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The emergence of the Health at Every Size and Body Positivity movement has drastically changed how our culture relates to and approves of body types outside the traditional norms. It’s also made us question the age-old belief that it’s unhealthy to be fat.
Gone are the days of the stick thin supermodel being our gold-standard for what’s “acceptable.” (Who came up with those rules, anyway?)
This shift has given so many women the ability to truly feel at home and comfortable in their bodies when they most likely would not have before.
As someone who’s been preaching health overlooks for years, this trend is so encouraging!
I’m happy to finally see women accepting their bodies for what they are, rather than trying to conform to our society’s traditional standards of beauty.
And while I love that women are becoming more content with their bodies, no matter their size, the reality is that our body’s health is really what’s most important.
Not how we look in our favorite dress. Not how much we can deadlift at the gym. Our health.
With that being said, critics of the Health at Every Size movement say that it’s impossible to be healthy and be overweight.
But is that true? Is it actually unhealthy to be fat?
Keep reading, the answer might surprise you!
Shifting from a Weight-Centered Health Paradigm
For years, our society has been stuck in what’s known as a weight-centered health paradigm.
This way of thinking about weight and health has taught us that losing weight to achieve a so-called “healthy weight” will result in better overall health. And you’re automatically unhealthy if you’re fat.
Much of today’s diet culture subscribes to this weight-centered approach to health. This is the belief that health and weight are as simple as focusing on “calories in – calories out.”
This has led to women embarking on unnecessary diets in an attempt to “lose the last few pounds.” They believe it’s only at a lower weight that they can become healthy.
When in reality, crash diets and calorie restriction only lead to more health issues and weight fluctuations.
We’ve been conditioned to believe that the health status of an individual is solely dependent on – and can be predicted by – how much they weigh.
With this mindset, we’ve reduced health down to just a number on the scale.
By viewing health in this way we inherently reward cutting calories, restrictive eating, and disordered relationships with food.
But the rise of movements like Health at Every Size have begun to challenge the notion that weight is an indicator of good health. The truth is, health is so much more than just a balance of energy intake and expenditure.
What is Health at Every Size?
The Health at Every Size (HAES) movement looks at health beyond what it says on the scale. Instead, weight is viewed as one of many interconnected and complex aspects of health and wellbeing. Health is no longer determined solely by your body fat percentage or your BMI.
It doesn’t suggest that people are inherently healthy at any size. Instead, it focuses on the idea that people, no matter their size, can improve their health in areas that have nothing to do with the scale.
HAES encourages focusing on other factors besides weight that support overall health. Areas like emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being are even more important to longevity than weight.
Intuitive eating, appropriate physical activity, and self-acceptance are also huge components of the HAES movement. These are all great areas for women to focus on when it comes to improving their health.
What HAES stands for is that the relationship between health and disease is so much more involved than just whether you’re overweight or not.
For many women, this idea seems too good to be true. This way of thinking puts diet culture on its head. It finally allows women freedom from food restriction and weight management obsession.
So, can you really be healthy and be overweight? Or is being unhealthy a given if you’re fat?
Keep reading for some insight into why having a few extra pounds is not necessarily unhealthy.
Metabolically Healthy Obesity
Being overweight generally brings with it a host of health concerns. In most people, everything from high blood pressure, to diabetes, to heart disease has been correlated with a higher weight.
This cluster of conditions is known in the medical world as metabolic syndrome. Having excess fat around the waist is considered the main driving factor of these unhealthy conditions.
However, several studies have shown that higher weight, especially coming from subcutaneous fat, is not always an indicator of metabolic-related health issues.
An analysis of almost 3 million people showed that those who were considered overweight (having a BMI between 25 to 30) actually had a lower risk of death from all causes than people of healthy weight (BMI of 18.5 to 25).
Now, BMI as a measurement has its own set of issues that I won’t get into too much detail about here. The important thing to know is that the BMI scale doesn’t take into account things like muscle mass and where the fat is located. It’s definitely not an appropriate tool to measure health.
But this study did show that being slightly overweight was actually protective over being “skinny”!
This study shows that there is a definite complexity in the relationship between weight and health. There are additional factors at play besides weight when it comes to determining someone’s overall wellbeing.
Another study showed that in overweight individuals, high levels of physical activity and good nutrition was correlated with metabolic health, even if they were overweight.
These studies help to substantiate the ideas of the HAES movement. They confirm that health is so much more complex than a number on a scale.
If your body holds a few extra pounds, but you are focusing on health-promoting lifestyle factors, that extra weight doesn’t automatically make you unhealthy.
Don’t Stress Over Those Last Few Pounds
So those last few pounds you feel like you need to lose in order to be healthy? Don’t worry about them!
You probably won’t be at any greater risk for health concerns down the road than women who have that “perfect bikini body.”
And heck, as long as you’re eating healthy and living an active lifestyle, you might actually be healthier with a few extra pounds on you.
As women, our hormones actually NEED fat to work properly. This includes fat on our bodies and fat in our diets.
That means those few extra pounds could be what’s keeping your cycle regular and your acne at bay.
There are so many women I’ve worked with who, after gaining a few pounds, were finally able to balance their hormones, regulate their cycles, and regain their energy!
It’s important to understand, this trend of sustained health with increased weight did not continue into the “obese” population (those with a BMI over 30). They were at a greater risk of metabolic health concerns then folks in the other two weight groups.
So, if you’re significantly overweight, I would suggest working with a qualified medical professional (like me!) to get a health-promoting plan in place.
The Downsides of Diet Culture
One of the main downfalls of the weight-centered health paradigm is that when you don’t fit into the “healthy weight” box there’s a constant pressure to lose that so-called “extra weight.” Often times it’s out of concern that being fat is a direct cause of being unhealthy.
In many people, these attempts to lose weight involve severely restricting calories and increasing exercise.
And let’s be honest, how many of our attempts to severely cut calories and work out more has actually lead to sustained weight loss? There’s a reason that it’s believed that 95% of people who lose weight end up gaining it all back. And research suggests that about 30% of people who diet for weight loss actually gain more weight back than when they started.
I’ve seen so many clients who are stuck in a pattern of rapid weight loss followed by equally as rapid weight gain.
Usually, their reasoning behind the constant desire to lose weight is so they could fit into what society perceives as attractive and healthy.
But in reality, this pattern, known as weight cycling or yo-yo dieting, can actually be more harmful to your health than those extra few pounds!
Those who are most likely to succumb to weight cycling are the ones who are generally not obese, but just think they need to lose a few more pounds to be healthy. To be more attractive. To perform better in the gym. Or to fit into that skimpy bikini at the beach.
And, unfortunately, those are the people in which weight cycling is most detrimental to overall health.
Metabolic Changes with Weight Cycling
When people fall into weight cycling, they can experience some pretty serious health consequences like:
- Impaired insulin sensitivity and increased insulin resistance
- Lowered cholesterol and increased triglycerides
- Increased blood pressure
In weight cycling, the body goes through periods of severe caloric restriction and weight loss. This is followed closely by periods of overfeeding and rapid weight gain. As you can imagine, your body gets pretty darn confused in this situation.
When food is scarce, like when you’re on a diet, your body goes into conservation mode. It slows down thyroid hormone production which lowers the metabolism, becomes more sensitive to insulin, and decreases blood pressure.
But when the diet is over, and rapid re-feeding (i.e. bingeing) is occurring, your body needs to adjust rapidly to the influx of more calories.
This constant change can alter your body’s metabolism. Which not only makes sustained weight loss more difficult but can reduce insulin sensitivity and negatively affect hormone function.
Chronic dieting and its effects on your metabolism can also lead to an issue of eating fewer calories but being unable to lose weight.
Accepting that Number on the Scale
Weight cycling is just a symptom of the weight-centered health paradigm we’ve been stuck in for so long. This paradigm has taught us that it truly is unhealthy to be fat.
We’re so focused on what the scale says that we can’t see if we’re actually healthy.
And, like it or not, sometimes what you perceive as extra weight is actually just your body’s natural set point.
Constantly fighting your body and what it perceives to be a healthy weight is a losing battle.
So instead of fighting it with diets and weight loss programs, what if you stopped focusing on your weight as the most important factor of health?
Looking at health as more than a number can lead to so many unexpected positive consequences. Like finding a passion for yoga or cycling. Like nurturing old relationships or making new friends.
Instead of focusing on weight loss, let’s focus on health gain.
Health is so much more than how much you weigh, and I’d love to be that person who helps guide you to that realization! Sign up for a strategy session with me if you want to completely transform how you approach weight loss and health.
Behaviors as Indicators of Health
The HAES movement has brought to light the idea that health is much more complex than just weight. That maybe being healthy or unhealthy isn’t all about what our body fat level is.
The mindset that health equals weight has plagued our society for far too long. In reality, there are a host of other factors that influence how healthy we really are.
What you eat, for one, is incredibly important in determining health.
Eating a Standard American Diet full of processed foods and trans fat while losing weight is not going to make you healthier. (Flexible dieting gone bad!)
The typical American diet is extremely energy-rich but nutrient-poor. Meaning that it contains a lot of calories with very few nutrients.
Focusing on eating a diet that has a more favorable nutrient-to-calorie ratio is critical when you look at long-term health.
A health-promoting diet is one that packs as many vitamins and minerals as possible into an appropriate amount of calories. Not necessarily one that makes you lose weight!
Fitness and activity level are also important factors when it comes to determining health.
It’s been shown that aerobic endurance can predict long-term health outcomes in patients with cardiovascular disease better than weight can.
So if you’re physically active but carry extra weight, keep focusing on that activity you love. Not on your weight. Being active and enjoying what you’re doing is WAY better for your health than stressing about whether it’s unhealthy to be fat.
And finally, I have to mention the one aspect of health that many women don’t want to deal with: stress management.
How we handle the inherent stressors in our day-to-day lives has a huge impact on our health and wellbeing. Living a life constantly on the go with no downtime puts strain on us both mentally and physically.
Keeping your stress low will do far more for your health than chronic dieting ever will!
Shifting Your Mindset
It’s not only our daily activities that can be stressful. It’s also how we perceive those unavoidable stressors in life that can affect our health.
Shifting from a mindset of worry and desire for control can be so difficult. But viewing the world through a lens of trust and acceptance can be a huge game changer when it comes to health.
Both mental and physical stress can affect hormonal function, leading to burn-out and other stress-related conditions.
If your stress hormones are out of balance you’re more likely to have impaired sleep quality, lower immune function, and be at a higher risk for metabolic-related issues. These are all conditions that affect your overall health yet have nothing to do with how much you weigh.
The undereating and overexercising that often accompanies the pursuit of a leaner figure is a significant stressor on the body.
Undereating and overtraining is far worse for your health than those extra pounds would be.
Shifting your mindset to truly loving your body, no matter its size is a change that cannot be discounted when determining health.
Focusing on health-promoting behaviors and a positive mindset is much more valuable than living a life of discontentment and self-hatred because of a few extra unwanted pounds.
The Bottom Line
So… can you be healthy and be overweight? To a large extent, yes.
Having a little extra fat is not inherently unhealthy. In most cases, the underlying lifestyle factors that lead to weight gain are stronger determinants of ill health than the weight itself.
Now, that doesn’t mean it’s a total waste of time to care about your weight. Excess weight and abdominal or visceral obesity can lead to health problems down the road. And obesity definitely can cause health challenges both now and in the future.
If your body fat is getting in the way of you living your life, then there are likely some simple shifts that can be made that will help you lose weight and get healthier.
But, if you’re mainly concerned with losing just a few more pounds so you’ll look like an Instagram fitness model, you might want to look elsewhere for your markers of health.
Remember: the HAES mentality is not an excuse to not take care of the body you’ve been given.
But it does give you the freedom to break away from using your weight as your main measure of health. (Which is way closer to reality than what our social media culture has made us believe.)
In reality, there are a number of factors that ultimately determine health. Nutrition, activity levels, sleep, mindset, and relationships all contribute to your overall health and longevity.
And remember, beauty is fleeting. Putting your self worth in how you look can never lead to lasting satisfaction. It’s not worth obsessing about how you look for your entire life.
Rooting your self-confidence, worth, and value in something other than your physical body can bring so much health and wellbeing to your life. And not just physical health in the form of weight loss. But mental and spiritual health and contentment as well.
Now you tell me… has this article helped you shift your thoughts around weight loss? Do you subscribe to the Health At Every Size philosophy? Share your thoughts in the comments below!