What Does Healthy Even Mean?

A new study from the Mayo Clinic revealed that only 2.7 percent of Americans live a healthy lifestyle. Perhaps the problem is their definition of healthy.

The term ‘healthy’ is one of the most overused yet ambiguous around. Companies desperately want you to associate their product with it. Take a walk through any supermarket aisle and thousands of products scream the word in bright colors, even when laden with thirty grams of sugar per serving. One company once told me its beverage is ‘lightly touched.’ At twenty-seven grams, two above World Health Organization’s daily limit, that’s quite a jab.


Things become more complicated when considering the human body. Navigating the literature proves impossible with so many conflicting reports. One of the more known entities, Mayo Clinic, recently published a report on ‘healthy lifestyle characteristics’ in regards to cardiovascular disease biomarkers. You’d think something as simple as avoiding heart troubles would be commonsense. And you’d be wrong.

Not that the report is useless, but any study that concludes only 2.7 percent of Americans live a healthy lifestyle should raise eyebrows. Researchers defined the term with four markers:

  • Being sufficiently active, which, if going by national standards, means 150 minutes of heart rate-raising physical activity each week.
  • Eating a healthy diet.
  • Being a nonsmoker.
  • Having a recommended body fat percentage, which, again going by national standards, means 5-20 percent for men, 8-30 percent for women.
  • First off, the healthy diet marker is based on 24-hour recall. Subjects were asked what they ate and drank over the last day. There are two reasons this is flawed: people lie, especially when it comes to bad habits, and they simply could have had a really good eating day.

    If you know Thursday is study day, you might decide that a salad for lunch and a slice of grass-fed beef for dinner surrounded by vegetables is the way to go. If your normal eating patterns are more like take out and a pizza, one good day in a horrible month is not going to provide an appropriate measure of health.

    Perhaps I’m being too critical, as researchers discovered only 37.9 percent of subjects consume a healthy diet. Smoking is the largest consensus: 71.5 percent do not smoke. Nearly half are sufficiently active (46.5 percent), while only 9.6 percent have an appropriate body-fat percentage. And that is the real problem with this study.

    Reading the report, you’re initially startled (or for many, relieved) to find out that only 2.7 percent of Americans are healthy. Over three times that number (11.1 percent) did not meet any marker. We all know smoking is unhealthy, just as we’re aware excessive sugar consumption leads to a host of problems. But we’re also culturally obsessed with body fat, and our measurements, and expectations, are off.

    Researchers used DEXA, Dual-Energy X-ray Absorptiometry, to measure body fat. This involves aiming two X-ray beams at a subject’s bones and subtracting soft tissue absorption to evaluate bone mineral density, though measuring body composition and fat content is also possible. It’s the best method researchers have, though there are still problems.

    Theodore K Kyle and Fatima Cody Stanford published a rebuttal. They remind readers that body composition is largely inherited, subject to genetic and environmental conditions. Body compositions also vary greatly “by sex, age, race, and ethnicity, which may account for the differences ascertained in this study.”

    While the authors agree that composition levels play a role in cardiovascular disease risk, they warn of not writing off people with a higher number as unhealthy. Many obese individuals can and do practice healthy lifestyle behaviors, and we do not all carry fat the same way. Low body fat composition due to an eating disorder might statistics within the healthy range but is in no way healthy.

    Kyle and Stanford conclude that headlines like this stifle progress fighting obesity. It’s an understandable complaint, as many read no more than the headline. Seeing that only 2.7 percent of Americans are healthy makes the pursuit of such a lifestyle seems impossible, creating guilt in the observer. Emotions associated with guilt, such as anger and sadness, raise cortisol levels in your blood, which in a vicious feedback loop stores more visceral fat in your abdominal region.

    As someone who deals with hundreds of students every week with a wide range of body compositions, I’ve recognized that it’s all about how you carry your weight. Body fat is useful in predicting disease but concurrently destructive thanks to our cultural obsession with the ‘perfect’ body. If perfection means anything, it’s being comfortable in your skin. The satisfaction of taking care of yourself is healthier in the long run than being plagued by a few percentage points.

    --

    Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch @derekberes.

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