We are constantly warned about the dangers of obesity and urged to manage our weight. These messages come from all directions, including authorities we trust and peers who judge us. But consider for a moment that our accepted assumptions may not represent fully what we know from scientific evidence.
To begin with, the following facts are from Body Respect by Linda Bacon, and you can confirm them in the peer-reviewed article at http://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2891-10-9
- People who are categorized as overweight or moderately obese have shown time and time again to live as long as or longer than people with weight in the normal category (confirmed even by the CDC)
- BMI standards were written by the pharmaceutical industry to increase weight loss drug profits, ignoring that health decrement hasn’t shown to occur until a BMI of 40 (they funded the international obesity task force that determined the WHO’s standards and therefore the U.S. standards)
- Larger people are more likely to develop several diseases but fatness is not the cause – there are many confounding factors like fitness, stress from discrimination, and inflammation from calorie-restriction dieting and weight cycling – “blaming fatness for heart disease is a lot like blaming yellow teeth for lung cancer”
- “There has never been a research study that has demonstrated long-term maintenance of weight loss from lifestyle change for any but a small minority” – the rare person who does maintain weight loss is as lucky as the smoker who lives to be ninety
- Health can improve when diet and/or exercise improve – not as a result of weight loss – yet at the same time, health behaviours account for less than 1/4 of differences in health outcomes, while social differences (i.e. poverty and discrimination) are the main determinants (again confirmed by the CDC)
If you’re like me, you’re probably tempted to object to the above sample of facts because we fear fat so strongly. However, ignorance has hurt us through lifetime yo-yo dieting, obsession with food and body, disordered eating, weight discrimination, and even poor health, the very thing we think we’re helping by stigmatizing fatness.
Honestly, though… even if I can be healthy at my current weight, I still deep down really want to look the way I did when I was slimmer. In the past I was able to lose weight by manipulating calories – if only I’d just tried harder and longer! Mind you, I’m still stuck with these feelings years after I learned exactly why the belief that I can just force a caloric deficit long-term is, well, unfounded. So let’s forgive each other for not being without bias and just open ourselves up a little more to the possibility that there may be a better way than constantly forcing an attempt to lose weight.
For starters, a caloric deficit is difficult to achieve if only because it is difficult to measure for a particular individual. Each person absorbs a different amount of calories from the same food and uses that energy differently. Also, the calorie information we have on food allows a 20% margin of error and varies with growing conditions, among other things. Each person furthermore varies in terms of metabolic rate – so yes, there are in fact people genetically capable of eating a lot of food without gaining weight. The truth is: we are not in conscious control of how the body uses energy.
Yet, even if imprecise, we can still eat less and exercise more, right? Sure, but your body is designed to compensate in the interest of your survival. The somatic body-fat control center in your brain works like a thermostat to maintain homeostasis at your setpoint weight: it turns on physiological processes to conserve weight like intense hunger signals, increased lethargy, and slowed metabolism. More than 50 years of research prove this.
Although many people are able to intentionally lose weight in the short-term, eventually your internal weight regulation system kicks in and you regain the weight. Oftentimes, this looks like overeating after ending a diet, which seems like a personal failure to the dieter. But really this reaction is akin to gasping for breath after holding it in as long as possible. And so begins the pattern of losing and gaining, which will raise your setpoint weight because your body is preparing for another period of starvation.
Not only is it freeing to know how futile dieting really is, it also supports the argument that dieting is unnecessary. Your body is amazing at maintaining a healthy weight – as long as you don’t interfere by ignoring your hunger and satiety cues (i.e. dieting and bingeing). Many non-dieters can maintain stable weights effortlessly.
Here comes Health at Every Size (HAES), which “seeks to help people treat themselves well in the body they have right now, whether or not it is their optimal weight.” This approach may or may not change weight – it allows weight to fall where it may naturally – but it will certainly improve their relationship with food and their bodies.
While typical dieters tend to return to their starting points in weight and health, people following HAES sustain improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol, and depression. And while typical dieters end up with lower self-esteem, HAES raises it. One study also only maintained participation with 59% of the typical dieters, compared to 92% for HAES.
- Accept your body as it is, right now. Be compassionate with yourself because it takes time to let go, and gradually you will learn weight is not a measure of your worth. Take the time and money you would have spent on weight loss to instead invest in health and happiness.
- Aim for mindful, pleasurable eating to appetite. “Experiment with stopping when you are full or the food stops tasting as good, knowing there’s more where that came from when you want it.” Again, this is a process. Reflect on your needs and wants, and pay attention to how different choices make you feel.
- Move, stretch, and breathe for the fun of it. An activity does not have to be vigorous or continuous to gain health benefits. And if it’s something you can look forward to, then you’re a lot more like to actually do it.
- Use your mind-body knowledge of nutrition to enjoy life and optimize well-being rather than out of a sense of duty to be healthy.
- Build resilience and sleep well.