“Healthy” doesn’t mean what you think it means

“Health is a crown that the healthy wear but only the sick can see.”


The lie we’ve been sold on health and body-weight

I have a degree in Health Sciences, I write for a diabetes publication, and I have access to the internet, so I could rattle off a 100-mile long list of things that are considered conventionally “unhealthy” in the U.S.

Being obese isn’t healthy. Smoking isn’t healthy. Eating McDonald’s every day certainly isn’t healthy.

What is healthy? Working out, eating your vegetables, wearing your seat belt in the car, washing your hands regularly.

Everybody knows this stuff, right?

And we can usually tell a “healthy” person from an “unhealthy” one just by looking at them…or can we?

Just ask anyone what they think a healthy person looks like and they’ll probably tell you “They’re in good shape, they exercise every day, they eat a good diet.”

And this may be correct, but once you’ve been chronically ill, you realize just how superficial that definition really is.

When people who aren’t chronically ill refer to someone as “healthy” they are usually referring to the fact that someone is physically fit, with well defined muscles and a low body fat percentage.

When a chronically ill person says “I wish I was healthy” they mean, “I wish my immune system functioned at a normal level,” “I wish I had the energy to walk down the street,” or “I wish my nervous system worked right.”

There are so many aspects to health that only those who aren’t already healthy can see. When you’re deeply ill at the cellular level, you don’t sit around dreaming of having 6-pack abs, your only desire is to have a normal, functioning body again.

What I’m getting at is that this cultural assumption that “a lean body is automatically a health body” is complete nonsense.

healthy girl
She looks fit, but is she really healthy? How do you know? (And no, this isn’t a picture of me, sadly).

Sure, you can look at a 600 pound person and be pretty certain that they’re struggling with their health. But morbid obesity aside, you can’t tell someone’s health status just by looking at them.

(And I know this is the oldest Spoonie talking point in the book, but it’s worth re-emphasizing).

I have a lot of personal experience with the awkward weight/health dichotomy because even though I haven’t set foot in a gym in 3 years I still appear rather slim, even athletic looking.

Doctors always assume I’m in good health (until they see my stack of medical records, that is) and strangers probably assume the same. And why wouldn’t they?

We’ve been taught that “sick people” are either overweight or bone-thin and everyone else in between is basically healthy, but this isn’t always true.

My newest naturopath even made a joke about this at my first appointment with her.

She read through my extensive chart and heard me huffing and puffing as I tried to climb the stairs to her office. When I finally made it into the room, she was surprised. She said she expected her patient to be an overweight middle-aged woman based on the paperwork.

But instead, she got me.

Barely pushing 130 pounds, armed with a water bottle and an organic apple to snack on, I appeared to be the pinnacle of health.

But I wasn’t. I had a medical chart that stretched from here to Timbuku and I could barely sit through a 2-hour appointment due to fatigue.

Health is more complicated that you may think…

You can be skinny and still be incredibly sick. You can have a little extra fat on your body and still live an active life free of illness.

Things aren’t as straight forward as they seem and real health is much more than skin-deep. Digestive health matters, cellular health matters, mental health matters but we don’t usually talk about this stuff.

Doctors and the media like to oversimplify health. You walk out of health class with the idea that “if you don’t eat too much junk food, you get your flu shot, and you go for a run ever day, then you’ll be healthy for the rest of your life.”

This is an incredibly misleading idea, and the assumption that goes along with it is that if you become sick later down the road, it’s your own fault. Your bad lifestyle choices made you sick and if you would just fix you diet and exercised more then you’ll be good as new.

Don’t be fooled–You can still eat a healthy diet and suffer from a chronic illness.

Obviously, that isn’t true or 80% of people with complex chronic illnesses would be better by now because we’ve got our lifestyle stuff down pat.

And no it’s not fair that some people have to work on their health every day just to survive their illness and other people can treat their bodies like a garbage disposal their entire lives and live functionally until they’re 90.

It’s not fair, but it is a testament to the fact that the human body is a very complicated machine and that “healthy” doesn’t necessarily have a specific “look” or weight.

I wish more people understood that…

You can be incredibly in-shape and but still suffer from an eating disorder, an addiction, or a chronic pain condition.

You can develop health problems and diseases because of genetic weaknesses, regardless of your lifestyle choices.

You can become ill because of a stressful event or childhood trauma, even if you maintain optimal health habits.

You can be physically healthy but struggle with mental illness every day.

You can gain or lose weight due to a chronic illness, regardless of your diet and exercise.

In school I learned that health was pretty black and white and I didn’t understand all of the nuances and shades of gray until it was my life that was affected by them.

But, luckily, you don’t have to develop a complex chronic illness in order to understand all this stuff. You can just read this blog post instead. You’re welcome 🙂

Thanks for listening,

Em the Silver Spoonie




5 thoughts on ““Healthy” doesn’t mean what you think it means

  1. I once complained to a doctor because I thought I was carrying too much weight. He looked at me and told me that I looked fine. Turns out that I was carrying over a stone of fluid retention which is why I felt weighed down. I’d never considered that my slim figure was a barrier to getting good healthcare before, but I suppose that it is.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I think there is definitely a bias no matter if you’re “skinny” or “overweight.” If you’re thin, doctors assume you’re healthy, and if you’re overweight they assume all of your health problems are because of your weight, only.


  2. This really hit home for me. I have always been fit and healthy, but after 3+ years of reporting bizarre symptoms, I was diagnosed with chronic illness five months ago. Ironically, it was preparation for a fitness competition that pushed my body over the edge and got the doctors’ attention. I’m coming to realize and accept that we can do everything right and still fall victim to these ailments. Personally, I have disseminated valley fever, which is simply the result of breathing in a fungal spore in an endemic area. My life of organic, plant-based eating and regular exercises couldn’t have prevented this, and it can’t save me from it either. I’ve lost a lot of friend over the course of the last year…people who say, “well, you weren’t sick until earlier this year,” without understanding that I suffered extensively prior to my delayed diagnosis, but as you so eloquently explain, people don’t necessarily believe that you’re sick unless you look it. Thank you so much for this–it makes me feel so much less alone. 💖


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