by Sara Campolonghi
The prevalent approach in Western countries towards health is generally based on symptom care rather than on health prevention and promotion.
Usually we begin to deal with our health when there is something wrong with it, instead of taking care of it in advance, through conscious daily choices about food, movement, sleep, stress management, and so on: in short, our everyday lifestyle. Commonly we prioritise other duties and interests ahead of a focus on healthy lifestyle throughout our younger years and address health concerns when they arise later in life.
This kind of approach, focussing on symptoms, makes it necessary to look for immediate and fast solutions once the problem arises, without worrying about the reason for it, and without a more comprehensive view and a long-term management of the problem.
Just to give you a couple of examples: keeping an incorrect posture at work, never exercising, or eating too many preserved and processed foods, can cause, among other things, headaches. BUT, instead of changing posture, starting to do some yoga classes, or eating more fresh and whole foods and avoiding bad wine, if I have a headache I will probably take a tablet to address it. Easy! Or, let’s say I do not drink enough water, I smoke often and I do not eat enough healthy foods, so my skin is dry, opaque and wrinkled. Instead of drinking more, quitting smoking and eating more vegetables and nuts, I will probably buy an expensive face cream. Much easier!
This approach applies perfectly to weight management and diet as well, but with even more complex facets. The weight gain which leads to overweight and obesity, as well as other eating related issues, develop gradually over years through every daily lifestyle choice, every repeated unconscious behaviour we put in place, and many other factors we don’t notice or overlook, which become consolidated habits, routines, needs and preferences, and which also bring slow and imperceptible changes in the body and the brain.
But at some point, after years of this lifestyle, we realize that we can no longer keep going that way, because the clothes are no longer fitting, we feel often tired and off, or we have constant issues like reflux or constipation, SO we immediately look for a fast solution, the panacea for all corporate ills, that can make everything disappear in a moment, no matter the process that has led to that condition over time. A magic pill, a magic diet, or the super-food of the week.
The point is that a strict diet certainly can make you lose a lot of weight in the short run, but it will bring more weight in the medium-long term because it will reduce variety, it will make you feel hungry and trigger your desire for ‘prohibited’ food. Adverts say super-foods are full of benefits, and this can be true, but no one alone is resolute or immediate if anything else changes. Only making gradual modifications in the wider overall picture of your practices will make you able to achieve and manage wellbeing without effort.
For instance, instead of cutting out all carbs or over-eating chia seeds, try to increase variety and include some healthy foods gradually in your meals every day, such as vegetables and whole grains; chose stairs instead of the elevator more often, or walk the dog a few times more over the week. At the same time, just begin to reduce counterproductive and harmful practices step by step, for instance putting two tea spoons of sugar in the coffee instead of three for two weeks until you are used to it, replace snacks and junk foods with fruits and nuts, reduce screen time, etc. In the medium term you will gradually and naturally start to feel the benefits of these small changes, and they will allow you to keep going on this track without a lot of effort. Your mood will change, and your energy will increase.
Let’s stop believing in magic, and take a more proactive approach. Our health is in our hands, much more than we realise! With what we have found so far about nutrition and mental health, we believe this is a particularly important approach for both your physical health and mental health.
Sara is a PhD candidate with the Food and Mood Centre and a qualified Health Psychologist and Nutritional Therapist. You can read more about her work here.