How To Stay Healthy Even If You Eat Junk, Smoke Ciggies, Skip Exercise & Booze It Up


By Lissa Rankin MD

Guest Writer for Wake Up World

Ever since we docs started teaching people the importance of smoking cessation, moderation in alcohol intake, a nutritious, mostly plant-based diet, daily exercise, and weight control, millions of people have been beating themselves up for unhealthy lifestyle habits. Yet the guilt and shame so many feel hasn’t led to significant improvements in the health of the general public. Even though people know how to live a “healthy” lifestyle, most choose not to. Instead, rates of diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and other largely preventable diseases are on the rise.


While lots of people rattle off about the importance of healthy lifestyle modifications – and as a green-juicing, exercising, non-smoking, health food junkie, I agree with them – what shocks me is how few are talking about the other critical factors that contribute to health and longevity – the factors that are arguably even more important than diet, cigarette use, alcohol intake, weight, and exercise.

Some Diseases Are Preventable

Before I share with you these factors that may shock you, let me start with a hat tip to conventional medical wisdom. Yes, some diseases are largely preventable. If you’re a 3 pack-a-day smoker who winds up with lung cancer, you’re probably feeling pretty crappy about your cancer because you know that if you had never smoked, you probably wouldn’t have been saddled with that disease. If you’ve been eating at McDonalds every day, it won’t surprise you if a heart attack knocks you flat and you have to get bypass surgery. If you’ve been boozing it up for three decades and you wind up with cirrhosis of the liver, well… not to be harsh, but you knew that might happen, right? If you’re four hundred pounds and you get diabetes, um… need I say more?

Yes, if we aim to lead optimally healthy lives, diet, exercise, weight control, alcohol intake, and cigarette use matter.

Some Unhealthy People Live To Be 100

But let’s face it. Some smoking, boozing, overweight, junk food binging couch potatoes stay healthy and die of old age. As a physician, these people have always blown me away. How are their bodies so resilient to such poisons? Is it genetic? Is it just dumb luck? These people left me scratching my head, until I was doing the research for my book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself (Hay House, 2013).

Clearly, there are many factors contributing to why one person winds up sick when another stays healthy, in spite of poor health habits. The same is true for the health nut who is doing everything “right” but still winds up sick.

So what are these factors that your doctor probably isn’t discussing with you?

Loving Community Equals Health

Let me start by telling you a story.

Once upon a time, a tribe of Italian immigrants crossed the Atlantic and settled in Roseto, Pennsylvania, where they didn’t exactly live the most “healthy” lifestyle. They ate meatballs fried in lard, smoked like chimneys, boozed it up every night, and pigged out on pasta and pizza. Yet, shockingly, they had half the rate of heart disease and much lower rates of many other illnesses than the national average. It wasn’t the water they drank, the hospital they went to, or their DNA. And clearly, it wasn’t their stellar diet. So what was it that made the people of Roseto so resistant to heart disease?

One physician, baffled by their low rates of heart disease, studied the townspeople to determine why they were so protected.

The Effects of Loneliness On The Body

What his researchers found is that the tight knit community living in multi-generational homes and enjoying communal dinners and frequent festivities provided solace from the loneliness so many people feel. The love and support of others in the close knit community alleviated the stress and overwhelm many lonely people feel. Researchers posit that the stress lonely people feel, which increases cortisol levels and activates the sympathetic nervous system, raising heart rate, elevating blood pressure, incapacitating the immune system, and increasing the risk of heart disease, is responsible for much of the illness lonely people experience.

Because the people of Roseto never felt alone, they rarely died of heart disease – most died of “old age”- even though they smoked, ate poorly, and drank. As it turns out, alleviation of loneliness is preventative medicine, and the scientific data suggests that loneliness is a stronger risk factor for illness than smoking or failure to exercise.

Why One Person Gets Sick & Another Stays Healthy

It’s not just loneliness that contributes to whether you get sick or stay healthy. As I discussed in my TEDx talk, it’s not just your relationships that affect your health – it’s work stress, financial stress, mental health issues like depression and anxiety, whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic, and whether or not you’re actively engaging in potentially stress reducing activities like creative expression, sex, and spiritual activities like prayer, attending religious services, or meditation.

For example, let’s take one person who eats poorly, smokes, and never exercises, but who enjoys an incredible marriage, a great family, fabulous friends, a rewarding and financially lucrative job, a sense of life purpose, a healthy spiritual life, a blossoming creative life, and a kickin’ sex life. Aside from the cloud of smoke infusing the lungs with toxins and the poisons this person’s body is ingesting, this kind of lifestyle has been scientifically proven to result in better health than the lonely individual in an emotionally abusive marriage, with a soul-sucking job, no sex life, an absent spiritual life, and no creative outlets. The scientific data suggests that the “unhealthy” individual with an otherwise healthy, balanced life is more likely to live a long, healthy life than a nonsmoking, abstaining vegan with a personal trainer who is unhealthy and miserable in all other facets of life.

Make sense?

How Healthy Is Your Life?

In my upcoming book, I go into great detail, proving how each of these factors of a healthy life affect the physiology of the body, but until then, let me just assure you that what I’m suggesting is true. I’m not recommending that you pick up smoking, drinking, or overeating (and if you already have, you can read here about how I think you shouldn’t kick the habit until you’re ready). But I am suggesting that you start thinking about your health beyond the traditional confines of how most people define health. (You can read more about my expanded definition of health here.)

Previous articles by Lissa

About the author

lissa_rankinLissa Rankin, MD is a mind-body medicine physician, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute training program for physicians and health care providers, and the New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself. She is on a grass roots mission to heal health care, while empowering you to heal yourself.

Lissa blogs at and also created two online communities – and She is also the author of two other books, a professional artist, an amateur ski bum, and an avid hiker. Lissa lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and daughter.

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  • Vailhem

    I think it has just as much to do with how our genetics responds as how the organisms living within us respond.

    We are containers for entire ecosystems of organisms. To not focus on these, and to but so much on just our individual organism is both naive and completely missing of the point.

    Our microbiomic profile effects our health as much as our diets and lifestyles. Many of the most affecting are the fungi living within us, most notably candida. Sure our bodies abilities to rid itself of undesirables is partially genetically programmed, but it has just as much to do with the ‘little critters’ working with us and within us as it does our livers and kidneys and such. Greater attention needs to be shifted to this to provide for a better understanding… and, who knows, maybe it just may unlock a lot of unanswered questions about what ails us.

    Mind over health? Absolutely, and with up to 40% of the neurons in our bodies living throughout our gi-tract, along with countless other species living among them that produce countless neurochemicals, hormones, etc… it’s a wonder we even need our brains to begin with.

  • I think there is a balance to be found. I have friends on both ends of the spectrum and after a life time of conventional food I made the switch to a healthier lifestyle with my family. I’ve lost a hundred pounds and I’ve never been more vital until I sprained my ankle and ended up staying stationary again after reconnecting with my body and being more active than I had been in my youth. We’ve slid back to the occasional conventional diet of fast food and we drink socially and on weekend nights more often than we had when we were at our peak of health. I think the conscious thought of our experience factors in to our general health. Drinking is okay so long as we don’t overindulge and starve our body of hydration. The occasional junk food meal is okay so long as the majority of the food in our diets is healthy. Eating to live and drinking to live rather than living to eat or drink allows us to have both ends of the spectrum into our balance. We get sick rarely. (Mostly allergies.) We have up and down days. Right now we could stand to eat out less often (our schedule is tight on weekends but that’s because we’re active in our community.) I think as long as we know that we’re happy with our decisions that our bodies find a way to make it work. It’s a learning experience and we get unhealthy when we let it get so out of whack that we’ve forgotten what it meant to experience it until it takes us over and we have no choice but to listen. (Thank you to my sprained achilles.) I had not known that how I was walking was wrong for me until I was forced to work for every step back to balance. <3 I'm not sure if that explains my take on it very well but that's the best I can do.

  • kush

    I think it all boils down to one simple question – Are you happy leading your overall life or not? If yes, then little factors that are out of place will be compensated for and won’t have any effect.

  • Brett Page

    My grandmother is 100 years old and has lived alone for 70 years and still going strong. She doesn’t eat much and doesn’t eat meat. I think that’s the secret!!!

  • carolina

    I definitely agree. I smoke don’t exercise drink socially alcohol and I was always very healthy and was always surrounded by my good confident, warm, funny, girlfriends every day i ha company and smiles and lot’s of activities to do to keep me occupied and alive. Everything changed one year ago since I moved from my country to other country. I gain weight, I’m always with flu, headaches (wish I never had those before in my life) anxiety,mood swings, fatigue, tired legs. And one thing changed I don’t have friends, and never felt so lonely in my life before,never.

  • Derek

    There’s often a confusion between loneliness and being alone. I live alone and am far happier than when I was married with a close knit family. In fact the only time I ever feel loneliness is in social situations, so much so that I avoid them.

    • Toxy

      I sure hope this is the case. I live a healthy lifestyle but am a total hermit, so reading this article was quite unsettling.

  • Julia Spiegel

    “Even though people know how to live a “healthy” lifestyle, most choose not to.” um… this is because they’re addicted. yes, being alone is a huge problem for some… but a lot of addicts are alone because they’re addicts. so the biggest problem IS NOT LONELINESS and needing to find a tribe.

    it’s all connected to eating bad food, smoking cigs, and drinking alcohol. when you harm your body you are killing yourself which puts you into survival mode which makes you selfish and greedy. there are not many people who are mentally healthy who smoke, drink, and eat bad food.. i’m sorry, that’s just not how biology works.

    it’s also easier for an addict to quit when they have someone to help them… but then again.. addicts are less likely to be receptive to any of that because they are in survival mode.

  • Dave

    This article is basically explaining that it’s healthier to cut out big life stress factors than to cut out unhealthy lifestyle practices. I’m alone most of the time, definitely a hermit, but rarely if ever get lonely, and I’m happy. There’s no drama, no fighting, no arguing over petty nonsense, much less financial stress, and lots of peace. I can be around people if I choose, or be alone. When being alone is a choice, it’s healthy. When it’s not a choice, and it causes stress, it’s loneliness.