What it Really Means to be Healthy: Primary and Secondary Foods Explained

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I don’t know about you, but for years I feel like I’ve been on a mission to reach perfect health, whatever that means. I’ve bought countless supplements, eaten organic, tried tons of lifestyle changes, and bought a string of random products, but nothing has really changed. I wouldn’t say that now my apartment is filled with supplements and chemical-free products that I feel like I can give myself a gold star for just how wonderfully healthy I’ve become. I’d be willing to bet that you can’t either. No one can. So what does it really mean to be healthy? How do we know that we’ve figured it out? What advice, products, or changes really matter if we want to improve our health long term?

What does it mean to be healthy?

I learned a fun fact this week at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. I learned that the word health comes from the old English word HALE meaning wholeness; being whole, sound, or well. The word and its meaning has changed over time and today health is defined by the World Health Organization as a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, not JUST the absence of disease. Therefore health is a dynamic concept, not a fixed outcome. 

Yet today we live in a society where organizations, companies, brands, celebrities, and influencers are always blasting information at us about how we SHOULD be. That’s how they make money and sell us products, diets, pills, and food that promise to help us reach the destination of perfect health. If we just follow their advice, buy the program, or purchase the pill, eventually shiny golden doors will open up and we’ll be welcomed into the land of perfect health. If we can only get there, then we’ll finally have flawless digestion, glowing skin, a tiny waist, a toned body, strong bones, luscious hair, and most importantly HAPPINESS. Right?

Sadly, that’s not how it works. I love my Sweet Sweat Waist Trimmer, my detox teas, my almond yogurt, but I know that they’re never going to bring me this fantasy that I have in my head of perfect health. Why? Because there is NO SUCH THING as perfect health.

Health is much more like a journey than a destination. (Ugh, I hate how cliche that sounds! Sorry!) It’s about making changes that improve your health and HAPPINESS in several areas of your life, not just about buying organic or sculpting a six-pack. 

The flawed outlook of health

We can go round and round all day about our flawed health care system, so I’m not going to address all of those major issues in this blog post. You’d be reading this post until the end of time, and we both have sh*t to do. But what I am going to talk about is ONE major issue that I see when we talk about health, and it’s that health is a destination with a specific path you take on how to get there. This path could be diets, exercise, detoxing, supplements, acupuncture, etc. It’s whatever YOU have been told what health should look like in your life. Maybe it’s never eating, or laying in a sensory deprivation tank every month, or drinking celery juice. 

There’s a very flawed approach to health today where people believe that if you just follow a specific set of rules you’ll be “healthy.” Then, to top off this crazy theory that health is a destination, we have magazines, social media accounts, and brands that put out these filtered, photoshopped images of fitness models, further adding to this illusion that there’s a magical land of sexy, healthy, superhuman, happy people who have it all figured out. 

Here’s the thing, not only is perfect health something that can’t be bought or accomplished through a set of rules and diets, BUT health is also NOT only about what you put in your stomach. It’s not about how much kale you eat, about how disciplined you are in avoiding sugar and dairy, or about taking supplements every day. Health is complete physical, mental, and social well-being.

The wiser approach to health and wellness

As a student at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN) and a future Integrative Health Coach, I’m learning about a newer, wiser approach to full body health and wellness, and you can’t buy it at Whole Foods. The idea that IIN and it’s founder, Joshua Rosenthal, share is that human beings are nurtured by both Primary Foods and Secondary Foods. Can you guess what they might be?

Primary Foods 

Upon first guess, you might think that Primary Foods are actual food right? At least I did. But it’s the opposite. Primary Foods are the most important things in our lives and impact our health far more than the chia seeds. Primary Foods are broken down into relationships, physical activity, career, and spirituality. If these things are out of whack in our lives then we’re far less healthy. We’re far more likely to have diseases and far less likely to have life satisfaction.

“Healthy relationships, regular physical activity, a fulfilling career, and a spiritual practice can fill your soul and satisfy your hunger for life.” – Joshua Rosenthal

Although it’s important to understand what people are eating, to find what works for their unique body, and to make improvements in those areas of their lives as well, all of that is secondary to the quality of people’s life. I’ve heard so many stories and studies from doctors and researches who have proved that how happy people are in their relationships determines how healthy they are and how long they live. People who have toxic relationships or a lonely, are much more susceptible to disease and have a much shorter life span. 

Side Note: If you’d like to learn about my absolute favorite study on this, check out this Ted talk video on the longest study that’s ever been conducted on happiness. This video is all about researchers have tracked the lives of 2 groups of men since 1938. The first group started in the study when they were sophomores at Harvard College, finished college during WWII, and most of which went off to serve in the war. The second group was a group of boys from one of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. This group was specifically chosen because they were from some of the troubled and disadvantaged families in the 1930s.

This study has been going on for over 75 years and has studied the original men as well as all of their children and grandchildren they’ve brought in to the world. This study is extremely in-depth and goes as far as to interview the men on the phone and in their living rooms, examine their medical records, scan their brains, draw blood, interview family members. The research staff even goes as far as to videotape the men talking to their wives about their deepest concerns. It’s a very intensive study that’s closely examined these men for decades. What they’ve found after 75+ years of research later is this… Good relationships keep us happier AND healthier.

The hundreds of thousands of pages of research and the last 75+ years prove above all else that social connections are really good for us and that loneliness kills. The people who are more socially connected to family, friends, and community are happier, physically healthier, and live longer than the people who are less connected. Loneliness, on the other hand, turns out to be toxic. People who are less connected and more isolated than they want to be are less happy, their health declines earlier in mid-life, their brain functioning declines sooner, and they live shorter lives. If you have some time today, this is one of my all-time favorite Ted Talks and health studies that I’ve heard of and it’s definitely worth a watch.

1. Relationships

The first (and more important aspect of primary foods if you ask me) is our relationships. Relationships are the number one thing that feed us and have the largest impact on the quality of our lives. It doesn’t have to be a relationship between you and a partner. It includes your family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc. Anyone and everyone who is in your life and the quality of the relationship you have with them.

Today, these relationships are weaker due to social media and the internet. Technology has created the illusion that we’re connected and in a relationship with people, even though it’s through a screen. More and more we’re living isolated lives, and it used to not be like this. People once lived in multi-generational homes, lived in the same city their entire lives, and carried friends with them far into old age. Now it’s different. You may be “friends” with someone online, but never even speak to them in person. Those types of relationships don’t fill us up and make us happy and healthy.

Relationships are also in turmoil today as divorce rates increase. It’s become much more common to cut people out of our lives than to make it work and get past our differences. (Please don’t misinterpret this as me saying divorce isn’t justified). The other issue is that not only are people divorcing, but there are also many people who have very unhealthy or unhappy marriages and feel stuck in a relationship that isn’t fulfilling for them. 

If we really want to improve our overall healthy and longevity, it starts with the quality of relationships in our lives. It starts by either making more connection or improving the relationships that we have with family, friends, neighbors, in-law, and co-workers. It starts by making the effort to pick up your phone and call someone, starting couples therapy, or spending more quality time with each other.

2. Physical Activity

Of course, physical activity plays a large role in how healthy we are as we age. Having the right types of exercise in our daily lives that we actually enjoy doing is way more important than people realize. It’s not that we have to run X number of miles a day, do yoga, or do CrossFit. Just like the messages related to our overall health, we’re programmed to believe that we have to follow a specific program or reach a certain number of minutes of exercise each day.

In order to feel truly healthy, people have to slowly incorporate ways to stay active in their lives that work for them AND actually make them happy. If pilates isn’t your thing, don’t do it! Today, people may also be doing the wrong forms of exercise for their body. For example, many runners or weight lifters completely neglect stretching, while many yogis neglect cardiovascular exercise. In order to be healthy, you don’t have to follow specific rules and programs that promise to help you drop 30 pounds in 30 days, but instead slowly incorporate balanced forms of exercise that you actually LIKE doing. For example, getting a walk in each day, stretching before bed, doing a yoga class once a week, or doing InForm Fitness weekly.

3. Career 

Career is the next primary food that so many of us have neglected. We spend the majority of our live WORKING. We spend more time with our co-workers than our own family. We spend more time in an office chair than we do working on our hobbies. Our career feeds us way more than what we eat on our lunch breaks. I know when I was working a normal 9-5 job every other aspect of my life slowly deteriorated. I was so unhappy and exhausted that I didn’t have time to food prep and eat healthy, my relationships suffered drastically because of what little time and energy I had to give them, and I completely stopped exercising. If you’re miserable and stressed out for those 40+ hours a week, how can you possibly be healthy and flourish in your personal life? Those weeks take a toll on your overall physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. Our careers really do feed our body and soul, and that’s why it’s important to either find work you love OR find ways to love the work you do. 

Side Note: As I write this at a coffee shop right now, I’m sitting next to a woman discussing with someone how miserable she is at her job. How it bores her and it doesn’t fill her up. “That kind of job didn’t develop me in a way that it should have after college,” she says. The girl with her is also sharing how unfulfilled she is at her job. Her exact words are, “I don’t feel fulfilled.”

Photo by Autumn Clark.

4. Spirituality 

This aspect of primary foods is also very important to our overall well-being, but at the same time it’s usually the first thing that people neglect. What I’ve been taught at IIN is that we need to have a spiritual practice. Having some kind of spiritual practice that fills up our soul and gives us hope and faith can make a drastic difference in our happiness. It doesn’t matter what your religious affiliation is or what the spiritual practice looks like. A spiritual practice could be going to church, praying, journaling, meditating, volunteer work, painting, or even hiking. It’s whatever works for you that makes you feel connected with a higher power and fills you up in that way. 

As Joshua Rosenthal shares in IIN, “we are spiritual beings in a material world.” The more congruity we have with who we are, how we represent ourselves, the career that we are working in, the more likely we are to achieve the outcome that we came here in this lifetime to achieve. That’s why when health is approached by looking at primary food and secondary food, the better off we are.

Secondary Foods

The secondary foods are the foods that we actually eat and that nourish our physical bodies. It’s not that these aren’t important, but they are secondary. Have you noticed that when you’re REALLY enjoying the work that you’re doing and you’re in a state of flow, time stops? The world around you melts away. You forget to go to the bathroom, drink water, or eat food? You’re enjoying yourself so much that someone has to remind you to eat dinner? When you’re having so much fun with friends you don’t want to stop and go get food. You’re being fulfilled and energized from those other aspects of your life that food becomes an afterthought. It’s why whenever I work on my writing or website, I forget to eat all day. Matt’s been trying to get me to eat lunch for months now!

However, there’s the opposite side of that. When people crave food it doesn’t happen by mistake. It means that something in your life is out of balance. It means that you’re not feeling fulfilled and you want food for comfort and to feel whole again. 

The other important aspect to understand about secondary foods is that each and every person has a completely unique body that has a unique set of needs. That’s why I get so infuriated when people get pushy about a specific diet or lifestyle they preach to others. Just because YOU personally eat a lot of ___(fill in the blank)___ or don’t eat ___(fill in the blank)___, doesn’t mean that other people have to. We all have a very unique bio-computer that maybe thrives when we eat fresh fruit and berries or closes our throat the moment we step into a room with blueberries. 

How does this relate to my philosophy?

I’ve always felt this way about health and nutrition. However, before starting at IIN, I didn’t have the words to express it. Lost Online is what I describe as a self-help, health and wellness blog, and I chose these categories because I believe the MIND and our MENTAL WELL-BEING override everything else when it comes to living a healthy life. That’s why I focus on the mind and what we can do to improve our lives in all areas and sprinkle in health and fitness through my posts. Because what matters more than how much chia seeds and kale you consume is how happy you are. 

How do we become healthy long term? 

You may be wondering, “What now? How do we become healthy?” Here’s how: 

1. Forget

Scratch the RULES that you have been force fed about health and wellness up to this point in your life. Understand the fact that we are fed more by our Primary Foods than what you put in your grocery cart. Understand that in order to achieve whole body wellness, you have to improve every area of your life – this might involve you being brave and taking leaps that terrify you short term, but would fulfill you in the long term. 

2. Identify 

Identify the areas of your life that need improvement. Write down each primary food group and secondary food and what aspects in each category you’re struggling with. For example, in relationships are you struggling to meet friends as an adult, do you have a strenuous relationship with someone, is there someone you don’t have a relationship with that you wish you did? In a way, you have to play your own therapist here, determine the areas of your life that aren’t filling you up in the way you need to flourish. 

3. Take action… but think small 

The biggest mistake that people make over and over again is that they want to change, but they try to do it drastically. They want to eat healthy, so they go vegan in one day. They want to lose weight so they cut their calories in half or exercise for two hours a day. They want to be more spiritual, so they buy 10 spirituality books on Amazon in one sitting. Do you see what I mean? We try to take giant leaps, but we don’t work that way. It’s too drastic of a change, so we’ll instantly revert back to how we used to be. If you want to change your life in any of these areas, make ONE change at a time. Setting drastic and unrealistic expectations of yourself is a sure way to fail. People learn and change their behaviors through slow and simple lifestyle changes. 

You might still be thinking, “WHAT DO I DO, HEATHER?!” 

Because we’re so used to people beating specifics into our head when it comes to wellness, hearing information that’s more broad might be difficult for you. We’re used to being told that we have to eat X amount of calories or do X number of reps. Here’s the thing: YOU know what you need to do. You know what changes you should be making in your life. I can’t make that decision for you. You know whether you need to go network with someone, meditate daily, call up a friend, cut out potato chips, start taking a supplement, see a therapist, quit the job, stop drinking a six pack of soda daily, put yourself out there, join a club, buy a program, go to church, etc. I guarantee you have some idea of a step that you know you need to be doing. If you realize that these areas in your life are still struggling, that you need more direction, then please reach out to me personally. 

Takeaway

My goal with this post is to help you understand that full-body health and wellness is about much more than what supplements you’re on and what you put on your plate. It’s also about the primary foods: relationships, career, spirituality, and physical activity. Only when you address and make improvements to each of these areas will you really come alive and be able to reach your potential. So scratch whatever diet you think you should be on right now. Dig deeper into all the aspects of your life and make small improvements. If you need help along the way, I’m always here to answer your questions. 

As always, thank you for coming to Lost Online and let me know what you think in the comments. Have you heard of Joshua Rosenthal’s idea of Primary Foods and Secondary Foods before? Do you believe that we are fed more by Primary Foods? Why yes or no? What areas have you found that you need to make adjustments to in order to feel happier and healthier? What steps will you make to improve?

If you like what you read here, remember to go down to the bottom of the page, click that”+” symbol, and type in your email where it says “follow blog via email.” You’ll have all future blog posts sent right to you! Thanks for coming to Lost Online!

Photos Ray Reyes @rocketsciencephoto.

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