One of my favourite things about science and nature, is that everything strives for balance. This balance is called ‘homeostasis’ and it describes the process that finds the “happy medium” in all things, almost as though nature itself is aiming for moderation.
I really connect with the process of homeostasis. Our body is a fantastic example of homeostasis in action; all it wants is balance. Our body temperature, for example, has dire consequences if it gets too hot or too cold, so there are safeguards in place that cause us to sweat when we get too hot – as the air around us will feel cooler on wet skin – and shiver if we are too cold – the involuntary action creates heat as our muscles move. It’s an innate function of the body to fine tune this balance because it protects our cells from damage, keeping us alive. Personally, I think that alone is incredibly cool.
It is the same for other processes in our body; our blood sugar, our hydration levels and the strength of our bones are some more, incredibly important and impressive, examples of nature being aware of and striving for balance, helping every function occur at peak efficiency.
I think of homeostasis like those old-fashioned scales, tipping back and forth gently until they hit the “sweet spot” which tells you how much the item weighs. It doesn’t take much to unbalance the scales, but there is always a way to bring it back to the middle.
The thing with health these days, is that we get so caught up in the superficial things that we give ourselves unrealistic goals and expectations, which in the end, cause us more grief and hinders our health even further.
Especially as someone who has studied nutrition and writes a wellness blog, I have felt an overwhelming pressure that I had to look, eat and be a certain way in order to be respected and relevant; to be “healthy”. I didn’t (and still don’t) have a perfectly toned body, and I rarely drink smoothies, let alone load them full of superfoods and eat them from a bowl, so I worried that I didn’t have anything inspiring to contribute – I wasn’t like everyone else. But when I truly thought about it, I realised that my expectations for myself were completely out of line with what is right for my body. They were unrealistic and unattainable without me causing myself a lot of psychological turmoil.
This is how homeostasis helped me.
FINDING THE BALANCE
On one side of the spectrum, there are the food and lifestyle habits that are clearly unhealthy; emotional eating, avoiding exercise, eating processed foods, not eating enough fruit and vegetables and being unaware of your body’s needs. We all know that these behaviours can have a negative effect on our overall health. On the other side, we have the strict rules and restrictions of diets, “clean eating” and movements like paleo and raw vegan. Of course, there are a wide array of benefits and ethical considerations to a lot of “diets” out there, but for some people, imposing strict rules can be incredibly detrimental, and lead to a psychological condition called Orthorexia Nervosa; an excessive preoccupation with healthy eating and behaviours.
I split these two sides into their extremes because that is exactly what they are. When we live at either extreme, we are at a high risk of harming ourselves, even when one extreme seems healthier than the other. There is a tiny percentage of people who can happily live their life at these extremes and be healthy, but they are a rarity. For most of us, extreme behaviours can harm us, which is why homeostasis is so important. Understanding that you and your body are different to other people is crucial to a healthy lifestyle, because it highlights the individuality that is so often forgotten with blanket terms and rules created by each “diet”.
SO HOW DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR OWN BALANCE IS?
There are a few things that are a must as far as I am concerned, but as you’ll be able to see, they aren’t hard and fast rules. Instead, they can easily be adapted to your life, and so they should be.
EAT YOUR VEGETABLES
A minimum of five serves to be exact. I’d happily say that this is my most strict rule, but it truly is important to ensure you’re getting a wide variety of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.
EAT PROTEIN WITH EVERY MEAL
Yes, even if you’re vegan or vegetarian. Nuts, seeds, legumes and wholegrains are great protein-foods to add to your vegetables no matter what your diet is. They are full of fibre, vitamins and minerals too!
GET REGULAR EXERCISE
At least 5 days a week for at least 30 minutes at a time. Find stuff that you love to do and make the time to do it. It will break down your stress hormone, cortisol, and increase your happiness and motivation by increasing your endorphins.
DRINK PLENTY OF WATER
2-3 litres a day is a great benchmark for water intake, and isn’t hard to achieve if you put your mind to it. Our bodies are made of 60% water after all!
AVOID DOING THE THINGS THAT MAKE YOU FEEL TERRIBLE
Whether it’s eating food that isn’t healthy, being lazy, eating too fast, abusing drugs and alcohol, spending time with negative people or just criticising yourself too much, find a way to change the habits that you know aren’t serving you into ones that do. It’s hard to break habits, but it is possible, and who knows, you might find something to replace it with that you enjoy even more than the short rush you initially get with your bad habit.
BE KIND TO YOURSELF
Having said that, there are some circumstances where sometimes the healthiest thing you can do is to eat something for the sake of eating (because there is no other option) and accept the circumstances and the poor quality of what you ate. The stress you put on yourself worrying about whether or not it is “healthy” or what you “should” be eating can often exacerbate the effect of the poor food choice itself, and if your only other choice is to not eat for several hours, I’d prefer that you eat.
We often forget that our psychological health is just as important as our physical health, and the energy surrounding our food choices contribute just as much to our health as the nutrients we are consuming. If we take our health choices too seriously, the guilt associated with breaking rules not only contributes to the overall levels of stress in our bodies, but allows our emotions to be ruled by food, often encouraging emotional eating.
Being not only ok, but content with the person you are, the body you have and what works best for you is the best move you can make with your health. In the end, it is your body, so if you can become attune to what it needs, you are truly nurturing your own homeostasis and the person you are meant to be, which to me is what health should be.