I’ve known for a while that one of my posts from 2016 was consistently my top visited post. This surprised me, but I didn’t give a lot of thought to it. Then for fun I googled the words “optimal health” and, what do you know, this 2016 post showed up on the first page of the Google search results. No wonder it’s so popular.

But there’s a problem there…I don’t 100 percent agree with what I wrote almost five years ago. There was a lot I didn’t say that I would definitely say now. So now I’m going to say it.

The backstory

The origin story of that post was that I was explaining what I meant by what was my website tagline at that time (I changed that tagline to “Nourishing Mind, Body and Soul” shortly after I wrote that post). At the time, my tagline included the words “optimal health,” and I was answering the question, “What is optimal health, exactly?”

I started by invoking the World Health Organization, or rather the preamble to its constitution, which says: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

I love that definition, largely because it includes mental and social well-being. But in my original post, even though I pointed out that it can be hard for some people to get to a place of “complete physical, mental and social well-being,” I otherwise kind of ignored the “mental” and “social” parts. That was a huge oversight, and honestly reflective of where I was in my personal and professional journey away from diet culture.

I’ve culled or edited many posts in my archives that smacked of diet mindset (because now that I know better, I strive to do better). This was often a quiet process, but because this post was so popular, I wanted to be more obvious about how my thinking and understanding of the nature of health had changed.

Expanding that definition

In my original post did point out that optimal health is personal, and depends on where you’ve been healthwise, and where you are today. OK, that’s all good. For example, optimal health for a college athlete is going to look very different than it is for a 60-something woman with diabetes and high blood pressure, or [NEW!] someone who is not neurotypical or able-bodied. That said, two three things are universal:

  1. Optimal health is about being as healthy as only you can be when adopting behaviors and forming habits that are sustainable.
  2. Optimal health is helped by eating nutritiously and moving your body regularly in ways that are appropriate for your fitness level…
  3. [NEW!] …but there are many other facets to health, including access to healthcare, social connection, having basic needs met (which requires adequate employment or assistance) and feeling safe in your body, home and neighborhood.
So how can you reach optimal health if you…

…have a chronic health condition? There’s no cure for most chronic health conditions. Diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and asthma are a few examples. That doesn’t mean you can’t manage these conditions, and managing them reduces your risk of serious complications. Once the horse is out of the barn, so to speak, and it’s too late for prevention, a managed condition puts you in a much better health position than unmanaged. [Note: my original post used the word “control” instead of “manage,” but really, our bodies aren’t something to control. The word “support” is even better, but “manage” is reasonable when talking about dealing with an existing physical or mental health condition.]

…are at high risk of developing a chronic health condition? Are your health habits not as strong as they could be? Is your doctor warning you that, your blood sugar, or maybe your blood pressure, is a little too high? Believe it or not, you are in a powerful position. If you change your habits now, odds are good that you can move yourself into a healthier place—perhaps without needing medication. An ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure. [Note: All this is true, but there is also no shame to turning to medications.]

…have so-so health habits, but seem to be “getting by”? As years of poor nutrition, lack of activity, chronic stress and so-so sleep habits stack up, you are allowing the kind of slow, steady damage to your body that sets the stage for disease. Don’t wait until you receive news you don’t want to hear from your doctor. Make changes now that will help you feel better and more energetic every day while protecting your future health. [Note: All of this is true if maintaining health is important to you, and if you don’t feel great in your day-to-day life and want to feel better.]

…currently enjoy “good health” and have health-supporting habits? If your habits are working for you, keep them up, but watch for signs you’re in a rut, or that a habit that worked for you in the past doesn’t work as well today. Ask yourself if your fitness routine is well-rounded — would adding strength training, stretching or balance exercises enhance your well-being? Mix up your meals by playing with new-to-you whole grains, maybe try more meatless meals, or consider experimenting with cooking some dishes from different cultures.

[NEW!] Health is not a moral imperative

If you value your health, you’re not alone. I do, too, and so do many people. But if health is not someone’s value, or at least not a high enough value to make “working on” or “pursuing” health a priority, that is their right, and I will go to the mat on that. Health, and the pursuit of health, is not a moral imperative. When we value health, it’s easy to think that everyone else does, too, or at least should.

But we can’t walk in someone else’s shoes. Maybe someone is overwhelmed by other obligations in their lives (working more than one job, caregiving, etc.). Maybe they are grappling with anxiety or depression and trying to tend to their mental health means focusing on physical health just isn’t going to happen. Maybe they derive great joy from expressing their creativity by creating art, music or writing and devoting significant chunks of time to “health” isn’t what feeds their soul. If they are at peace with their choices, who are we to try to shame or force them to do otherwise?

The bottom line

[Mostly new content] Nutrition and exercise plays a role in many, many, many health conditions, especially the ones we all really want to avoid like heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. Eating a not-very-nutritious diet and spending a lot of time being sedentary may not seem to matter when we’re young adults, but it might matter as we get older (part of this depends on genetics). This is true regardless of what you weigh — I point this out because our culture reinforces the idea that “thin is healthy.”

I have witnessed how this can lead some people who are genetically predisposed to be thin to ignore nutrition and regular movement because they think it’s unnecessary. The most blatant example of this was when in the space of one week (!) I had two new clients — both women, both thin, both in their 60s — who were blindsided when their doctor told them they had pre-diabetes. (One of the women was even teetering on the cusp of full-on type 2 diabetes.) The words that came out of their mouths were almost identical, more or less “I’ve never worried about exercising or eating right…because I didn’t ‘have to’.”

Even if you “get away” with unhealthy habits, you might not feel your best every day (which you may not even notice, because it’s become your “normal”). If you suspect this is true, and want to make some changes, do it from a mindset of self-care, not self-control. Self-care isn’t all about bubble baths — it’s about taking care of yourself in fundamental ways, for yourself and for the people who care about you. This includes tending not just to physical health, but to mental and social aspects of health, too. Maybe you have been dealing with low-level anxiety or depression forever, and now’s the time to seek some help.

  • Maybe you have unresolved trauma from childhood that you feel ready to start unpacking (again, with professional help).
  • Maybe you need to feel more connected to others, either existing friends/family or by making new connections.
  • Maybe you have unmet needs for creativity or pleasure, perhaps because you set those needs aside for years or decades while focusing on career and family.

Again, health is personal, and individual, and you get to define it for yourself!

Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!