Research shows that people who have four key healthy habits have the lowest risk of dying before their time, and that risk is the same regardless of body weight.
As much as we hear that America is a junk-food nation, many people do make eating healthfully a priority. Just look at the lines at Whole Foods, the crowds at Seattle farmers markets and the disproportionately high number of likes on healthy-food photos on Instagram.
When you believe in the power of good nutrition, it’s easy to also believe that you can disease-proof yourself if you are sufficiently dedicated to eating your broccoli. Now, there are many good reasons to eat broccoli. It’s delicious, especially roasted, and it’s full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients. However, eating broccoli every day isn’t going to turn you into a disease-free centenarian, even if you pair it with wild salmon and a salad made of goji and acai berries.
The idea that we can use diet and lifestyle to dodge all illness is appealing. The reality is that while eating well and maintaining other health-promoting habits reduces your risk of disease and untimely death, it can’t wipe away all risk. Genetics and social factors — income, living environment, relationships, stigma and oppression — also affect health.
It’s January, which means health-improvement thoughts often turn to weight-loss diets. That’s unfortunate, not just because 95 percent of diets fail, but because research shows that what we do is more important than what we weigh for improving our odds of living longer and better. The good news is that what you need to improve your health odds is less than what you might think.
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The four crucial habits are eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, exercising at least three times per week, drinking alcohol in moderation and not smoking. People who have all four habits have the lowest risk of dying before their time, and that risk is the same regardless of body weight. Similar research in the United Kingdom has found that having all four healthy habits may equal an extra 14 years of life.
Barring addiction or severe physical limitations, those four habits are achievable for most people without massive effort. No radical restrictive diets or obsessive fitness regimes needed. What then, to make of health-improvement “projects” that do include rigid diets and excessive exercise? It’s a side effect of healthism.
Healthism is the idea that we have a duty to be healthy, and that you can judge someone’s health based solely on their behavior or appearance. The kind of nutrition and physical activity that promotes good health and longevity is not necessarily the kind that will promote the type of extremely fit appearance seen on cover models of health and fitness magazines.
Beware the mental trap of, “The more I exercise and the more perfectly I eat, the healthier I’ll be and the longer I’ll live.” Too much of a good thing isn’t necessarily better.
Chasing impossible health ideals that are largely appearance-based can suck up time and mental energy that would benefit you more if used elsewhere. Even worse, there’s a dark side. Some of those super-fit models on magazine covers have eating disorders, and eating disorders can be fatal. Don’t judge a book by its cover.
What to do instead? Go for a walk. Or take a salsa-dance class. Or do some yoga. Or find an indoor pool and go for a swim. Then repeat. And why not visit a farmers market? Seattle has three open year round, including two on Sundays. Visit seattlefarmersmarkets.org for the specifics.