What Is Healthy, Anyway?

There are as many ways to a healthy life as there are people striving for one
BY Jennifer Margulis TIMEApril 20, 2022 PRINT

Global interest in health has never been more pronounced than it is today. In much of America, and throughout the industrialized world, people are living in fear of getting sick—not just with COVID-19, but also with cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and more.

At the same time, the majority of us suffer from significant health problems. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6 out of 10 adults in the United States have a chronic disease and 4 out of 10 have two or more. Indeed, like the title of the 2011 documentary directed by Joe Cross, many Americans are “Fat, Sick, & Nearly Dead.” What’s more, there is a lot of confusion about what it really means to be healthy.

Through most of human history, malnutrition, disease, and violence were the main overwhelming health problems, and until the 20th century, the majority of humans died from one of these problems. In 1900, the average life expectancy in America was about 47 years. Some people still lived to a ripe old age. But at the turn of the 20th century—lacking proper hygiene, good nutrition, and antibiotics—more than 10% of children died before they reached 5 years of age.

The health landscape today is very different, both in America and around the world. In developed countries, access to high-quality food, a better understanding of public hygiene, advancements in lifesaving emergency medicine, and peace have helped more people survive and thrive well into old age.

Nevertheless, modern industrialized nations now face a slew of health challenges. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, severe allergies, and extreme anxiety are among the major health issues plaguing us today. In the developed world, even though child survival rates are much higher than they used to be and people are living into their seventies or longer, other health-compromising problems, including drug and alcohol addiction, self-harm, and suicidal ideation, have emerged. Why is this? Why aren’t we thriving?

Impediments to Good Health

The Cleveland Clinic’s 2017 “Heart Healthy” survey found that 68% of Americans were worried about dying from heart disease. Despite this, some 62% of those surveyed did not know what their blood pressure was, and only 18% knew their body mass index.

While the Cleveland Clinic only surveyed 1,002 adults (485 men and 517 women), it provides a helpful snapshot of America’s health knowledge. Most people are aware of health problems, both personal and societal, and want to be healthier. But for many, the goal of vibrant good health still evades them. For others, the absence of major illness leads them to think they are healthy, even when they are not. Many know they are in danger from obesity and diabetes or pre-diabetes, but they cannot manage to make the radical changes to their diets and lifestyles that will improve or even reverse their chronic health challenges.

Pressure to Eat Poorly

There are systemic reasons why individuals struggle with lifestyle upgrades. Cheap “convenience” foods are readily available and often cause poor people to struggle with obesity—instead of starve as they would have in previous centuries.

According to a 2021 report by the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, in 2019, fast-food restaurants spent $5 billion on advertising, an increase of over 9% from just five years earlier. Whereas direct marketing to children was once carefully regulated in the United States, Ronald Reagan deregulated advertising in the 1980s, allowing companies to market directly to preschoolers, school-aged children, and teens.

The report asserts that “Frequent and widespread exposure to food marketing increases young people’s preferences, purchase requests, attitudes, and consumption of the primarily nutrient-poor, energy-dense products promoted.” This problem disproportionately affects Black and Hispanic children.

“Big Food” marketing campaigns are so effective that many believe they are eating well when they are not. Years ago, I spoke with Kristen Boyle, a Denver mom diagnosed with gestational diabetes during her first pregnancy. Instead of being advised to avoid processed foods, eat whole, fresh vegetables and fruits, and add high-quality protein and healthy fats to her diet, a nutritionist advised Boyle to eat granola bars—notorious for being marketed as healthy when they are anything but—and to take glucose pills if her blood sugar got too low.

Expending Energy to Eat

Throughout history, humans could not secure food without labor. Hunting for meat, fish, and fowl took a great deal of energy, as did agriculture and gathering various edible plants. But once the fundamental relationship between hard physical labor and acquiring food was broken, humans became increasingly sedentary.

Lack of physical exercise as well as limited time outdoors, which translates into much less sun exposure, are among the root causes of chronic disease and poor health, which industrialized countries are facing at epidemic levels.

Do Fad Diets Help?

Ever since public health officials noticed the enormous toll that chronic health problems—especially diabetes, obesity, and heart disease—take on the public, the question has been what to do about it. One approach has been fad diets, touted by doctors or nutritionists—some of whom have become fabulously wealthy by selling their diet books and programs.

In the 1960s, cardiologist Robert C. Atkins proposed that his Atkins diet, which emphasizes protein and fat, could fix America’s broken health. Atkins, who ushered in a lasting low-carb craze, claimed that his diet would help people lose weight and keep it off, boost energy, and reduce high blood pressure.

A slew of diets are currently in vogue, including the Paleo diet, which advocates eating like a hunter-gatherer, consuming lots of meat and no grains; the ketogenic diet that promises its adherents that they will burn fat by eating fat instead of carbs; and the Whole30 program, which is based on eliminating potentially problematic foods and then reintroducing them one at a time to see which are causing issues.

One diet that enjoys more mainstream medical approval than most is the Mediterranean diet, which recommends eating meals rich in plants, whole grains, and olive oil.

Diets themselves aren’t new: Ancient Greek medicine was largely based on diet and exercise. Around 200 CE, Galen, one of the most famous physicians of the ancient world, wrote a book, “On the Power of Foods,” complete with culinary advice and recipes.

Traditional Chinese medicine prescribes a complex system of balancing foods in the diet—counterbalancing cool foods with those that warm you up, balancing different flavors like salty and sweet, and adjusting them all to the season and the individual’s constitution. Chinese medical practitioners also emphasize the importance of not overeating. Chinese ideas of health intrinsically involve movement, such as the traditional practice of tai chi, which both strengthens the body and calms the mind.

With so much disagreement and so many options, how can we know if these diets and eating practices help promote lifelong good health and vitality? There is plenty of disagreement among medical doctors and alternative practitioners who focus on nutrition. And the truth is, every human is different. One way of eating that works perfectly for one person may be a disaster for someone else.

That said, certain food habits seem to promote health and longevity without negative side effects. If you want to be healthier, best eating practices include: eliminating all refined sugar; cutting out junk food and other highly processed foods, which are often loaded with artificial sweeteners, food dyes, mold inhibitors, and toxic chemicals; eating food in as close to its natural state as possible; eating lots of health-giving plants; and converting a diet of conventionally grown foods and industrially raised meats to a diet of organically grown foods and, if you choose to eat meat, pasture-raised, grass-fed, grass-finished meats.

Movement, Food, and Faith

For a long time, people have been thinking about the importance of diet and exercise to lasting good health and trying out different diets and exercise routines, but there doesn’t seem to be one perfect way to eat or to exercise. Exercise is just as debated an issue as diet. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) has been gaining traction among health advocates in the 21st century, though cardiovascular activities like running, rowing, and spin classes are also popular, and CrossFit gyms have proliferated.

Some experts recommend that instead of doing HIIT, people can benefit from MISS (moderate-intensity steady-state exercise—challenging but manageable exercise that can be sustained for longer than HIIT) and LISS (low-intensity steady-state exercise, such as walking).

According to some longevity researchers, however, going to the gym or having an exercise routine does not matter. Dan Buettner, author of “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who Have Lived the Longest,” argues that being active throughout the day is what matters most. Buettner recommends making simple changes that keep you moving: taking the stairs instead of the elevator; commuting by foot or pedal power instead of by car; getting up to change the channels on the television instead of using a remote.

Being active throughout the day and eating fresh, wholesome foods have positive effects on your mental health as well as on your physical well-being; mental and physical health go hand in glove. The deleterious effects of psychological stress on our physical health are well known, and one cannot be physically healthy if one is in mental distress. The Romans’ ideal of health was “mens sana in corpore sano”—a sound mind in a sound body.

Practices that contribute to positive mental health include meditation, prayer, and other forms of spiritual worship, counseling, spending time in nature, playing music, doing art, and being in healthy friendships and loving relationships. According to Buettner, belonging to a faith-based community, regardless of denomination, adds four to 14 years to life expectancy.

Health RX: Perhaps There’s No Perfect Prescription

The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) is well known for his quirky health habits. Kant got up at 5 a.m. every morning, ate only one meal a day, and went for a long walk at the same time every day. Townspeople joked that they could set their clocks by when Kant walked by. Kant believed sweating was very bad for one’s health, so he walked sedately, constantly stopping to cool down to make sure he never broke a sweat. He must have been on to something: At a time when the life expectancy was under 40 years, although Kant suffered from a deformed chest and weak health throughout his life, he still lived to 79—perhaps because of his quirky ideas, or perhaps in spite of them.

In the big picture, there isn’t any specific, perfect prescription for being healthy. Enjoy your life, be kind to yourself and to others, express gratitude, get enough sleep, eat well, use your body, and manage your stress levels in the ways that work best for you.

This article was first published on Radiant Life Magazine.

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning journalist and author of “Your Baby, Your Way: Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions for a Happier, Healthier Family.” A Fulbright awardee and mother of four, she has worked on a child survival campaign in West Africa, advocated for an end to child slavery in Pakistan on prime-time TV in France, and taught post-colonial literature to non-traditional students in inner-city Atlanta. Learn more about her at
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