Given the infinite volume of diet advice, one would think that’s all there is to being healthy. The promise of so much of this advice is to just follow this plan and you’ll not only lose weight, but you’ll solve every problem you ever had. But the promise of wellness through food only tells a part of the picture.
I’ve now returned back to the U.S. after being in Europe for 2 months. After every yearly trip, I’m convinced more and more that while eating well is key to vitality, Europeans have long learned that social connections, stress reduction and a sense of purpose are as critical as what’s on the dinner table. While in France, I always notice there’s less talk of “dieting” and finding food panaceas. More emphasis is placed on who am I going to invite to join me for a meal, how I will pamper myself, and how will I make a difference today.
But there’s no need to hop the next plane overseas to discover wellness beyond food. Three visionary dietitians I spoke with agree that food is only part of the health equation. They believe that without social connections, stress reduction and a sense of purpose, eating your kale may be all for naught. So before you are tempted to pick up the latest fad diet book, let’s hear from the experts on how to broaden your approach to well being.
“We are born to connect with others. We bond with our parents through skin to skin contact and as we grow we form friendships of varying strengths.”, says dietitian Rebecca Scritchfield, a health and happiness expert in Washington, DC.
“Belonging to a group is our natural way to make sure others will have our back when we need them. For example, in times of stress, we respond with a rallying cry for support. When we reach out to others they get a rush of oxytocin hormone which ignites their instinct to help. This response is called tend and befriend and it helps ensure we have the resources to roll through stressful events in our life and come out a stronger person.”
Scritchfield encourages her clients to think of all the ways our connections to others build on our health. She says enjoying meals, exercise, and engaging in leisure activities are more fun with friends. “We get a reliable and life sustaining boost of positive emotions like joy, gratitude, and inspiration that make us happier, stronger and healthier. Friends can introduce us to new recipes, work outs, help us get more sleep, and give us a kick in the pants if we are in a self care rut. Or maybe we are the ones doing the pants-kicking. We help each other.”, she says.
Scritchfield believes that learning to express gratitude plays a critical role in overall our health. “Positive psychologists measure our well being by our positive relationships, among other factors. They suggest that we build our ties to others by expressing gratitude. One idea is to write a short letter of thanks for no reason at all to someone you care about. Thinking about how much you appreciate them makes you happier. Then share the letter with your friend. Read it out loud and notice their reaction. The open heart, warm and fuzzy feeling is your body’s way of responding to your emotional connection. Feeling close to people is why we are here in the first place. It’s nourishment in the deepest sense.”
Sense of Purpose
While one’s life can be made up of a series of routines, it is often the lack of a sense of purpose that leads many people to a depressed and tumultuous life, so believes Carolina Jantac, MS, RDN, LD. “Navigating through the routine of each day with no deeper meaning and feeling lost or unimportant in a world so interconnected that may lead someone to feel defeated. Our sense of purpose starts to take shape in different stages of life, starting as a child. When very young, you are creating the roots and foundation of your deep beliefs which will be the basis for your sense of purpose.”
Jantac says your sense of purpose will arise from your deep beliefs. “Those beliefs will feed your sense of purpose, and when based on love, compassion, sharing, humbleness, selflessness, positivity and humanity they will lead to a happier and healthy life. At times it is easy to forget your purpose, or to get distracted by the superfluous things in life. The demands of our hectic days may create an environment where cultivating your sense of purpose becomes almost impossible, or at least you may feel this way. But in reality, when your sense of purpose is deep rooted in your beliefs, past experiences and not only who you are, but who you want to become, then your true purpose is interlaced in your daily living.”
She goes on to explain that routine coupled with sense of purpose is rewarding. “Those who find their purpose in sharing their knowledge to improve the lives of others, may find their job as a professor extremely rewarding. At times when grading papers or scheduling exams they may feel drained and stressed, but their purpose is intact, and at the end of the day, they are contributing to their motivator which is to change the lives of others around them by teaching them something new.”
She notes that some are not so lucky to have careers that easily match their purpose. In those instances when your daily activity, job or routine does not cultivate your sense of purpose, it becomes increasingly frustrating and unfulfilling to go through each day, often times leading to depression and anxiety. “It is crucial to define your sense of purpose and add ways to cultivate it around yourself so that you can prevent the feeling of misery and confusion often mistaken for “mid-life crisis” or “age-related depression”. Volunteering in services that match your beliefs, getting involved in groups fighting for a common cause, supporting organizations with a common goal will allow you to add to your sense of purpose and embark on a much happier life path.”
But Jantac says don’t be surprised if your sense of purpose changes throughout life. Since they are founded on your beliefs and shaped by your experiences, they may morph into new motivators at any time. “Embrace change and welcome challenges, they are all a part of strengthening your sense of purpose.”
“As a dietitian, I often counsel clients on achieving wellness through food, but really there is a lot more to wellness than just food! The fact is, there is this thing called life!”, says Brittany Poulson, MDA, RDN, CD, CDE. “Coping with the demands of life can be overwhelming, to say the least. Extreme emotions, stressful situations, and depression can hinder good self-care. I once heard the quote, “Stress may be a fact of life, but it doesn’t have to be a way of life.” This is so true! There is much in life that can and are often stressed over, but it doesn’t have to be so overwhelming to the point that it affects our health and well-being.”
Poulson believes thankfully, there are things you can do to successfully manage the stress in your life and take back control. Relaxation techniques, changing your coping style, and learning to deal with stress in a different way are just a few approaches. For instance, some people adopt a problem-solving attitude, working to confront and fix the situation at hand. Others accept that certain situations are not really as bad as they might seem. Whether tackling and fixing the situation head on, or looking at it from a new perspective, both ways of handling stress can help.
Here are some of Poulson’s favorite ways to help manage stress:
- Exercise regularly
- Talk with someone you trust about your stressful situations
- Pick up a new (or old) hobby that you truly enjoy doing
- Take a bubble bath
- Read a good book
- Replace negative or hurtful thoughts with positive ones
- Stay organized to help manage your time more efficiently
- Deep breathing exercises
“Lastly, I want you to remember you do not have to do it alone. Build a support system of family and friends who truly care about you. Don’t be afraid to reach out to these people in times of need. Who knows, they just might be needing you, too.”
So pull up your chair to that salad, just be sure to invite someone to join you, while discussing your life goals all enjoyed over a leisurely hour or two.