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The Surprising Truth About Your Weight

Updated: Feb 26

Written By: Natalie Faella, MS, RDN, LDN | September 29, 2021

woman on scale weighing herself, weight loss, lowering BMI, weight, BMI, healthy weight, BMI calculator

What if I told you that weight loss wasn’t the answer? That weight loss does not lead to better body image or health? You’d probably think I’m nuts because dieting and weight loss are prescribed for almost everything. Beyond that, weight loss is praised and celebrated when it’s (briefly) achieved, and it’s the cause of our sorrow, frustration, and plummeting self-esteem when it’s not. So how could our weight not be so important?


The truth is, our body weight actually has very little to do with our health. Our body weight is determined by a number of things; these include the ones we usually thinking about, like diet and exercise, in addition to our genetics, stress levels, and socioeconomic factors, which play major roles. These are also the determinants of our health status, with stress and socioeconomics playing the largest roles. That’s right — even larger than diet and exercise. Higher stress levels and lower socioeconomic status are two huge risk factors for many chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, etc.


But for so long we’ve been led to believe that high body weight alone was the cause of these chronic diseases, and that losing weight was the only way to prevent or improve them. This may be because studies that make connections between weight and disease rarely assess for other factors like physical activity level, diet, weight cycling, or socioeconomic status. When studies do control for these factors, the association with weight and disease greatly decreases or disappears. For instance, weight-cycling (side effect of yo-yo dieting) results in increased inflammation and contributes to increased blood pressure, cholesterol, and insulin resistance (a symptom of type 2 diabetes). Additionally, the Framingham Heart Study (an on-going study of over 32 years) has shown there is a significant correlation with weight-cycling and mortality rates (both associated to heart disease and all-cause mortality). There’s also increasing evidence that marginalization and poverty are more strongly associated with type 2 diabetes than diet, exercise, or weight.


When studies do control for these factors, the association with weight and disease greatly decreases or disappears.

To quote Lindo Bacon (formerly, Linda) author of Health at Every Size and Body Respect: “Blaming fatness for heart disease is similar to blaming yellow teeth for lung cancer, rather than considering that smoking might play a role in both.” Body weight can be a side effect of these health determinants (stress, socioeconomic factors, diet, weight-cycling, and physical activity), not the cause of disease, like yellow teeth can be a side effect of cigarettes.

What about BMI?

Body Mass Index, or BMI has been used as a determinant of health and risk for disease for many years. But the truth is, it’s pretty bogus. BMI is a measure of our weight comparative to height by using the equation: body weight in kg / height in meters squared. It’s simply a math equation like y=mc+b. I’m still not sure what that equation is used for, like I’m not sure why BMI even matters.


Why this random equation? BMI was created by a mathematician in the late 1800s who essentially wanted to demonstrate how individual’s body weight varied by height. Yup, a mathematician created this measurement that now holds so much weight (no pun intended) in the way people are treated both inside and outside of the doctor’s office.

In the 1990s, BMI categories were assigned (rather arbitrarily) as underweight, normal weight, overweight, obese, and so on. For some reason, “overweight” was set as a BMI of 25-29 and “obese” set as 30-35, even though health risks don’t seem to correlate with BMI until it is greater than 40, and those in the overweight range (25-29) tend to live longer than those in the normal weight category. Could this have anything to do with the fact that those who helped create these categories happened to have financial ties to the weight loss industry at the time?


Health risks don't seem to correlate with BMI until it is greater than 40, and those in the "overweight" range tend to live longer than those in the "normal" weight category.

So the categories don’t mean much, and the numbers themselves are just numbers. They don’t take into account fat mass, bone mass, or muscle mass. (Remember, a mathematician created this?). And still, so many healthcare providers are recommending weight loss when they see anyone with a BMI of 25 and up. (Just for reference, Tom Brady’s BMI is 27).


These BMI categories contribute to (or maybe even laid the ground work for) weight stigma. When you think about it — what does “overweight” even mean? When a person is tall, we don’t call them “over height.” When a person is average height that’s what we say — not that they’re of “normal height.” So who is to say there is a “normal,” or as it implies, correct weight?


This focus on weight and BMI can also backfire on those in the “normal” weight categories, who may go on with undiagnosed issues like high cholesterol, blood pressure, etc., because it was overlooked as being a problem since the person is of “healthy” weight.


By focusing on weight, it prevents those in the medical community from seeing and treating the whole person. In society, it fuels weight stigma and the belief that we won’t be healthy, desirable, successful, or happy until we weigh a certain amount. These beliefs are detrimental to a person’s self-esteem and can lead to adverse health effects like weight-cycling and eating disorders. Not to mention, this weight-focus has also proven to be ineffective at actually helping people achieve thinner, healthier bodies.


So how do we shift our focus?

How can we stop obsessing about our own weight? And stop perpetuating the weight stigma? Here is where the help of health professionals who take a Health At Every Size (HAES) approach can come in. Like myself! :) HAES is a non-weight focused approach to health that promotes things like healthful, intuitive eating and joyful movement with the focus of health enhancement, not alteration of body weight or shape.

I realize this can be a tough concept to wrap our heads around, as all we’ve known is that our weight and BMI matter, and lower is better. I encourage you to read more about this, reach out with questions, and get more informed about HAES and why your weight does NOT matter as much as you have been led to believe it does. (I’ll be writing more about HAES, soon!)

Learn Health At Every Size (HAES) approach to wellness here and stay tuned for more from me by subscribing here!


Sources:

  1. Body Respect

  2. Health At Every Size

  3. Today's Dietitian

  4. Nutrition Journal

  5. Nutrition Research

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