Defining Healthy Weight: What It Isn’t and What It Is


Welcome to Healthy Weight Week!

This week is meant to help change the conversation around weight during the third week in January. That’s when New Year diets, cleanses, and “new you” efforts start to fall by the wayside because they’re, well, impossible to sustain.

Join us all week for a look at how you can put the fundamental elements of healthy living in place in your life for the long term.

Welcome to a liberating approach free of food fears, punishing exercise and negative thoughts about your body! Welcome to life!

Just What is a Healthy Weight?

Since Green Mountain at Fox Run became the official host of Healthy Weight Week, perhaps the most common question we’ve heard about the week is, “Just what is a healthy weight?”

Most often this comes from someone who has struggled with unrealistic expectations around weight – namely the thin ideal. They want to make sure it’s not another name for one-size-fits-all beliefs.

Other times, it’s someone who may just be waking up to a different approach to the whole issue.

Regardless, we wanted to clear this up at the start of Healthy Weight Week and offer our definition of the term, one we strongly believe that, with your help, can help change the way our culture views weight in the context of health.

So here’s our take on what a healthy weight isn’t, then what it is.

A Healthy Weight Isn’t….

  • A number on a scale
  • A category in the Body Mass Index (BMI)
  • A specific shape
  • Fitting into specific sizes of clothes

Why not? Because a healthy weight is individual. It cannot be determined without taking the individual into consideration. I talk more about this below.

But first, a word about the BMI.

The BMI derives from an almost 200-year-old classification system that was initially intended to be used to assess populations of people, not individuals. In the latter half of the last century, it morphed into something that was used to judge individual health based on height and weight, ignoring the many other factors that affect health.

But even looking at health based on height and weight, research clearly shows using the BMI is misguided. A meta-analysis of 97 studies of a total of almost 3 million people, published in 2013 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that people who fall into the overweight category are actually the longest-lived.1

When it comes to shape, even the commonly-used waist circumference measure as an indicator of health isn’t necessarily valid, according to a study published in a 2009 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.2

This is the idea that to be healthy, women should not measure more than 35 inches around the waist (40 inches for men). I can’t say it any better than the blog Junkfood Science phrased it: In this study of thousands of Americans, researchers found having a higher number for any measure of body shape or size, or body composition, is not predictive of higher risks of dying from all causes compared to people with ‘healthy’ numbers and picture-perfect bodies.” 

All that adds up to clothing size not predicting anything about health, although of course societal standards suggest otherwise.

A Healthy Weight Is….

  • Individual
  • Affected by more than diet and exercise
  • An outcome, not a goal

Just like the color of our eyes and how tall or short we are, people come in different sizes. Take the cultural definition of beauty out of it and you see that size doesn’t dictate health at all.

Have you been told, though, that you need to lose weight to improve your blood pressure, blood sugar or other health markers? Contrary to what you’ve heard, research suggests that weight is frequently not the cause of ill health.3 Said another way, a weight that is higher or lower than our healthy weight can be a symptom of a potential health issue, not a cause, just like unhealthy blood values are symptoms, not causes. 

So what can you do when you’re advised to lose weight? Focus on improving behaviors rather than losing weight; that offers much more promise for improving your health.

There are many factors that play into a person’s ability to achieve and maintain their individual healthy weight. We discuss key behaviors in our definition of healthy weight below. But other issues may also affect our weight, such as composition of gut bacteria, and exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals.

Dieting, however, remains one of the strongest predictors of weight gain.4,5 Research clearly underscores that the constant pursuit of weight loss leads people to gain weight instead, increasing odds of becoming obese by as much as three times.

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What Does Beauty Have To Do With Health?

It’s that thing called weight stigma, the judgment, shaming, blaming and discriminating of people based on their body size. If there is any way that weight generally impacts health, that’s it.

The health effects of weight stigma arise from the judgment associated with living in a larger body. It negatively affects people both physically and psychologically.

For example, people shamed or discriminated against because of their size may be more likely to binge eat and less likely to engage in self-care behaviors such as regular physical activity and stress management.

Psychologically, the effects of weight stigma range from anxiety and depression to increased suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

A True Definition of Healthy Weight

A healthy weight is best achieved when it happens naturally, as a result of adequate self-care. Because true self-care is involved in achieving and maintaining it, other good things show up, too.

For example, you’re more likely to feel better, and that often means better psychological and physical health, e.g., less anxiety or depression and healthy medical measures such as blood pressure and blood sugar.

And that brings us to the definition of a healthy weight we came up with a couple years ago to make it clear that it’s not about a number on a scale:

healthy weight women | natural weight

The next time you see a healthy weight defined in terms of size or shape, I hope this post – and the rest of the materials we’ll provide during Healthy Weight Week – will help you question that definition. And educate those who are still using it.

Stay tuned for the rest of Healthy Weight Week! Visit our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to find and share memes, videos, and infographics.

Check back here each day this week for blog posts about components of achieving and sustaining your healthy weight.

What do you think about this definition? We welcome comments to help define the term so that it serves us all better in living a healthy and fulfilling life, free of misguided notions about body size.

1 Katherine M. Flegal, PhD; Brian K. Kit, MD; Heather Orpana, PhD; Barry I. Graubard, PhD. Association of All-Cause Mortality With Overweight and Obesity Using Standard Body Mass Index Categories A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA2013 Apr;309(1):71-82.

2 Flegal KM, Graubard BI. Estimates of excess deaths associated with body mass index and other anthropometric variables. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Apr;89(4):1213-9.

3 Tomiyama AJ, Ahlstrom B, Mann T. Long-term effects of dieting: Is weight loss related to health? Social and Personality Psychology Compass. 2013; 7(12), 861-877.

O’Hara L. the HAES files: Uncommon knowledge about changes in body weight–part 1. Health at Every Size® Blog, May 1, 2012.

5 O’Hara L. the HAES files: Uncommon knowledge about changes in body weight–part 2. Health at Every Size® Blog, May 15, 2012.

10 responses to “Defining Healthy Weight: What It Isn’t and What It Is”

  1. Janet Lewis says:

    I agree with the definition, but it should not be used as an excuse to fill our bodies with crap. Americans are increasingly stuffing ourselves with processed crap in super sizes. When you go to a restaurant in Asia, the portions are much smaller but rarely do I leave a meal hungry. When I return to the US, I am shocked with the sheer quantity of what is served and how it is drenched in fats and salt that kill the natural taste of food. We need to learn to enjoy a variety of beautiful, clean food that our grandparents would have enjoyed, and learn to enjoy the pleasure of regular exercise, whether it is a walk around the block or swim in the pool. That is what will lead to more of us being healthy, and therefore at a healthy weight.

  2. Alice Rosen says:

    Thank you. This is a liberating statement. In response to the above comment, I do not think it provides an excuse to be mindless about choices and quantity of food eaten.

  3. Thanks, Marsha. Am sharing link to your article.

  4. 1. If there is a “healthy weight” then there is – by extension – an “UNhealthy weight”. This article seems more to be about how to get that healthy weight (not through food restriction or shaming). There seems to be some confusion: many articles now saying the weight-health correlation is tenous or even fallacious versus articles (sometimes within the same article) which state that there is such a thing as a healthy weight. I am certainly confused!!
    2. Personally, I know diets don’t work. I know shaming is unhealthy. I know health is mental, spiritual, and physical. But I still want to lose weight!! I feel physically more comfortable and move easier when I weigh less, and call it social conditining, but I also think I look more attractive. So I want to lose weight for those reasons, not for health. But i can’t….because diets don’t work!!!

    I’d really appreciate someone addressing these points 🙂

    • BJ Whittle says:

      I know it is so confusing thing at times. The paradox is: when you focus on weight loss and ignore the rest you will not get there for the long term because these methods ignore how your body works. When you focus on caring for yourself and meeting your needs (physical/emotional/mental), if you body has extra weight (from emotional eating etc…) it may be lost as a side effect of the process of looking after you. The weight loss cannot be the focus or you end up in diet mentality. Frustrating but true.

      In a nutshell, your best weight (could say it’s ‘healthy’ because you don’t use harmful methods to obtain) is what you get when most of the time you:

      1) get lots of sleep (7-8 hrs) each night
      2) are physically active doing something you enjoy most days (aim around 30 minutes 3-5 times a week)
      3) are mindful of what you eat (not using outside ‘shoulds’)-finding what foods and combinations satisfy your mouth and body and give energy- when you eat them AND after you eat them. Learning when you’re hungry and full/satisfied- this takes time.
      4) learning to deal with emotions that cause you to eat when not hungry.
      5) pursuing things that match your values and bring life/spiritual satisfaction.
      6) learning to deal with stress. (may need help with this)

      When you eventually can do most of the above on most days (it can take months or a year to gradually make this a habit), your body will relax and heal -this takes time. If you have gained weight from eating when not hungry/overeating, it is likely you will lose weight because you now deal with emotions without food most times. Sleep and activity also help your body work at optimum levels.

      How much you lose depends on your own body and genetics. It may not be as much as you want. You are a complex being and there are many factors that brought you where you are today. When you get frustrated, try practicing patience and being gentle with yourself. Take care!

  5. emmaholden11 says:

    Thanks for shared this information with us.this is the good post for healty weight loss..

  6. Janice says:

    Thanks so much for this! I am currently in an ED program. I am the only binge eater there. It is difficult to get a clear understanding of what recovery looks like. All of the other ladies are on weight restoration plans. I don’t need to utilize a weight restoration plan, as my body has increased to a very physically uncomfortable condition from binging. When I inquire as to what recovery looks like and when will I feel physically better; I am told to have self compassion and more. I agree with self compassion and have a pretty good understanding of what has led me to this condition. However, if I said that I am not concerned about my physical outcome as well as my emotional; I would be lying. My BED skyrocketed after being prescribed bipolar meds. I believe that my comorbidities should be considered. I truly wish I could afford your program. However I have to rely on insurance. Your site and articles are truly appreciated.

  7. Shiri Macri says:

    Hi Janice,

    Thanks for reaching out. It can be quite difficult to be in treatment if your peers have different struggles/plans. I’m sorry you’re having that experience. I appreciate your honesty about being concerned with the physical outcome…of course that’s true. Whether that has to do with body image, or comfort, or health, it is often a factor. One part of healing binge eating is changing the focus from weight to health…total health…of the mind and body (if needed).

    Stay connected to our blogs and newsletters, the articles are very relevant to your struggle. Another resources is a book entitled “Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat, for Binge Eating” by Dr. Michelle May and Dr. Kari Anderson. It’s an excellent self-help guide for dealing with binge eating. Also, if you are interested in our program but cost is a factor, you might think about our weekend programs, which cost less. And the Binge Eating Weekend Intensives we offer are insurance reimbursable. One of our program advisors could give you more information if you wanted to call.

    In the meantime, I’m glad you’re taking care of yourself with treatment.

    I wish you well.

  8. Michelle Vina-Baltsas says:

    This a wonderful article and the video is great, too. Like you, I spread this good word too in my practice by teaching women about Intuitive Eating and HAES. It’s often an up hill battle, but people are starting to get the message that diets don’t work.

    I read some of the comments and I especially appreciated your response to the woman who commented that she wanted to lose weight. Your response was perfect!

    I will share this with my people. Thank you again for your work in raising awareness. Together we can make a difference.

  9. Wellness says:

    Thanks for blog post, this is very helpful for us keep updating your post on time.

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About the Author

Marsha Hudnall, MS, RDN, CD

If you’re looking for an embodiment of dedication disguised as obsession, look no further. Marsha is a registered dietitian who has spent the last four decades working to help women give up dieting rules and understand how to truly take care of themselves. Her mission in life is to help women learn to enjoy eating and living well, without worries about their weight. She encourages women to embrace their love of food, which you might call being a foodie. If so, it’s appropriate because being a foodie means you pay attention when you eat. That’s a recipe made in heaven for eating well. Marsha is the President and Co-Owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run.

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