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….
- 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:
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.
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. JAMA. 2013 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.
4 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.