Why a Balance of Health and Hedonism Matters

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Editor's Note:

Phoebe Lapine is a food and health writer, gluten-free chef, wellness personality, culinary instructor, speaker, and author of the award-winning blog, Feed Me Phoebe, where she shares recipes for healthy comfort food and insights about balanced lifestyle choices beyond what’s on your plate. Lapine is a regular contributor to Mind Body Green, The Huffington Post, and Food & Wine, among other publications. Feed Me Phoebe was a finalist in the Saveur Blog Awards 2015. She lives in New York. Her new book, The Wellness Project, is now available.

There’s a funny thing happening in the world of wellness right now.

At the same time that integrative health is elbowing its way into the mainstream, the pursuit of it has become that much more overwhelming. What was once fringe has blossomed into a frenzy.

There’s no area where we see this more than with food. One week it’s an article about how grains are corroding our brains. The next it’s that gluten hysteria is bogus, but sodium is our silent killer. Sometimes it seems like the only thing anyone can agree upon is that blueberries are awesome. (So long as they’re organic and not flown in from Chile).

With all these evils to sort through, it’s easy to feel food shame if you find yourself in a fugue state on the couch eating a bag of GMO corn tortilla chips with hummus and calling it dinner. Guilt drives some of us to keep inhaling health books and drinking ten-dollar green juices – hopping from one fad to another, just to feel like we’re doing right by our bodies. And confusion drives others to do nothing at all.

I spent most of my twenties swinging back and forth on this pendulum, from denial to obsession.

A year post-college graduation, after some routine blood work, my childhood doctor told me I had Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease that was causing my body to attack my thyroid gland. After she relayed that I would have to be on synthetic hormones for the rest of my life, I did what any super-mature twenty-two-year-old would do in my situation: I pretended like the conversation never happened and went on living my life.

In the years that followed, I started a food blog, got a cookbook deal, and left a cushy corporate job at the height of the recession to launch a career in food. I spent my days teaching nine-year-olds how to bake granola bars and my nights lugging hundreds of mini meatballs to upscale Fashion Week parties where no one wanted to eat them. And it was all going pretty well, until my stomach – my most trusted colleague – turned on me.

I had to stop jogging because I got stabbing cramps after just half a block. I was tired all the time, but rarely slept through the night without waking in a pool of sweat. My hands occasionally lost feeling and became so cold to the touch, you’d think I had spent my day digging for tubers in the snow.

It took me longer than it should have to realize these symptoms – hot and cold flashes, muscle pain, crushing fatigue – might be a product of my hypothyroidism. Once I did, it only took a beat before I dove headfirst down the rabbit hole of healthy living – bouncing between functional medicine doctors, grabbing onto every New Age fad and doodad I could find.

Some of these changes may have inspired a whole new outlook on my cooking, but they also meant I spent more money on green elixirs and supplements than I could afford and felt guilty every time I indulged in a bloody Mary at brunch or inhaled toxic fumes at the nail salon.

The more obsessive I got trying to follow the rules that doctors and experts on the bestseller list set for me, and the more failure I endured when I couldn’t, the less “well” I felt.

I knew I needed to find a new approach – one that would help me figure out what practices were actually worth the time, money, and energy I was spending on them. A system that would allow me to take the scenic route back up health mountain, and actually stop to smell the lavender along the way.

That approach became a yearlong odyssey in which I made one lifestyle change, one month at a time. I wrote a book, The Wellness Project, that chronicled everything I learned about my body and my disease in the process. And, more importantly, all the things that got in the way.

If there’s one thing I discovered the hard way during my project, it’s that if you’re stressing about what you’re eating all the time, no amount of kale salad can make you healthy. The same applies to anything we do in the name of wellness – be it avoiding chlorine in tap water, BPA plastic, or GMO corn. At the end of the day, our bodies are only as healthy as the head perched on top of them. And seeking perfection sometimes causes more anxiety than the end result is worth.

What I learned is that self-care is so much more than rote action – the number of vitamins popped, fitness classes attended, items crossed off a never-ending wellness to-do list. It’s also about pleasure.

As the wellness world continues to mushroom (in the marketing sense), slow and steady self-experimentation is one way to cut through the noise and free yourself from the guilt it breeds. Once you discover your non-negotiables, you can find more wiggle room out in the world. But in order to make those judgement calls on the fly, you can’t just consider what nourishes your body. You also have to embrace what feeds your spirit: Health and hedonism in equal measure.

There are more options now than ever. It’s time to find the ones that actually bring us joy.