Please, please, please, let’s focus on fitness and health, not weight loss.
I am writing this in response to reading about another study just published that shows significant health improvements in obese people with just a 5% weight loss. While I do not argue with the studies findings and what lies behind the finding is positive, I would like to point out some serious issues with attributing the health improvements to the weight loss itself, rather than the behaviours changes that the change in weight was a by-product of.
Why are we so fixated on weight loss being the reason for improved health when research shows us health can improve independent of weight loss? In addition, we now know the pursuit of weight loss often causes more long-term damage, both physiologically and psychologically, and even leads to weight gain.
Continuing to place the emphasis on weight loss, as many studies and health strategies do, serves to fuel our culture’s obsession with weight and looking a certain way in order to be physically fit. As shown in studies by Gaesser and explored in his book “Big Fat Lies”; physical fitness can be achieved independent of a person’s size, shape or weight.
Thinner is not what is better, fitter is what is better.
By continuing to focus on weight, we run the risk of more people turning to dieting in an attempt to lose weight, and as discussed in the weight gain link above, this can actually harm people’s health. Any dietary change that involves calorie restriction in an attempt to lose weight or change appearance is a form of dieting. We also run the risk of losing those people who could benefit from increased fitness but who give up on being more active or managing their eating better as they don’t see the “promised” weight loss that is “supposed” to come with increased exercise or improved eating habits.
Then there are the serious, and too often over-looked, issues around body image and eating disorders that accompany dieting and the desire to lose weight or be thinner. This is such a huge topic and too complex to give justice to in this article, other than to acknowledge that there is a strong link between the desire to lose weight, dieting, poor body image and eating disorders.
I am not, nor is the HAES movement, anti-weight loss. If people see a change in their weight as a by-product of sustainable behaviour change, and this weight change benefits the individual, then I’m all for it. Many people will see a 5% loss in weight when they start changing health behaviours, but some will not, often due to years of dieting. But, how many of those who achieve the 5% loss will be satisfied with that? Although they have seen a significant improvement to their metabolic function, many will want to lose more weight because that what our culture says is right, in terms of health and appearance. This will encourage people to do more to lose more weight, be that more exercise or dietary change. Many people would automatically assume this would be a positive thing, but if those changes involve focusing on calories, whether restricting or burning calories, or both, then this is dieting. As discussed, dieting does not produce long-term weight loss or health improvements, with most people regaining the weight within 1-5 years and many ending up heavier and less healthy.
What is so important to understand, is that dieting to lose weight is not some innocuous behaviour that in ineffective long-term, dieting actually causes damage physiologically through weight cycling and psychologically through decreased self worth and increased body image dissatisfaction, emotional distress, anxiety and disordered eating (read more on this).
Please share this article to help spread the message that fitness is much more important than weight!