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Being ‘Healthy’ Isn’t Enough — Be Health-Literate

If you're ready to become more health-literate, these missteps can help you see where you have room for improvement.

If you ask, most people will say they are good drivers, according to a number of studies, but there is no real, specific definition of what being a good driver means. The exact same thing happens with health or being healthy.

When people self-assess skills, there is a tendency to be overconfident in abilities. This phenomenon is so prevalent that it actually has a scientific title: illusory superiority, the psychological concept of perceiving oneself as above average. Research shows that it affects virtually everyone to some degree, and it goes beyond just our perceptions of how well we drive. This exact same phenomenon can have significant — and often negative — impacts on our long-term health.

Breaking Down the Illusion

When you ask friends, family, co-workers, or even complete strangers if they consider themselves to be healthy, most will say yes. Unless they’re dealing with a serious health concern or problem at that moment, it’s usually their default reaction to answer in the affirmative. Just like there’s no definition of being a good driver, there’s no definitive standard for being healthy.

Occasional exercise might seem like a good enough reason to call ourselves healthy because we feel like we at least do more than most people. How many times a week does the average American exercise? Two? Three? How many times a week does the average American drink alcohol, eat potato chips, or have french fries? It’s the same logic that says, “I deserve this piece of cake because I don’t eat cake every day.” The problem with this line of thinking, though, is that it fails to take individual macro levels and societal and environmental factors into account to really know what is right for your individual needs.

In a study published by the Association for Psychological Science, researchers found that other people can predict a person’s outcomes much more accurately than that person can predict his or her own. When people assess their own health risks, they are unrealistically optimistic in their answers.

Experts have realized that the most accurate way to assess your own health is to test your level of health literacy. In the same way a credit score shows you a holistic picture of your financial health, a health literacy score helps you close any gaps in your health knowledge to avoid negative health outcomes caused by a lack of awareness or poor habits down the road.

What Is Health Literacy, and Why Does It Matter?

Health literacy is the extent to which we can process and understand basic health information and services in order to make appropriate, educated decisions for ourselves. It’s how smart we are about factors that impact our health.

Unlike the general concept of “being healthy,” being health-literate actually does depend on specific criteria. The culture we live in, the options we have access to, and awareness of the demands of our own personal circumstances all play a role in our ability to be health-literate.

When we don’t know what we don’t know, it’s hard to improve. The whole world of health becomes a blind spot, and any missteps could be disastrous for us at some point in the future. According to an Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality report, low health literacy is tied directly to a higher risk of hospitalization and even death.

Being able to identify where we can potentially improve our health literacy means being able to make better, more proactive choices for our health. Even small improvements implemented over time can successfully reduce the number of emergency room visits we make in our lifetime and lower our risk of chronic issues like heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.

We are all dealt different cards in life. How we play them is what matters.

Be More Than Healthy; Be Health-Literate

In the end, what matters most is being around for our families for as long as we can and creating healthy, happy lives for our children and loved ones. The conscious, informed choices we make about our health will impact those around us and become part of the legacy we leave behind once we are gone. Just think — what will your loved ones remember you for? Anyone making healthy choices in life (day-to-day or as a committed lifestyle) is an unsung hero and wholeheartedly deserves to be rewarded for his or her efforts.

If you’re ready to become more health-literate but aren’t exactly sure where to begin, the following missteps can help you see where your health literacy has room for improvement.

1. Letting excess calories sneak into our diets:

Most of us know soda is bad, so we often choose alternatives like coffee, fruit juice, and smoothies thinking they’re healthier options — but they aren’t much better. Eight ounces of orange juice typically contains around 110 calories compared to the 140 calories in a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola.

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition points to sugar-rich beverages as a leading factor in weight gain. With that in mind, one of the best ways to ensure we don’t sabotage our work to live a healthy life is to drink mainly water and unsweetened teas throughout the day. Being aware of the calories in drinks we think of as healthy (like juices or flavored waters) is an easy start toward improving health literacy.

2. Thinking some bread might be all right:

Bread tastes amazing. It’s a fairly universal truth. But what it does to our blood sugar is just as amazing — for all the wrong reasons. Unfortunately, there’s no good bread. Most bread we buy at the grocery store is processed to some degree, and because our bodies digest processed foods faster, even a single slice can raise our blood sugar levels to a shocking extent.

Letting go of bread can be difficult, as it’s a staple in the American diet. But even slightly reducing how often we eat it and increasing our protein intake can significantly improve our blood sugar and cholesterol levels and reduce inflammation.

3. Putting all our eggs in the exercise basket:

One of the biggest fallacies of illusory superiority is thinking that exercising more often than those around us is all it takes to be healthy. Another is thinking that exercising more will negate any bad dietary decisions we make. But no workout can replace the value of living mindfully and living well — and that starts in the kitchen.

“You can’t outrun a bad diet.” “Exercise is not enough.” We’ve all heard trainers or fitness friends say these things, or we’ve seen inspirational quotes shared on social media. Unfortunately, it’s the truth.

Our bodies have finite energy, and only a small percentage of it goes to physical activity. Most — up to 80% — goes to metabolic resting, which is the energy our bodies burn digesting food and performing other vital functions. Because of this, focusing on healthy eating and making incremental changes to our diets is just as important as sticking to a good exercise routine when it comes to our health.

4. Buying the “I’m young; it won’t happen to me” myth:

This might be the most important self-defeating habit to break, and we often don’t even realize it. I didn’t until I was 37. A day after selling my last company to Google, I got chest pains during a charity 10K and ended up in the ER. My father had his first heart attack at the age of 45, so I wrongly assumed that I still had plenty of time to worry about it. In the years that followed, I lost 40 pounds, changed my diet dramatically, and ran three marathons.

Since that day, I’ve learned that living a healthy lifestyle is hard work, but it’s work that’s absolutely necessary to live a long life that lets me be there for my family and loved ones. While it was eye-opening to realize and difficult to admit, my lack of health literacy was the biggest roadblock to that goal.

Ignoring health simply because we think we can improve it later on is a dangerous illusion that can legitimately be the difference between life and death. No one knows how many days are left. It’s never too early to learn about and improve your health literacy for the sake of your future. Doing so will let you live more boldly and celebrate many years to come with those who matter most.

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