. If sugar is one of those ingredients that means that product is made mostly of sugar. Sugar can also be called up to over 250 other names, a general rule is that a word that ends in -ose is sugar. For example: sucrose, maltose, dextrose, galactose. There’s also cane sugar, beet sugar and organic raw sugar. It doesn’t matter if the sugar sounds healthier, sugar is sugar.
  • Cook for yourself, and cook with more foods that don’t have barcodes (you’ll rarely see barcodes in the produce section).
  • Shop around the perimeters of the store, that’s where the real food is kept, but still read labels, additives are now more prevalent than ever in areas you thought were healthy, such as yogurt.
  • The less packaging something has, the healthier it is.

If you’re really looking to overhaul your diet, the best thing you could do would be to shop at a farmer’s market that has guaranteed fresh and local fruits, vegetables and meats. However, this kind of shopping isn’t budget-friendly for everyone.

And that’s part of the problem. Processed foods are cheaper, and with many Americans living on tight incomes, healthy and whole foods are commonly perceived as financially unattainable by a good percentage of our population.

Unfortunately, this is a problem that will persist for many years to come, but if enough people educate themselves on proper nutrition and start shifting their buying habits toward whole foods we will see a faster change in the food industry.

Where the majority of the market spends their money is what will get the most focus and attention of industry leaders. If this money moves away from the middle of the grocery store and people start demanding better access to whole and local foods, not only will our society become healthier as a whole, but finding a plethora of healthy foods that are truthfully represented won’t seem to be such a daunting task.


 Strengthening Our Mentalities

As you’ve probably already figured out, life is messy.

So much of what we aim to do in life is in the effort of getting something perfect, or not being perceived as a failure. And when it comes to our health, we need to aim for progress, not perfection.

The reason so many of us fall off the wellness wagon time and time again is because we strive to do a complete health overhaul that ends up being too much too soon.

A lifetime of unhealthy habits can’t be turned around with one January 1st or one particular Monday. Working toward our best picture of health means creating smaller goals that will inevitably lead to a changed lifestyle and better overall picture of health for ourselves.

Think of it this way, we don’t throw kindergardeners in to high school or high schoolers in to top-level career positions. That’s because we need building blocks, we have to learn what works and what doesn’t, and continue to grow from there.

While some people operate best with an “all or nothing” approach, the majority of us need to inch our way in to better habits to make them last. However, making your healthy lifestyle changes permanent also means being mentally strong.

Every time you indulge it is not a failure, but a choice you made. That choice may have been calculated, in which case, enjoy! But if that indulgence was really you just giving in to temptation, you have to evaluate those weaknesses and build up defense mechanisms around them, not say, “well I’m already this far deep, I ate a whole pint of Ben and Jerry’s, so what’s a few Pringles and a Coke going to do?” or “Well, the last time I worked out was six months ago, so what’s waiting ’til next Monday going to hurt?”

That’s what I call the “screw it” mentality, and the “screw it” mentality is a weak one.

Strengthening your mentality means adopting the “sphere of influence” approach to thinking. When you think in the realm of a “sphere of influence” you ask yourself, “how can I improve the situation I’m facing?” and “What can I affect, and how can I make it work?”

By answering these questions and subsequently building up your defenses, you’ll gradually improve your picture of health to include long-lasting habits in the areas of physical fitness, proper nutrition and a positive attitude.


To tie it all together we have to remember life is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

Continually working on the essential elements of health over the course of your life will not only leave you with joy and no regrets, it will also ensure that your marathon doesn’t end earlier than it should.

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Elle Michels

Elle Michels

Based in Washington, D.C., Elle Michels is a contributing writer to