Is weight loss on your new year's resolution list? You need to read this first.
You can be healthy at any size! Current research suggests that in order to be healthy you do not have to be a certain size. In fact, there are plenty of individuals who are above their most comfortable weight who are very healthy; just as there are individuals who are thin but very unhealthy. By concentrating on wanting to be a particular size a shift can occur where, instead of focusing on being as healthy as you reasonably can be, you become trapped in food preoccupation, self-hatred, eating disorders and yoyo dieting. These in the long run will be much worse for your emotional and physical health than carrying a few extra kilos.
Our body naturally wants to return us to a healthy weight for our frame. We should try to give it the right physical and mental conditions to do so.
Keep in mind too, that before the early 1940s there was no standardised sizing. So wanting to be a size 10 or 12, for example, was a foreign concept because, at that time, clothes were made or altered by a tailor to fit you. The standardisation of clothing sizes only occurred with the industrialisation of the clothing industry and the need to make large amounts of factory-standard clothing. This meant that specific sizing of clothes needed to be developed. Unfortunately, society has personalised this and made it an enviable goal to be able to fit into smaller-sized clothing. But what this overlooks is that everyone’s body shape is different and fitting into smaller sizes does not mean that you will necessarily be healthier.
Health at every size
Consider that your body will naturally want to be healthy at your given weight, regardless of what your current size might be. Losing weight is not necessarily the answer, with research suggesting that being healthy is more about your health behaviours than it is about the number on the scales. This means that although your weight and size might not shift, by being intentional about improving your overall health and wellbeing through positive habits and lifestyle changes, your body responds by working better. Of course, loss in body size might well be a natural effect of healthier behaviours but it should not be the focus.
Recognising that you can be healthy at any size does not serve as a reason to continue to live with unhealthy habits—quite the opposite. By focusing on your health behaviours as opposed to your weight and size you can be in tune with when you need to change your habits to feel healthier rather than just to look a certain way.
This means that even if you are within what is considered a "normal" weight range for your height you may still be quite unhealthy due to your behaviours not fostering a true internal health.
Consider evaluating your health by different measures. Healthy for you might mean, for example, having enough energy to do what you like doing and to feel good. It might also mean living without chronic diseases and having sound mental health. Whatever the focus might be for you, try to steer away from a weight or size goal as this does not equate to good health, greater intimacy or happiness in the long run.
Why BMI is flawed
BMI (Body Mass Index) is a clinical measure of our body mass relative to our height. Unfortunately, many a time, individuals are quickly labelled "overweight" or "obese" based on this categorisation system and its tight BMI cut-off values. Similarly, those individuals who are below a certain "healthy" cut-off BMI are considered "underweight" or "very underweight".
One problem with BMI is that it does not take into consideration muscle mass, bone density, frame, gender or ethnicity. There are individuals, for example, who have plenty of muscle tissue and very little body fat who meet the criteria for obese on the BMI scale. The typical example of this would be bodybuilders and those who work out at the gym regularly.
The other problem with BMI is that it does not directly equate to health. Having a high BMI does not automatically make you less healthy than someone with a lower BMI. The best person to judge your health, in my opinion, is you. Rather than relying on an arbitrary value to determine whether you are of a healthy weight consider whether you feel that you are living consistently with good health. If you are, then instead of relying on a particular weight or BMI-value, determine to continue to evaluate your health based on how you feel.
Of course, it's still a good idea to get an annual or at least two-yearly health check for those asymptomatic health conditions that can affect any one of us and that we may not be aware of.
Living healthy whatever your size
The first step in moving towards health is to accept that your weight may not change. In fact, you might already be sitting at a healthy weight for your age and frame. Saying that, if you provide your body with what it needs and let it do its job, which is to heal, sustain your life and provide you with energy, it will naturally return you to a healthy weight.
The Health at Every Size movement supports this notion and began in full swing in the late '60s. It's based on the premise that the best way to improve your health is to honour your body. It supports people in adopting health habits for the sake of health and wellbeing (rather than weight control).
Health at Every Size therefore encourages:
- Accepting and respecting the natural diversity of different body sizes and shapes.
- Eating in a flexible manner that values pleasure and honours internal cues of hunger, satiety and appetite.
- Finding the joy in moving your body and becoming more physically vital.
In essence, the premise of being healthy, no matter what your size, is to take the focus off weight and focus instead on good health and feeling great.
Take home points
Research suggests you can be healthy at any size.
- This means that you can enjoy your body for what it has to offer and enjoy good health regardless of what the scales tell you.
- Many individuals cease living a happy life because they are waiting to be a certain size.
- The reality is if we take the focus off weight and focus instead on living out the healthiest expression of ourselves then our body will return to a comfortable weight, all the while enjoying our lives to the full.
- Although BMI can provide a guide to how our weight is in relation to our height, it is often inaccurate.
- A better approach is to gauge your health based on how you feel.
- The Health at Every Size movement supports body acceptance for everyone and the view that health habits can be adopted for the sake of health and wellbeing rather than for weight control.
Practise gauging your current health on how you feel and asking yourself whether your lifestyle is consistent with the healthiest expression of you that is possible. Take the focus off your weight and place it on feeling healthy and well.
Edited extract from Your Best Year Ahead, by Dr Cris Beer (Rockpool Publishing, 2020).