This week I had a reader pose this question: "If extra weight is not health-neutral AND dieting and beating yourself up and depriving yourself, etc. is not the path towards health, what do you suggest?" This reader had decided for herself that she would rather "carry extra weight then the emotional baggage of poor body image / chronic dieting". She also shared that embracing this "paradox" (weight is unhealthy but so is dieting) has been an important part of her journey in her relationship with food.
In addition, this reader shared an article that suggested, among other things, that people should remain the same size into adulthood that they were when they were 20. I'll comment on this as well.
Thank you reader for a great question! And congratulations on the huge step you have taken in your own self care and growth by choosing not to let poor body image and chronic dieting keep you down.
And I have GREAT news! You may have been worrying about "extra weight" and health without needing to. Studies show that "extra weight" is not by itself unhealthy.
Books like Health at Every Size, Big Fat Lies, The Obesity Myth and Body of Truth go over all the research and show how people with "extra weight" actually live longer. (I have to put "extra weight" in quotes because who says it's extra? How do you know what you are supposed to weigh? Because an insurance table said so?)
You might wonder why studies that show weight does not equal health don't get more press. It's because who is going to fund more studies that would put a $61 billion dollar dieting industry out of business or affect the pharmaceutical industry as well? You might find yourself wearing some concrete shoes.
You don't hear many headlines that tell you this information either because the diet industry doesn't actually want you to know that weight does not equal health.
Studies show that fitness is a bigger indicator of health than weight - a sedentary fat person is less healthy but so is a sedentary skinny person.
So "extra weight" CAN be health neutral - if you take care of what really matters to your health such as sleep, exercise, fruits and vegetables, stress reduction, self love, community/relationships, a feeling of purpose and fulfillment and meditation. Those are what matter more than weight.
The conditions under which we live can also have more impact on our health than what we eat or how we move. Systems need to change in order for our health to improve.
You also mentioned "moderation". Moderation is sort of the idea - as long as you don’t have a chronic dieting history. To a chronic dieter - moderation is code word for diet. Chronic dieters have to heal their relationships with food before they can contemplate anything else.
Competent or normal eaters are what we are after - where sometimes you eat more, sometimes you eat less, you listen to your body and eat a wide variety of foods, you don’t limit or restrict and you don’t need to think about moderation. Your food is what it is.
A competent eater will also make decisions like - I want to go for a run so I won’t eat a big meal now, or this food makes me feel better then that food so I won’t eat as much of that food. Your choices as a competent eater are based on evidence from your body that you discovered and not an external book or article from a magazine or your well meaning aunt telling you you should eat more organic grilled chicken.
So the good news is - you can relax - you are not sacrificing your health if you have “extra weight”.
I also wonder what data or research supports the idea that we should stay the same size from 20 for the rest of their lives? That's curious because people who do gain weight as they age actually live longer.
People who are larger and get diseases actually live longer too than people who are smaller and get sick. Women gain weight during menopause as their bodies way of protecting them. People even gain and lose during the seasons as they get to know their own bodies rhythms and stop fighting them.
So what can we do to take care of our health?
The solution is focusing on all the parts of health that I listed above. Focusing on weight loss is not recommended since studies also show that 95% of dieters gain back the weight they lost plus more within 3-5 years and that weight cycling can be more hazardous to health than maintaining a stable higher weight.
We can also continue to listen to our own bodies instead of the "experts". The best we can say about most of the nutrition research out there is - it’s mostly inconclusive.
Nutrition science is very new and there is A LOT we don’t know and it often doesn’t take into account the spiritual, energetic or mind/body connection.
It also doesn't take into account our environments, our experiences, our genetics, our personal histories and traumas. It doesn't take into account our access to quality foods or good medical care or the impact that having a good job, a good education and stable finances can have on our health.
There are no hard and fast rules that apply to everyone and we all wish there were so we could feel more comfortable that we have some control over our mortality. But unfortunately, we don’t.
Let me know if you have any other thoughts. It’s usually mind blowing for people to relax the weight=health equation that we have had shoved down our throats since birth, but in reality it’s just not universally true.
Our health improves already when we stop fighting ourselves and realize that we can actually trust our bodies.
Thanks for the question!