Book Review: The Healthy Deviant: A Rule-Breaker’s guide to Being Healthy in an Unhealthy World, by Pilar Gerasimo

A new Reddit thread talks about a boss who took a team of people out to dinner to a steak restaurant, even though the boss knew that a third of his team was vegetarian. The vegetarians shared a bowl of nuts while their co-workers feasted on their meaty dinners.

Other vegetarians on the thread talk about repeatedly being asked at parties how they get enough protein. Someone else commented that they don’t go to social gatherings anymore.

As a wise frog once said, “It ain’t easy being green.”

While there is no shortage of books on how to be healthy, there are few on helping people navigate the social consequences of doing so. Pilar Gerasimo’s The Healthy Deviant is just that book.

The author points out that in order to live a healthy life, you have to buck social norms and get comfortable with being different. Our current culture in America is not conducive to living a healthy lifestyle. Fried Twinkies at the fair, anyone? M&M McFlurry with your cheeseburger? Waffle-wrapped fried chicken, like you saw on TV? All your friends are having one.

I’ve been a vegetarian since I was fourteen years old and have contended with negative social reactions ever since.

I recall attending barbeque parties (I’d just eat the corn-on-the-cob) where other guests would ask me how I could possibly miss out on eating ribs, one of the primary joys of living. Sometimes it feels downright un-American not to eat meat.

I have a relative who disapproves of my vegetarianism. When we eat at their house, there is no accommodation made for me or my daughter, who also does not eat meat. Even foods that are often made meat-free, like salad or pasta, will have meat added. It is understood that when dining at their house, we can eat what they have, and pick out the meat, or bring our own food from home.

Over the years my relative and I have established a sort of truce that makes me feel like—well—a social deviant. I am forced into a kind of separation from the group, with my plate looking different from everyone else’s, and feeling like I’m unintentionally insulting the host, who has worked so hard to make a lovely meal that everyone else is enjoying.

I don’t want to cause the host extra work. But how much trouble would it be to put a portion of the salad in a different bowl without chicken in it? I’ve often wondered which of us is being the most discourteous. Is it the host’s obligation to accommodate the other person’s dietary preferences, or the guest’s?

Perhaps you are a health “nut” (the existence of that phrase proves there is an issue) fortunate to have supportive friends and family, but for many of us, our co-diners let us know how they feel about our “holier than though” approach to food. Perhaps because they see our rejection of their dietary choices as criticisms of themselves, they will argue with us or tease us about our own choices.

In the age of BLM, this kind of mild social pressure needs to be put in perspective. It’s only a minor inconvenience. No one gets pulled over on the highway for driving while vegan. But social disapproval can undermine peoples’ attempts to adopt healthier lifestyles, and it’s worth talking about.

Gerasimo’s book is helpful because it brings to light these issues, which may be more felt than fully considered by “healthy deviants.” She explains that we need to be OK with bucking social norms for the good of our own health. And she offers numerous strategies on how to do so.

She starts by recalibrating what is “normal.” Just 3% of U.S. adults are healthy, happy and on track to stay that way, according to the Mayo Clinic and CDC, she says. We are living in a sick society, which means “acknowledging a disturbing truth: If you aren’t breaking the rules, you are probably breaking yourself.”

Part of the book is a manifesto on how influences from Education, Media, Industry, Government and Conventional Medicine conspire to create an unhealthy culture, intentionally or not. For example, she explains how:

  • The shallow, click-bait online world discourages deeper conversations
  • The government’s cozy ties with industry biases the USDA Nutrition Guidelines and public health policy
  • Physicians aren’t trained in nutrition in medical school

Gerasimo then walks us through her own journey to health, which began in her childhood living on a farm, and progressed to a career that includes being the founding editor of the healthy lifestyle magazine “Experience Life” and hosting the podcast “The Living Experiment.” In the past, she has been the health editor of the Huffington Post and chief creative officer for the Institute of Integrative Medicine. Gerasimo has also appeared on Dr. Oz, Oprah, and many other television programs. Today she also lectures at universities and leads workshops and retreats.

The rest of the book is a practical how-to guide. Gerasimo outlines a “virtuous cycle of healthy deviance” that includes non-conformist competencies like practicing amplified awareness, having an experiment mindset, and demonstrating agency and autonomy.

Some of her strategies include taking micro-actions and focusing on self-care. She explains how to develop morning and evening rituals; the importance of “ultradian rhythm” breaks; and the value of making sleep, exercise, and stress management important priorities. She offers many specifics on how to adopt these habits successfully.

Her tone throughout the book is warm and cheeky. It is illustrated with Gerasimo’s own hand-drawn sketches, adding to the friendly feel of the book.

“The Healthy Deviant” is not just for people who are already health-oriented; it may be particularly helpful for those who wish to start living a healthier life. The last section of the book is a 14-day plan for how to kick-start positive changes. Each day’s exercises include a reading, a series of “renegade rituals,” journaling prompts and progress-tracking.

Supportive strategies include practices to visualize success and anticipate stumbles on the journey. The author also offers many tools free online to support readers of the book. They include worksheets, journal pages and progress trackers.

Whether you are already practicing a healthy lifestyle or looking to start, this book is a valuable companion to developing the mental and emotional stamina that you will need to do so in today’s society.

With Gerasimo’s help, maybe healthy renegades can influence people around them to be healthier. And then one day, the people who adulterate perfectly good salad by covering it in bacon bits may be recognized as the true deviants.

Here’s my review of “The Future of Nutrition,” by T. Colin Campbell.

Read about “Breathe: The New Science of a Lost Art,” by James Nestor.

Read my review of “Fasts Carbs, Slow Carbs,” by David A. Kessler, MD.

Vicki Spellman

Vicki Spellman is a certified Holistic Nutritionist (AFPA) and Senior VP at a large healthcare communications firm.

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