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How To Be Healthy When Everyone Around You Is Not

Shannon Harvey

I recently read a piece on the Guardian website by journalist Decca Aitkenhead who wrote about her endeavours to eat a plant-based diet. She wrote that her problem with being a vegan wasn’t the diet. It was the identity. “I worry about becoming that person who thinks what they put in their mouth is important enough to merit a significant share of their time and energy every day,” she wrote, adding that she felt that it's borderline narcissistic “to care that much about the purity of one’s digestive system,” and that she felt forced to adopt a new healthy diet because she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer.

It stuns me that at a time when there’s a two in three chance you’ll end up dying from a chronic disease and that many of these illnesses are all attributed to, or worsened by, our lifestyles, that deciding to eat well is something to be ashamed of.

But it’s true.

Because I have been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, I am vigilant about my health. As I wrote about in my blog post You Can’t Do It All (So Stop Worrying), I advocate the radical (but science-backed) idea that the key to good health is being diligent, committed and persevering. In a word, being conscientious. This means I’m the know-it-all reading the labels of food products to check the ingredients. I’m the kill-joy going to bed instead of watching the latest binge-worthy TV. I’m that hippie who responds to stressful periods by meditating even more than usual. I’m the dinner date going home to bed instead of hitting the dance floor.

But after being told that there was no known cause and no known cure for my illness, and having transitioned from feeling crippled with arthritis to having no symptoms of my illness, let me tell you, taking this approach works. It’s been 12 years since a doctor told me that he suspected I had lupus, and I’m happy to say that I don’t need any medication for my illness and I now feel the healthiest I’ve ever been in my life.

In an age when junk is called “party food,” when “if you snooze, you loose” is the mantra of those we revere, and when the ancient practices of mindfulness and meditation are considered “new age” hippie ju ju, sticking your head up and doing things differently can be really lonely. It’s difficult being healthy at the best of times, but it's even harder when your family, friends and colleagues are rolling their eyes, making snide comments, or deliberately trying to derail your efforts.

As I wrote in my recent blog post Viral Friendships, there’s now substantial evidence that the people around you can have a profound impact on your health and well-being. Not only can you “catch” emotions expressed by leaders, spouses, parents, siblings, colleagues, friends, and neighbours but you are also highly influenced by the people around you in many different aspects of your life. In one study, based on the records from the famous Framingham Heart Study, a three-decade-long analysis of medical records from a community in Massachusetts, researchers found that friends, and friends of friends, had similar levels of obesity. That is to say, if you have a friend who is obese, the chance that you are also obese increases by 45 percent. If a friend of a friend (two degrees of separation) is obese, your added risk of becoming obese is about 20 percent; and if a friend of a friend of a friend (three degrees) is obese, your risk is about 10 percent. Similar results have been found for smoking, depression, and happiness.

It is a very tough-minded, special person who can make a stand and be different. So, to those of you who are in the motivated minority, who are being branded as do-gooders and buzz-killers, I salute you and whole-heartedly support you. You are not on a one-way train to Dullsville. You are, in fact, a trail-blazer. I’ll take my new healthy glow over my old bleary eyes, short tempers, and upset stomachs any day.

For those of you who would like to join us in our quest for a better, healthier, happier way of living, here are ten ways to be healthy when the people around you are not.

1. Make It Personal

It’s hard to disparage someone who speaks from the heart about their very real and very personal reasons for being healthy.

2. Ask For Support

Even if others are not interested in joining you on your quest to get healthy, you will need their encouragement and support. Check out my blog post about how planning is one of the keys to successful behaviour change and identity your weak spots, then enlist the people around you to keep you on track.

3. Don’t Preach

While I happily make educated comments when various health related topics are discussed, I try to refrain from offering unsolicited advice, even though it's hard to stop myself when I think I could make a real difference in someone's life.

4. Use Positive Spin

I learned this technique after I became a parent and wanted to get my kids to enjoy healthy foods. Exclaiming with genuine delight that you’ve discovered the joy of adding mango slices to your salads is likely to get even adults intrigued.

5. Bring Your Own

If you know you’ll be at an event such as a barbecue or dinner party where there’s unlikely to be healthy food choices, enthusiastically offer to contribute. Be generous and bring enough to share with others.

6. Lead By Example

Let your results speak for themselves.

7. Accept and Discard

Rather than making a fuss, just gratefully accept what is being offered (whether it’s unwanted advice, food, or products) and then don’t use, consume, or buy into it.

8. The Sneaky Swap

There’s an art to subtly being healthy without being caught and you can have a lot of fun with it. For example, asking the bartender to make your non-alcoholic beverage to look just like the real thing. When I’m cooking at home I trade up my foods so they pack the most powerful nutritional punch available – e.g, whole wheat pasta instead of white pasta, and brown rice instead of white rice.

9. Consider Subtext

Often when people are being critical or disparaging there’s an underlying reason. Your healthy salad may be reminding your fellow diners of their own struggles with food or your new healthy glow might be making your friend feel jealous. Recognising that mean comments are actually rarely about you make them a lot easier to deflect.  

10. Smile and Redirect

There is no need justify your choices to anyone else. When someone is being forceful or insistent, be firm and stand your ground, then redirect their attention. For example – Them: “Have some cake!” You: “Thanks, I wont, but I’m curious about that amazing icing, where did it come from?”

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