Health and “Lifestyle Factors”

lifestyle factors

There’s a meme that I regularly see online. It comes in slightly different forms but one example is:

“…the majority of chronic diseases are preventable and based on lifestyle factors”.

I also see it where the words “chronic disease” are substituted for specific diseases. So the majority of “cancers” or causes of “heart disease” are preventable and based on “lifestyle factors”.

Now this can feel like it’s sending a positive message. That we aren’t powerless and destined for this fate, that we can take control.

But the problem is, we don’t necessarily have control over each of the implicated factors.

And some people have much less control than others.

But it goes even deeper than this.

Because the idea that these diseases are preventable and are within our  control then becomes this mangled mess of morality and judgment.

If you’re healthy it’s because you made “good choices” or “the right choices”. If you’re not, it’s because of “bad choices” or because you don’t care about looking after yourself.  

But let’s look at this in a little more detail.

What someone eats is considered a “lifestyle factor”. But do we all have the same ability to feed ourselves?

When you were younger, what you ate was based on what your parents fed you. Early childhood nutrition can have a huge impact on someone throughout their life, but as a child this isn’t a choice, it’s luck.

If you grow up in a household where your parents diet, you are more likely to diet. In fact, you pick up many of your eating habits from your parents, habits that affect you throughout adulthood. Again, considering you didn’t get to choose your parents, this doesn’t feel like much of a choice.

In theory, you have more control over how you feed yourself as an adult. But this is directly impacted by the availability of time, financial constraints, where you live, and ethnic and cultural implications, to name just a few examples.

So eating “healthy food” as an adult could be as simple as doing what you’ve always done and seen modelled to you throughout your life. Or it could be incredibly difficult because it goes against everything that you’ve seen and experienced throughout life.   

Smoking or alcohol intake is another example of a “lifestyle factor”.

Supposedly we all have equal choice whether we wish to partake in these substances or not.

But again, this isn’t necessarily true. People are influenced by what we see as “normal” based on the environment we grew up in.

These substances can also be used as a coping mechanism. I previously did a podcast on the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. The more adverse incidents that a child experienced growing up – like all forms of abuse, or living with a parent with mental illness, or having a parent sent to jail – the more likely they were to smoke or to over-consume alcohol.

Did the child choose this childhood or was it just chance?

I think it’s important to identify lifestyle factors that can support better health.

I also think it’s important to make people aware of this information and to find ways that they can incorporate it into their life, if possible.

But we need to remove the judgment and morality.

If you find it easy to eat healthy food, to exercise, to not smoke or drink excessively, then good for you. But chances are you’ve grown up with a level of privilege that most people can only dream of.

I see too many people who’ve been given the best start in life and every chance imaginable get on their soapbox to talk about “preventable diseases” and inadvertently shaming those less fortunate than them.

We have a utopian idea that we can all be as healthy as one another if we just focus on “lifestyle factors”, but this simply isn’t true. We can definitely influence our health, but to think the solution is simple and equally available to everyone is delusional.

If we are genuinely going to make inroads with these “preventable diseases”, we need to see the complexity that’s involved. And this doesn’t happen by creating an echo chamber of affluent and privileged “experts” talking about all the ways that they keep themselves healthy.



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Chris Sandel is the founder of www.seven-health.com. He is a nutritionist, working with clients on a one-on-one basis, as well as creating online trainings and products about health and nutrition. He is the author of The Health Trap: Why "Healthy" Eating Isn't Always Healthy which is available on Amazon UK and Amazon USA.

Chris has three free emails series. One is on how to quit dieting. One is on simple tests you can do at home. And the other is his take on the world's healthiest foods.

Comments

  1. One of the most sound and compassionate pieces I’ve read in a while and so true. I have consistently said not everyone has the same start in life, even parents separating can have such a massive impact on adults later in life, relationships they form, relationships with alcohol and food to name a few. I had such a stable upbringing and I know that it has massively contributed to me being a stable adult (of course there are other limiting beliefs that are passed on subconsciously from parents to children but that’s another story) but I think if we could all have a little more compassion for each other and ourselves and as Chris says take the judgement out, we could all live much healthier and balanced lives. I love your posts Chris, keep up the good work!

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