So, you care about your health? Neat! I’m a registered dietitian and I’m here to help you take care of your health without focusing on your weight. Unfortunately, we’ve been misled into believing that thin equals healthy and that fat equals unhealthy and that we need to do whatever it takes to get in thin in order to be healthy.
FYI, I say “fat” here as a neutral descriptor of body size. This term has been used as an insult, but the reality is there is nothing bad or wrong about being fat. Many folks in the fat activism space have moved to reclaim the term, and I am following their lead.
You might be wondering, “Why is focusing on weight not helpful?”
First, we cannot correctly assume anything about a person’s health just by knowing their weight or size. There are plenty of thin folks who have health issues, and there are also loads of fat folks who may not experience health conditions we typically assume all fat folks struggle with.
And, in my experience working with my nutrition counseling clients, focusing on weight actually leads to unhealthy and disordered behaviors, not long-term healthy habits. And, if the scale doesn’t move in the direction you want it to, you might abandon those health behaviors.
Moral of the story: Weight is not a proxy for health! And weight loss doesn’t equal health gain.
What is Health, Anyway?
Health is very complex. What most impacts our health is our physical environment, social and economic factors, and access to equitable healthcare.
You might be thinking, “OK but, I felt healthier when I was thinner.”
I hear that! And I want you to remember that correlation is not causation. Get curious about what was going on in your life when you felt healthier, what kind of healthcare you were receiving, what you were doing, and how you were taking care of yourself. These are the things that have a greater impact on our health than our size.
Also, remember that it may not be possible to get back to a previous, smaller size without engaging in disordered behaviors. That’s because our bodies have really sophisticated mechanisms that help prevent us from starving to death (thanks, body!).
Here’s the thing: You don’t have to chase your previous body. Learning to accept your current body while respecting and caring for it will likely get you closer to your health goals than trying to whittle yourself away.
You might be wishing you could, “Just lose the weight first and then focus on long-term health.”
Our society puts a lot of pressure on us to conform to beauty standards that include a thin physique. It’s not just beauty standards — our healthcare system has put an unnecessary and harmful emphasis on thinness. And fat people are stigmatized and discriminated against so many people don’t want to be fat because they’re treated worse because of their body size. So this drive for thinness makes sense. But in the end, it’s just not healthy.
Also, did you know that the vast majority of those who intentionally lose weight gain it all back? And many gain back more weight than they lost. In fact, dieting (which is pretty much required for intentional weight loss) is associated with weight gain over time. And that’s not all, there are serious side effects associated with weight loss attempts.
So if you’re not following food rules and you’re not focusing on your weight… what in the world do you focus on?
First let’s begin with why we want to let go of dietary restriction and weight loss behaviors!
Dangers of Weight Cycling
Weight cycling is when weight goes up and down, repeatedly. Which is what happens when we try to control our weight. It’s very rare for someone to intentionally lose weight and keep it off. When we try to lose weight, our metabolisms react defensively and try to protect us from further weight loss. Evolutionarily, this makes sense! Our bodies helped us survive famines. And, our bodies don’t know the difference between a famine and a self-imposed weight-loss diet.
And it’s not just that we don’t have a way to lose weight and keep it off, it’s actually pretty harmful for our bodies to go through repeated weight loss and gain. Here are some of the outcomes of weight cycling:
- Decreased bone mass (increased risk for osteoporosis)
- Increased inflammation (increased risk for many chronic diseases including heart disease and diabetes)
- Increased mortality risk (greater chance of dying)
In the end, we don’t have a safe and effective way to intentionally lose weight and keep it off. Pursuing weight loss is most often associated with health risks rather than benefits.
Weight-Neutral Approaches to Health
Research on weight-inclusive approaches, including Health At Every Size® (HAES®) and intuitive eating, has found that participants often experience improvements in health without focusing on weight. These approaches focus on body acceptance, accessible healthcare, reliance on internal hunger and satiety cues rather than dieting, joyful movement rather than punishing exercise, and overall well-being.
Findings of HAES and intuitive eating research:
- Greater body acceptance
- Improved self-care behaviors
- Better psychological health (positive body image, self-esteem)
- Weight maintenance (no weight gain or loss)
- Improved, or at least maintained dietary quality (i.e. their nutrition didn’t plummet)
What to Focus on Instead of Losing Weight
It’s no secret that our culture idealizes thinness and it makes total sense that people have a drive for it. But what’s really at the root of a desire for weight loss? Usually it’s the desire to feel happy and healthy, which is completely understandable. So now that you know weight loss is not a one-way ticket to happiness or health, what can you do to move closer to those goals?
Eat Food that Feels Nourishing and Satisfying
Having access to enough food is the first step of good nutrition, and if you have this privilege, it’s a good idea to keep your kitchen stocked with plenty of options for meals and snacks.
Eating a variety of foods, both nourishing and satisfying, with full permission and without restriction, can help you move toward a peaceful relationship with food.
Move in Ways that Feel Joyful
Our bodies enjoy regular movement and it doesn’t matter what it is — as long as it feels good! And there are so many health benefits that have nothing to do with how we look.
Numerous studies have shown that physical fitness is a much stronger indicator of health than weight or size. In fact, people who are fat and fit may enjoy better health than people who are thin and sedentary.
Rather than forcing an exercise regimen in hopes that it manipulates your body’s appearance, ask your body if it would like to move, and if so, what would feel best?
Engage in Consistent Self-Care
Make a list of what helps you unwind, feel energized or get centered. Work these things into your daily and weekly routines.
Self-care doesn’t have to be bubble baths and massages (although these do feel wonderful) — it’s whatever helps you feel good physically, emotionally and mentally.
It includes going to necessary physical and mental health appointments, taking medications and dietary supplements, and doing the “mundane” things like brushing and flossing your teeth.
You might also consider adding more sleep and time in nature, and less time on screens and social media.
Make a point to pay more attention to the present moment. When we’re stressed out, it often is because we’re worried about something that happened in the past, or something we think is going to happen in the future.
When the desire to diet or lose weight comes up, dig deeper and ask yourself what’s really behind that desire.
What can you do today to help yourself feel better? And what does “better” mean? Is it more energized, happier in your relationships, more fulfilled in your career?
Build Body Trust
Your body comes with complex and sophisticated mechanisms to help you thrive.
Practice intuitive eating. This involves letting go of food rules and restrictions and tuning into your body’s internal hunger and fullness cues.
Work Toward Body Acceptance
When we come from a place of acknowledgment rather than judgment, we’re on the way to a healthier relationship with our bodies.
If you feel like there is no way you could love your body, that’s OK. Can you start with respecting your body?
Here’s one way to get started: Buy clothes that fit your current body. You deserve to feel comfortable!
I hope this information has inspired you to focus on your well-being rather than your weight. It’s not easy living in our diet culture that is obsessed with thinness and it’s tough work challenging the status quo. Remember: We all deserve to live comfortably and happily in our bodies with access to equitable healthcare and nourishing foods.
If you could benefit from personalized support with food and body image, we offer one-on-one weight-inclusive nutrition counseling.
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