The common assumption (or common wisdom) is losing weight will make you healthier, that if your BMI is above 25, you need to lose weight to manage your health. These assumptions are so strong that they prevail despite lack of evidence that pursing weight loss improves long-term health, largely because not enough people have lost weight and kept it off long enough to test this theory.
The strength of this common wisdom may also explain why most people overlook the fact that weight is not a behaviour. Take a moment to let that sink in – WEIGHT IS NOT A BEHAVIOUR. The way in which people can influence their health, is through behaviours. Focusing on weight distracts from the actual behaviour change and the weight loss often takes the credit for health improvements when it was actually the changes to lifestyle, diet, activity, mental health etc that should take the limelight. In short, we really need to stop focusing on weight when it comes to health.
You may ask, given this lack of evidence, how has this common assumption become so pervasive? Here are some of the reasons why…
- Our culture’s strong weight bias – we live in culture that has been deeply conditioned to believe fat is bad and unhealthy, a culture that wrongly equates thinness with worthiness, attractiveness, success, health and happiness.
- Our culture’s weight stigma – people in bigger bodies are constantly being judged as doing something wrong, having a body that is wrong, being lazy, incompetent and unhealthy.
- The persistent public health (or more accurately, public shaming) messages that fat is bad and being “obese” is deadly
- The continual advertising of weight loss solutions, weight loss products, body transformations and surgery
- Doctors and other health professionals advising weight loss as necessary for almost any condition. Being weighed at the doctor and told you need to lose weight regardless of your health status.
- Being surrounded by people, often family and friends, deeply conditioned to this assumption and talking about the next diet they’re doing or how they’re losing weight
Given all these factors, it’s not difficult to understand why so many people are unhappy with their bodies and desperate to lose weight, even people who don’t have any health issues or who may not even be considered fat by societal standards. I’m not saying it’s wrong to want to lose weight, I’m hoping to acknowledge why this desire is understandable. I’m also not saying it’s wrong to lose weight, if through changing various health behaviours, your weight changes, then that is a side-effect your body is happy to have happen.
But what happens when changes in health behaviours, while perhaps improving indicators of health such as blood pressure or blood sugar, don’t result in the desired weight loss? Or what happens when the weight is regained, which it nearly always is. Do you keep up with the positive changes or do you feel it’s not “working”? Do you then give up altogether, or do you try something else, usually something more drastic and rarely maintainable? When this happens, people end up in the (sometimes lifelong) cycle of dieting or falling off the wagon, losing weight, then regaining the weight.
What if despite taking better care of your health and doing all the “right” things, you still have high cholesterol or develop diabetes? Does this mean you still try to lose weight even when your body doesn’t appear to want to lose weight? Again, do you give up, or do you try something else, usually something more drastic and rarely maintainable?
It’s often after turning to something more drastic (see below), or years or yoyo dieting in an attempt to lose weight, that people hit rock bottom and come to see us (dietitians). Rarely has the drastic approach or long-term pursuit of weight loss improved health, in fact quite the opposite, often it’s worsened both physical and psychological health. If you are someone who has pursued weight loss, has this pursuit lead to an overall improvement in your health, be that mental health, emotional health, social health or physical health?
What do I mean by drastic? Anything that can’t be sustained or that interferes with daily life, including;
- Completely cutting carbs or any other other food type from your diet
- A diet with specific rules that interferes with eating out, eating with others, holidays or just enjoying food
- Any sort of 9-12 week body transformation
- Any program that promises rapid weight loss
- Any program that leaves you feeling hungry or thinking about food all the time
Now if you can do any of these with ease and no interference to your enjoyment of life, then I’m not here to say you shouldn’t be doing them. I’m talking to the people who struggle with such restrictions – which, I think is fair to say, is most people.
So what can you do? See if you can pop your weight loss the goal on the back burner, this is often easier said than done and you may need help from a non-diet/HAES practitioner who doesn’t focus on weight loss or promise weight loss as an outcome. Instead, could you think about being kind to your body, perhaps moving it more in ways you enjoy and feeding it in ways that feel good both mentally and physically. Being kind to yourself and doing things you enjoy are also vital to health, when you actively dislike and hate on yourself, you are much less likely to treat your body well, be that with food, exercise or social interaction. If you feel you need help with this, please find a non-diet/HAES practitioner, be that a therapist, dietitian or nutritionist. Or you can contact us to make an appointment today.
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