Monday, January 23, 2012

The Greatest Danger of "Weight Loss = Health"

Before starting this discussion, I'd like to make it perfectly clear that health is a personal thing. Though I prefer to err on the side of (what I consider) healthy, if my neighbour wants to engage in what I consider unhealthy behaviours, (which include, but are not limited to: a steady diet of junk food, bingeing, food restriction, limiting or attempting to eliminate entire food groups, orthorexia, sky-diving, taking Ecstacy, etc., etc.), I really can't do much about it.

Many people proudly and happily report improvements to their health in the wake of a (sometimes significant) weight loss and certainly, if health improvement is your goal, results are something to be celebrated. I suspect, however, that those who don't see the appearance of any much longed-for improvements after weight loss just keep this fact to themselves or blame themselves for having done something wrong, in particular for not having reached the holy grail of the 24.9 or lower BMI.

And what of those who aren't losing weight? In other words, what of the 95% of those who try and fail, who try and yo-yo up the scale, or who have decided that trying is no longer the preferred option? Are these people doomed to ill health? And even more to the point, what do they often do to make the previous question a self-fulfilling prophecy?

They give up.

No, I'm not talking about giving up dieting, I'm talking about other, probably more important long-term, health-promoting behaviours.

When people only equate health with weight loss, behaviours and habits that are generally accepted as being health promoting fall by the wayside. Why go for a 30-minute walk when the scale doesn't budge? Why take the stairs at work when you haven't lost an ounce? Why continue to eat less processed, more nutrient-rich food when you feel that you're not getting any healthier because you're no thinner?

In fact, even when tangible changes do manifest, like for instance, slightly looser pants, or an improvement in blood pressure, they are not enough to encourage the person to keep up his or her new behaviours. Why? Because they haven't made a dent in the ONLY sign that they are becoming healthier: weight loss.

A minority of thinking people have come to the realization that weight loss, and more importantly weight-loss maintenance, are--for 95% of individuals--probably just a pipe dream, whereas improving one's health is usually (and there are definitely exceptions) an achievable goal. Most people are still stuck in the either/or mentality. I am either "on plan", which usually means constant food restriction, accompanied by a strict physical activity plan, or "off plan", which can often mean stuffing one's face with "bad" food and moving as little as possible. For both groups, a healthier, overweight body just does not compute. And the diet industry (or "cartel", as my new BFF, Dr. Steven Blair calls it), pardon the pun, feeds this fallacy to the tune of $60 billion per year. Business has a lot to lose, if people decide to put their health, and not weight loss, first.

Better health is different for everyone. For me, it mainly involves working on my level of stress and accepting my physical limitations. It also means moving to the best of my ability without troubling my fragile physical equilibrium. It means living mindfully on all levels, and that includes the way I eat.

In today's world, decoupling weight loss from health is a tall order. Every day, we are bombarded with the simplistic, flawed messages that you are healthy if, and only if, you are not overweight. You are automatically unhealthy if you are overweight. And with the cards seriously stacked against weight loss and weight loss maintenance, we give up when in fact, there are so many other things we can do to improve our health.


  1. The "weight loss=health" phenomenon is another way to turn human beings into consumers/commodities (things); weight (like gold) is easily measured, easily transformed (socially) into evidence of one's piety and hard work (re: the protestant ethic), evidence of our socially constructed postmodern gods: efficiency and purposive-rational action (behaviors oriented toward "success!"). Becoming wealthy used to be a prime indicator of god's most blessed ones (His most virtuous or specially "chosen")--also wealth was used as proof that hard work, self-sacrifice and persistence yields rewards and the "good life." Now, apparently, the newest evidence of living the good life (the imaginary health-as-wealth-as-virtue masquerade) has been socially (re)constructed: wealth (virtue) means being thin (or--at least--it means sacrificing one's time, energy, or bodily pleasures in an virtuous attempt to become thin). The social elites say "jump", and the masses say "how high?" When will we claim our true power--and our lives?

  2. Amen! What an excellent analysis!