health is a choice series

part 3: the voodoo that you do

Ever think about why people do what they do? I have. In fact, I’ve spent hundreds of hours studying this very question and thousands of hours observing and analyzing people’s behavior as it relates to their health. In simplest terms, people do what they do based on perception.

Defined as “a way of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something,” perception is what drives human behavior. In simplest terms, perception is the product of our knowledge (whether correct or not) coupled with our beliefs, attitudes, and various psychological factors, all of which derive from our experience. So, our behavior is the product of our perception of reality (truth), not of reality (truth) itself.

The point is, if what we know or think we know is incorrect (not the truth), if our understanding and beliefs are rooted in inaccurate information, then our behavior will not be aligned with the truth. We will do things that are not in our best interests because, either we believe we are doing the right thing, or we simply don’t know that what we are doing is harmful. For example:

  • Think of the number of people you know who are or were “on a diet” that excludes or minimizes a food group like fats or complex carbohydrates, fad diets like the Paleo, the Keto, or the Atkins diet, or vegan and food combining programs. Even most vegetarians fall into this group.
  • Consider how many people think (believe) that weight control is about “calories in and calories out,” and that the way to lose weight is to decrease caloric intake and increase strenuous exercise.
  • How many people do you know who get less than 7 to 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night and believe that they are “getting by.”
  • What about the millions of people who skip breakfast or just drink coffee or else just eat primarily carbs, like sweetened yoghurt, some fruit, and/or a bagel – and usually do so “on the run.”
  • And, how about all those people over age 40 doing strenuous, “cardio” exercises to keep them “fit,” and all those well-intentioned folks who do their daily workout before eating breakfast.
  • Consider the millions of people taking statin drugs to lower cholesterol or bisphosphonates to stop bone loss without truly appreciating the harmful big-picture impact of their side effects.

All of these habits and practices are harmful. And, all of these habits are born of decisions that are based on perceptions that what they are doing is “healthy.” Thoughtful people do not regularly engage in behavior they know is harmful. Day in and day out, they do what they do the way they do it because they think it is good for them. At least it’s okay or, worst case, it’s not great but somehow they’re “getting away with it.” Or they simply are unaware that what they are doing is harmful. Either way it comes down to their perception that their behavior is okay and supports their health objectives.

How could this be?  How could intelligent, educated, well-intentioned people be so misguided?  The answer lies in looking at the primary sources of most people’s knowledge of how their body works. Most people have no formal training in physiology or biochemistry. For the most part, we know what we know about how our body works from popular books, magazine and Internet articles, doctors, TV shows, marketing messages, various celebrities, and “backyard fence” conversations with friends and families who got their information from the very same sources.

I don’t want to belabor this point, but neither do I want to gloss over it. The health, “wellness,” diet, and fitness industries – including the health and wellness publishing and information business — are multi, multi-billion dollar industries that sell products and services like every other industry. They have their own economic objectives and realities measured by sales and profitability, not by the benefits derived by their customers.

Consider for a moment that there are well over one million published books in English on “health.” Do a search on Amazon on health books and you will see. Each book was written by one or more “experts” who believe their view to be the correct view, their method to be the correct method, and their book to be the final word on the matter. The reality is, if this were true, there wouldn’t be well over a million health books in publication!

Even the institutions that comprise our healthcare system — hospitals, drug companies, doctors, and their professional societies function in a competitive marketplace. They too, have their economic realities and related agendas that are not necessarily compatible with your needs and for whom, in many cases, the “truth” about how the human body really works is rather inconvenient.

Consider, too, that many of these institutions make money only on sick people. Making symptoms and problems go away by treating their underlying cause reduces the demand for drugs and other treatments. That’s not good for business. Turning healthy people into life-long patients – lifelong consumers of healthcare products and services — is good business.

How good you feel doesn’t always tell you if what you are doing is good for you. In fact, it’s often the opposite!

As I said, I don’t want to belabor this point. Since you have come to my website, I think I can comfortably assume you know that much of the information in circulation about health and wellness is driven by an agenda that doesn’t necessarily put your interests first.  Much of this information is parochial – it doesn’t take a 360 degree integrated view of how the body works. It is conditioned by what it takes to have popular appeal in the marketplace, by the gimmicks and emotional “hooks” required by publishing companies to get your attention and sell their product.

If you survey the overly abundant offering of health and fitness books and programs, another common thread you will notice is the high degree to which they focus on how you look and how you feel. On being attractive and desirable. If it makes you look good, it must be good for you is the message, one that appeals to our emotions, our self-image, and our need to be accepted, admired, or desired. The focus is on the immediate and the external. Which brings me to one other source of information about how your body works that you can’t always trust. Your body.

The problem is, almost all of the programs and products that offer quick results cause you to “break down” metabolically. Unfortunately, breaking down feels good, initially. And, you may see improvement in cholesterol and blood sugar levels, for a while. You may lose weight and have more energy. Blood pressure levels may normalize and you may have fewer aches and pains. Everything seems great! Initially… So, based on the “information” you are receiving from your body, there is no reason to believe your habits are harmful and you need to make some changes.

But, despite how great you may feel and look, internally, you are developing cracks in your physiological foundation. You are actually damaging your metabolism, and there comes a point at which your body will give in and give up. Your previous health issues will return “in spades.” New issues will also likely rear their ugly heads, and you are left to deal with all of them, old and new, but with a metabolism that is now more compromised than it was when you embarked on the much touted, popular new program guaranteed to make you look and feel better in no time at all with very little effort.

Currently, your body may not be sending you any messages that you are undermining your health. Or, if it is sending such messages in the form of signs and symptoms, you may not be aware of their significance or may not be interpreting them correctly – because of what you have been told about how your body works.

So, if you can’t always trust how you look and feel, if you can’t believe marketing messages, or blindly rely on what you are told by healthcare professionals to know what’s best for you, who can you rely on? Yourself.

If you understand how your body really works and how your habits impact your physiology, then you will be well on your way to taking charge of your health

If you have a basic understanding  of how the body really works and you understand how your habits impact your physiology, then you will be well on your way to taking charge of your health.

As a physician and a teacher, my sole mission has been to enable people to make informed decisions. I’m not here to tell you what to do, but I will tell you what the effect is of what you do or don’t do.

Truly, you are in charge of your health. That’s an awesome responsibility. As is so often acknowledged, you are nothing without your health. If you want to live a long and healthy life, and you are willing to invest some time and effort, I will teach you what you need to know, give you guidance to navigate the mass of inaccurate information circulating about health and wellness, and support you in your efforts to align your habits with your health.

If you would like to work with me, let’s talk about how we can do so. That’s what the last article in this series is all about.