Chris Sandel is a nutritionist and runs the company 7 Health. He specialises in helping clients ending dieting, reproductive issues and disordered eating and he’s here at Frame to talk about how general advice on healthy living must be taken in the context of the individual because one size does not fit all.

One of the most important ideas I try and stress with clients is the idea of context. What do I mean by this? A phrase I regularly hear from people is “I’ve heard that x is healthy for me” where x can be a whole multitude of things like exercise, kale, green juices, a low carb diet. The list is almost endless for what people have heard or believe are healthy for them.

My common response to these statements is “well it depends”, which is normally followed by me asking them a collection of questions. These questions are to discover more information about how the specific food, habit or practice affects them.

Because regularly when I ask these questions we discover that the said ‘healthy’ thing isn’t so healthy for that person. Or at least not in the way they are applying it. Let me use exercise as an example:

Lots of clients who come to see me are on the point of breakdown. They’ve been hyper vigilant with their eating to the point of anxiety. Whole food groups have been removed under the guise of “health”.

They have combined this eating regime with an equally punishing exercise routine. They are training five days a week, consisting of high-intensity interval training and heavy weights all while eating a diet that’s barely supportive for a five-year-old.

In these situations, I often recommend that they abstain from exercise in the short term. How long depends on their recovery; maybe it will be a couple of weeks, maybe it will be a couple of months.

This recommendation is normally met with some resistance for a number of reasons. But one of the big ones is “but I thought exercise was healthy?” I explain that it is in the right context, but unfortunately, it is not working for them (at least right now).

On the days they exercise it energises them for about 30 minutes and then they crash for the rest of the day. On the days they exercise it messes with their sleep; they are regularly waking up in the night or having trouble falling to sleep. On the days they exercise they are freezing and can’t stop peeing every half an hour. On the days they exercise they feel like a slave to chocolate and regularly find themselves powerless to say no.
Over the last six months, their performance while exercising has become worse and they often feel light headed during classes.

For all these reasons exercise isn’t working for them right now. Maybe they can do some walking or some light stretches, but for now, exercise should be put on hold until their health improves, regardless of how good exercise is meant to be for them on paper.

Another example for understanding context is the idea of going on a “detox”.

When I was 21 the way I got into nutrition was doing a detox. I’d recently moved to the UK from Australia and food was one of the things I least cared about. I was always slim so basically ate whatever I wanted. McDonalds, KFC, and kebabs were staples of my diet.

Despite not being overweight, I had terrible skin. Really angry acne that I was very conscious of. I’d been on and off antibiotics for the last three years to deal with it but every time I finished the course, the bad skin would come back.

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A friend suggested going on a detox to see if it would help and I decided to give it a go. The detox was a vegan diet that was also low in fats and free of sugar and alcohol. There were no restrictions on how much I could eat as long as I avoided these certain foods. While it felt like a massive change, in the whole scheme of things it was pretty moderate in comparison to most “detoxes” that I see promoted these days.

This “detox” was fantastic for me. In four weeks I saw huge improvements in my skin to the point of being acne free. (It didn’t last when I stopped but it was good to see what could happen when I ate better).

But more importantly than changes to my skin were the changes to my eating and cooking that continued after the detox was over. I ate much less fast food. I started cooking more vegetables and other foods that hadn’t been part of my diet. It expanded my eating repertoire and improved it for the better.

But despite all these benefits, when people ask me now do I recommend “detoxes” for clients, my normal response is no. So why is this? I was someone who was eating poorly and had very little understanding about food. Doing a detox helped to expanded my knowledge, my health and my cooking. The detox I chose was pretty mild in it’s suggestions with no restrictions on calories and encouragement to fill up on lots of food.

The majority of people who want to do a “detox” these days are already heavily restricted in their eating. They keep their calories low, they avoid or limit carbs, they don’t eat “sugar” and they are already wary (read: paranoid) about food.

The “detox” that they want to do is something that further restricts their food choices and calories; whether it be a “juice detox” or something like the “Master cleanse”. The “detox” isn’t expanding and helping them; it’s further promoting a troubled way of eating.

And while they normally say that they want to do it because of “health”, really it is about their weight. Regardless of what they weigh, they want to weight less, and a detox is seen as a way of achieving this.

(I’m not going to get into whether a “detox” is actually “detoxing” but it is something I’ve covered in this article).

So just like exercise, a “detox” can be helpful, but it depends on context, like most things to do with health. What’s the state of your body? How do you react? What else is going on in your life?

Regardless of how good you believe something is on paper, please remember that context is key. You need to understand where you are at. And this should be based on your current situation, not the dreamland you want to reach and what you believe you need to do to get there.

Because when you really pay attention you’ll discover things that are “healthy” that don’t work for you, just as you’ll discover things that are “unhealthy” that actually really help you. But only if you’re open to it.

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