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Health and Morality are Not the Same Thing

I recently stumbled across some of the notes I took back when I did my health coaching certification in 2011, and one thing particularly jumped out at me. It was when someone leading a session I attended had us start chanting, “Holy, healthy, holy, healthy.”

At the time, I was really into it, thinking that helping people become healthier was a kind of spiritual work. I’m not saying that’s untrue, but when I saw those words together last week, they struck me very differently.

I started thinking about how our society often equates being healthy with being a good person.

Linking health and morality

This connection is evident in the language we use when we’re taught about healthy vs. unhealthy food. We learn that another way of saying it is that those are “good” and “bad” foods.

So, if healthy foods are good and unhealthy foods are bad, what does that say about people who eat those foods, especially bad foods? Or people who, for whatever reason, are unhealthy?

Intellectually, you may know this is bogus. Many people who are kind, compassionate, and helpful get sick and even die long before it seems they should. And people who cheat, lie, steal, and worse may enjoy great physical health and live a long time.

But emotionally, it can be hard to shake that association.

Why this is problematic

Correlating health with what kind of person you are is problematic in many ways.

One is that if someone gets sick, you may wonder if it was because of something they did and therefore it’s their fault. People with lung cancer face this all the time, even though 10-20% of lung cancer patients are people who never smoked.

Then there’s the fact that people can do a lot of damage to themselves by trying to be ultra-healthy.

A recent Washington Post article shared the story of a woman who, as an adolescent, had become obsessed with trying to eat healthy foods after her mom died of cancer. The young woman became anorexic, and it took quite a while for her to recover. It didn’t help that her school was pushing the idea of healthy vs. unhealthy foods, and as a good student, she thought she was supposed to avoid all unhealthy foods.

Exercising too much can also cause harm. If you do too much, some issues you might face include:

  • Becoming anxious or depressed

  • Excessive tiredness

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Risk of injury

  • Not performing as well

As with so many things, moderation seems like a better way to go.

Good and bad labels for food are made up

You may have heard the phrase, “The dose makes the poison,” and that’s true of just about everything. You can die from drinking too much water, and your body needs some sodium, fat, and cholesterol to function.

Plus, everyone’s bodies handle food differently. Some could die from eating peanuts, while others happily have peanuts or peanut butter almost every day.

In reality, the only “bad” food is one that will kill you or make you sick. Everything else is “good” and fair game.

Don’t judge someone by their health (or perceived health)

It’s tempting to look at someone with shiny hair, bright teeth, a clear complexion, and a certain body type, and assume they’re good. But that’s not necessarily the case, and you never really know what someone’s health is like by looking at them, particularly when you factor in mental health.

That makes it even more important to separate health and character judgment. Healthy may sometimes be “holy”, but you can’t count on it, so it’s best to avoid the connection to begin with.


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