Conventional Wisdom: How Your “Healthy” Habits May Be Harming Your Health
There are people in the world who don’t care about their health or what they put in their bodies. That’s fine, and that will always be the case; anyone is welcome to choose what they want to be apathetic about. What makes me really sad, however, is seeing the other type of people: the people who really care, who want to be healthy, and yet can’t seem to make it happen. I spent many years of my life like that: doing most of what my doctor and my health teacher were telling me to do, with no effect. There were many reasons for this, including a disordered and emotional relationship with food, but even when I started doing EVERYTHING “right,” I still wasn’t getting healthy.
This isn’t just about my experience, though. Speaking with my friends and acquaintances I see frequent examples of people doing what they have been told is “healthy” and not seeing any resulting changes in their overall health. I attribute this primarily to the fact that there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to a healthy lifestyle but that most people don’t know what the other options are: it’s what conventional wisdom says or nothing. The following, then, is a list of four “healthy habits” that I have found are the most commonly misunderstood or are simply wrong. This is not to say that all of these habits are wrong for all people: only that if your efforts to get healthy are failing or coming up short, these may be good places to start tweaking. Most of these are habits with which I have personal experience and which I have seen tremendous benefit in changing.
Eating “low-fat,” “low-calorie” foods: Conventional wisdom tells us that in order to lose weight and/or get healthy, it is necessary to eat fewer calories and less fat. However valid or invalid this advice is can be argued at another time; what is important about this recommendation is that it has, over the course of the last few decades, led to an explosion of the “low-fat” “low-cal” food production market. Grocery stores have been flooded with low-fat cheeses and reduced-calorie fruit juice drinks, and people will choose those products over their higher-calorie, higher-fat alternatives because they are wanting to make healthy choices. In order to make those products lower fat, however, the food production companies have to highly process those foods: replacing fats with artificial and processed foods whose direct effects on the human body are unclear.
This same problem applies to other dietary recommendations like “low-carb,” “organic” and, in the last few years, “gluten-free.” As companies realize the marketing potential of any new health craze, they seek to exploit it by putting health labels on processed foods. These processed foods, however — no matter what their labels — have been linked to a multitude of health issues including fat loss resistance.
Alternatives: The primary alternative to this habit is JUST EAT REAL FOOD. No matter what dietary philosophy you ascribe to, eating real food as opposed to processed will almost definitely improve your health since your body is designed to process and absorb real food, not the stuff created in a factory.
Running (or other moderate-to-high-intensity cardio): To anyone who regularly participates in long distance or long duration cardiovascular activity, the suggestion that running might be harmful to one’s health seems blasphemous. Running, in particular, has a sort of cult-like status in North American society: people who run get competitive and almost monomaniacal about their chosen form of exercise (just walk into The Running Room sometime and you’ll see what I mean). It seems to be frequently assumed that those who run marathons are at the peak of health. This assumption, however, is often incorrect.
Cardiovascular activity puts a lot of stress on the body. This stress can be beneficial sometimes in short durations (all exercise is a stressor), but hours and hours of this stress each week can be harmful to the body, especially in the long term. Evolutionarily, the human body has been built to run in some situations (while hunting or outrunning a predator, for instance); however, those situations would historically have been occasional, very high stress situations in which the most important thing for the body would be to prioritize running. In that moment, other bodily functions, such as good digestion, would not have been nearly as important. Taking a cue from this evolutionary model, it seems unlikely that most people’s bodies have adapted to run long distances without sacrificing some other elements of health. So, if you are on the treadmill for an hour a day or frequently training for marathons or 10K races, it is possible that you are damaging other aspects of your health without meaning to.
To read more about this, I recommend looking at Mark’s Daily Apple: Mark Sisson, a former professional marathoner, has written extensively about the dangers of what he calls “chronic cardio.” Also, John Kiefer has written an excellent article about the link between running (specifically in women) and thyroid health; the article has 80 scientific references, if you’re interested in doing even more in-depth research.
Alternatives: If you really love running (or other cardio activities), ask yourself if you are doing it for health or because it is your sport. If it is a sport to you, maybe you will decide that you are willing to sacrifice some element of health to improve your performance. If you are doing it to get healthy, however, (like I was) it might be a good idea to start reducing the cardio. Try walking, yoga, weightlifting, and/or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to see if those would work better for you.
Eating “healthy whole grains”: This is probably the “healthy habit” over which there has been the most debate in recent months and years. Books like Wheat Belly and Grain Brain are hitting the bestseller lists every week, and more and more people are beginning to try eliminating gluten and sometimes other grains from their diets. However, “healthy whole grains” is still a common term to hear thrown around and an especially common term to see on processed food products in the grocery store. Cereals full of sugar are marketed as healthy with the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s “Health Check” prominently displayed on the boxes. Fat, calories, and salt are all demonized in the grocery store, but sugar and grains (which are converted into sugar in the body) are encouraged as part of a “balanced diet.”
Alternatives: Instead of eating cereal and other grain products, opt for vegetables that will provide many more nutrients per calorie than “healthy whole grains”.
Not eating meat/Becoming vegetarian: Before you jump down my throat for including this item in my list, please hear me out. I am not saying that everyone has to eat meat. As I have said before, there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to diet, and probably there are some people who do better without meat. There are also those who, for moral, ethical, or religious reasons, have opted not to eat meat, regardless of any effects it may have on their health. What I am talking about here is the general assumption that seems to have permeated society that eating meat (or specifically red meat) is universally unhealthy. Off the top of my head, I can count at least six conversations I’ve had in the last two months with people who have proudly told me that they have dramatically reduced the amount of meat they are eating in order to “get healthy.”
There are several problems related to a refusal to eat meat, such as nutrient and protein deficiencies. Some people who are consciously aware of these potential deficiencies design their diets and supplement regimens to compensate. However, people who have a more anomalous and abstract idea about the health benefits of going meat-free often accidentally reduce meat without compensating with sufficient alternative protein sources or vitamins. This can inadvertently lead to many health issues related to nutrient deficiency.
The bigger issue with the assumption that meat-less diets are healthier than those containing animal protein is that people seem to take that to mean that anything vegetarian or vegan is automatically also healthier. This is similar thinking to the “low-fat,” “low-cal,” “gluten-free” processed foods discussed above: you can still easily find vegetarian junk food, and a junk food diet, no matter how much or how little meat it contains, will never be healthy.
Alternatives: If you do choose to eat little or no meat, I highly recommend taking a close look at what you are eating and trying to optimize it with real food, soaked and sprouted legumes and grains, and high-quality fats. Take a look at these useful recommendations based on the diets of traditional cultures. If, however, you find that your health is not optimal with so little meat, take a look at the articles assembled here to consider how meat (especially well-raised meat) can be successfully incorporated into a healthy diet.