What does healthy even mean?

By Emeka Onyedika, MD, for MDLinx
Published July 29, 2019

Key Takeaways

Our society has become so health-conscious and obsessed with the pursuit of enhanced well-being that I have begun to question the efficacy of this ambition. We are inundated with information, guidelines and recommendations for being healthy — many of which seem to contradict each other and often change over time. A degree in medicine or formal training in science is helpful in navigating this sea of data. However, I am no longer sure that I can rely on the principles I learned and grew to accept as fact. 

This reality confronts me when I assess patients, or a family member or friend seeks my medical expertise. What does healthy mean? Is there a standard definition or state of health that we can apply to all? If so, how can I or anyone identify it? 

To me, a person is healthy if their mind and body are functioning properly. However, no two minds and bodies are alike. In addition, factors such as stress and the environment can affect a person’s response to food and health practices. These factors often are difficult to quantify during studies or assessments. With this in mind, can we systematize anything regarding health? Is anything truly healthy or unhealthy consistently? 

Revisiting how we practice

I no longer believe we can rely on scientific evidence, accepted guidelines, or personal beliefs and experiences to answer these questions. I’m not sure if we even have the capability to do so effectively. This very probable limitation is substantial because acknowledging and embracing it means we will have to alter the way we practice and how we view research and data. 

We are all unique cases with unique situations and circumstances. I cannot and should not apply any medical or biological insights that are specific to me to any of you. Similarly, none of you should do the same to others. Then, why do we subject our patients to this? Why are we taught and trained in this manner? I am beginning to see that it’s a misguided mission that is causing more harm than good. 

As health care professionals, we attempt to fit patients to standard-of-care doctrines. Patients and the general public as a whole — us included — attempt to mold and contort ourselves to match the image of exemplary fitness and livelihood created by the so-called experts of society. We then wonder why the exercise results in so much stress, frustration, and confusion. No person can accurately dictate to an individual what is best for them and what is needed in order to achieve the life desired. The individual must determine and discover this through their own actions. Others may give recommendations, however, they should be presented and received as such. We should take the time to make sure that the information we provide to patients isn’t conveyed or perceived as absolute truth that must be followed and should not be questioned. 

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