From sedentary jobs to diet culture, modern society often makes maintaining healthful habits the path of most resistance. Here's how to get past the challenges — and onto a more sustainable path.
Do you value your health? Odds are you do, even if you only think about it when something goes wrong. While some aspects of health are within our control — we can choose not to smoke, eat nutritious food and get regular physical activity — other factors, such as genetics and early life experiences, are not. We don’t get to choose our ancestors or the conditions we were born into. And then there’s the society we live in, which at times can get in the way of our health and well-being. Here are three societal factors I call the “anti-wellness” trifecta — and an antidote:
The modern food supply
Today, many people eat few nutrient-rich foods and more highly processed foods low in nutrients but high in sugar, salt and fat. Dealing with a sweet tooth or a particular yen for salty, fatty flavors becomes more challenging when they are so readily available in more intense artificial forms than what we find in whole or minimally processed foods. We also used to put more time and effort into making or acquiring food — whether by choice or necessity — but today, ready-to-eat foods are available 24/7. This makes it easier to eat based on impulse and harder to tune into our bodies’ natural hunger and fullness cues, which adjust to the day-to-day fluctuations in our calorie needs.
The changing physical nature of work and home
Our jobs often keep us sedentary, and many neighborhoods and communities are constructed in a way that doesn’t encourage daily walking. On top of that, modern society encourages constant busyness — even when we’re “relaxing.” We eat lunch at our desks while catching up on email, then find it hard to relax with a movie at home without simultaneously checking email or social media on our phones. This makes it hard to tap into what we really need to nourish and recharge — whether it be food, sleep, breathing space or connecting with friends and family. That makes us more likely to turn to food to meet emotional needs.
The perpetuation of a diet mentality
Whether you use the word “diet” or newer euphemisms like “wellness plan” or “lifestyle changes,” the message that weight control is the primary reason to make nutrition and behaviors changes is ever-present in most sectors of society — friends, family, the media, health care, our own heads — despite mounting evidence that the intentional pursuit of weight loss often backfires.
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The idea that with enough hard work and willpower (that elusive and ephemeral beast) that we can finally lose weight for good feeds a cycle of loss-regain-guilt-repeat. Along the way, feelings of failure increase, and self-image decreases. This makes it harder to adopt enjoyable — and therefore sustainable — ways of eating, moving and living that also happen to make us healthier. If you hate your body, why would you want to take care of it?
The good news is that you can take steps to circumvent society’s tendency to make the healthier choice the more difficult choice. Start with thoughtful, mindful choices about food and physical activity that help you feel more vibrant in the short term, while protecting or improving your health in the long-term. Over time, these choices can turn into habits that you can easily maintain — or happily return to if you go off-course. And don’t forget that true wellness means also means caring for yourself with adequate sleep and downtime, balanced by hobbies or activities that are fully engaging — not just time-killing