When I started my health journey following a serious health scare, it was nerve-wracking. I made a 180-degree shift into healthy living and quickly lost 40 pounds. My family was supportive for the most part, but I started to occasionally notice small comments aimed at deflating my newfound sense of success.
During one dinner, a family member jokingly said I was looking sickly and skinny as a result of my weight loss. My knee-jerk reaction was to respond that this individual looked like he had gained the 40 pounds I had lost! It wasn’t a kind or appropriate comeback, and I felt guilty for the thought. It did make me think about how easy it is to fall into an “us versus them” mentality — and how damaging that mindset can be to anyone’s success.
When we’re committed to improving our health, it’s easy to think like I did at that dinner: “I’m trying hard, and you aren’t. Therefore, you’re less than.” This tribal mindset is dangerous, though. We are all better when we celebrate one another’s successes rather than define each other by divisions.
No matter which health tribes we fall into or where we are on our health journeys, supporting others is the key to making the world a healthier, better place. I’m sure of it.
Health tribes are groups of people who have integrated ideological (and sometimes political) stances into their lifestyles. They aim to use these points of view not only as a way to live healthier lives, but also to promote their perspectives. If health tribes were high school kids in a cafeteria, you might think of them as the jocks at one table, the hippies at another, and the cool kids who just don’t care at the next.
Some health tribes rely entirely on personal experience as the basis for their beliefs. For example, people display promo codes on their Instagram profiles for supplements with incredible (yet entirely unverified) health benefits. Other tribes, in contrast, leverage “research” or their own isolated medical results as a way to validate broad assertions. All tribes swear by their own approaches to maintaining their health because being wrong is a tough pill to swallow.
Whether a tribe believes in meal prep, vegan diets, CrossFit, or bulking up in the gym, each has a set of reasons for following that specific philosophy. But tribe members must open their minds to conversations about other philosophies.
When Tribes Collide
Whether we are at the gym, the office, or a family gathering, most of us working to live a healthy lifestyle will eventually experience or witness a collision of tribes. It can be as simple as a company picnic announcement that includes stipulations for vegetarians, vegans, and those who are gluten or lactose intolerant.
These tribes frequently run into each other on the internet, too. On social media, their interactions can quickly become aggressive and disrespectful. Unfortunately, there’s a fine line between a valuable Twitter discussion and a battle to be right. Considering the number of health news pieces and clickbait blog posts available today, it’s not hard to find a “source” to support practically anything. People can almost always find something to validate their existing beliefs and negate competing ones.
Conversations like these rarely convince anyone to change perspectives or habits. Real, thoughtful discussion is required for this type of discourse to matter in even the smallest way. Those are the kinds of conversations we need to have more often.
Consistency and Community Are Vital for Long-Term Success
Finding a tribe can help people feel a sense of community and reach their short-term goals, but it can also hinder their long-term success. Think of a running club or the Whole30 program. Both encourage people to band together under a common goal, which is undoubtedly a positive thing. But in the long run, what are the odds that participants are going to run five times a week and cut out sugar, alcohol, and sauces forever?
There’s a reason the best diets or exercises are the ones that can be maintained. Fixating on a singular approach can cause people to plateau or keep them from trying other methodologies that may produce better results. That mindset shift can be seen in some of the success stories of shows like “My 600-lb Life” and “The Biggest Loser.”
People must find a measured approach supported by the important people in their lives if they want to maintain results in the long run — it takes a village to sustain the pursuit of healthy living.
A Playbook for Coexistence
Health tribes can learn to coexist in harmony when division stops being the focus. Here are six ways to do precisely that:
1Avoid character attacks
People are finding their way toward health solutions that work best for them — and that journey isn’t always linear. They may be in different frames of mind when it comes to health exploration, so aggressive comments likely won’t change their thinking. It’s better to scroll past a fight than leave a comment that isn’t constructive or supportive.
2Seek common ground
When warring health tribes tear each other down, it only creates unhealthy dialogue and noise. Instead, tribes should aim to find common ground. Rather than fighting over the merits of a plant-based versus fat-based diet, for example, discuss the extent to which processing plays a role in lowering the nutritional density and quality of food. The JERF (just eat real food) movement is an excellent example of this consensus-oriented dialogue.
3Celebrate heightened awareness
Instead of poking holes in a generally well-reasoned approach, congratulate people for their successes. When appropriate, share positive feedback. This is a much stronger motivator than needlessly challenging differing ideologies.
4Find and support good editors and moderators
Seek out and encourage the people working to curb or correct misinformation. When you find a platform or community that fosters discussion and is open to diverse, research-backed perspectives, give credit where it’s due. Outlets like this make all of us more health-literate consumers.
5Remember that health literacy goes both ways
Over time, people will transition from one tribe to another. There’s value in individual journeys: Everyone’s health journey is ultimately unique to him or her — based on that individual’s lifestyle, existing health conditions, etc. There’s no “perfect” approach; people should live the best they can with open hearts and minds.
Curating a healthy image is cultural currency, but remember to view all “lifestyles” with an implied asterisk. For the sake of being right on the internet, influencers or bloggers may only be sharing part of the story to support the personas they’re trying to promote.
Most people look at health tribes from the wrong perspective. Rather than pitting one group against another, they should learn and pull insights from all kinds of groups to strengthen their own health journeys. I learned that lesson the hard way and had to apologize for it. We’re all better if we recognize that we’re stronger — in every way — when we support each other’s healthy lifestyle learnings.
See Also: What Can We Learn From Blue Zones?