Health- The New Religion

I despise healthism… which is strange for an ex-health nut who managed a health food co-operative and taught raw vegan cooking classes for several years. Let me tell you why the importance of being healthy in the modern age can be quite irritating and perhaps even…unhealthy.

What is healthism?

Healthism is the modern trend towards promoting personal responsibility for health, placing an increasing focus on individuals to create the perfect healthy body. Healthism represents virtuous living as a moral accomplishment and this trend has taken on some of the religious attitudes toward foods (e.g. the moral sin of gluttony).

Sounds like taking responsibility for your  health is a wonderful thing. Indeed, it is quite beneficial to “take care” of yourself by trying to eat nutritious foods, stay active, continuously educate yourself on the health consequences of various choices…. because the modern environment has made the “normal” lifestyle quite problematic (sedentary behavior, cheap junk food, and what not).

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The problem, in my opinion, is the fact that these personal decisions have increasingly become morally-laden decisions. It’s evident that the “health religion” is spreading through the fact that people make moral judgements about others’ worth based on what and how they eat (there is a number of studies showing that people view strangers who eat “healthily” as more virtuous, less likely to cheat, less lazy, and what not). Of course, moral judgments also are applied to the physical manifestations of presupposed internal qualities for those who are overweight (e.g. lack of self-control, greed).

On the other hand, our culture encourages the enjoyment of food- at parties, special occasions, when socializing.. You’re not “fun” if you’re too strict with yourself (surveys also show people perceive those who eat healthier (while more moral) as less interesting and nice to be around socially).

*** Photo on the right- Not only does it imply that your health is completely your responsibility (which is a bit of a privileged view, you might say, since not everyone has the opportunities to eat organic or exercise) but it is your moral responsibility to the whooole world.***

The rise of the “healthy eating agenda” has added a new complexity to being “good”. “Eating healthily” allows one to manifest what they do (either via one’s body or behaviors), which can result in either such feelings as superiority & self-satisfaction or guilt & shame for those who did not make the cut.

My frustration does not come from the general folks who try to make “good” decisions on a daily basis- folks that get salads on campus and make time for going to the gym.. after all, everyone wants to feel good and decrease their worries of future disease. The modern culture’s ideal citizen is an owner of a youthful, fit, slim body that gives you a premium in social relationships and on the job market. We can’t fight that people like attractive people. My frustration comes from extremists who, miserable in their pursuit of perfectionist ideas of health, think it is their business to comment on everyone’s actions and talk in a  morally-superior way. Uhh.h

Stress has many negative effects on health. A study by Rozin* discussed the US & French dilemma (the fact that the French eat more cholesterol and fat in general yet are healthier and slimmer than Americans) and the fact that an average American is more stressed about food decisions. Rozin’s hypothesis was that the worries about food had their own independent effect on the weight and health of people, as the French were more relaxed and “enjoyed” eating more.

I believe it is a good advice to “take it easy” in our pursuit of happiness. Since you can’t be “perfect” either way, you might as well not override the benefits of a healthier lifestyle with the negative effects of all the moral judgments and obsessing with portraying a successful lifestyle. Plus, nobody will want to hang out with you eventually* 🙂

* Disclosure: health and fitness are on my mind constantly (obviously, as I am also pursuing my PhD on the subject) and I have dealt with many extreme “health folks”(including myself!) that can really kill any enjoyment from trying to find moderation in life. Not being a “food police” person can be hard, especially when you are quite invested in the lifestyle you chose/think is best, but I believe is it a worthy pursuit! 

* Rozin, P., Fischler, C., Imada, S., Sarubin, A., & Wrzesniewski, A. (1999). Attitudes to food and the role of food in life in the USA, Japan, Flemish Belgium and France: Possible implications for the diet–health debate. Appetite33(2), 163-180.

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