Let’s start with the basics. What is “health”? I rather like the World Health Organization’s definition:
Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
In other words, health is a complicated concept. It is a balance of many things. Health cannot be reduced to body size.
It is commonly accepted by society, although not always true, that a person who falls outside the desired weight range is unhealthy. However, it is also obviously true that people who fall within the desired weight range can be unhealthy as well. If an overweight person eats healthy food, is active, and generally content and happy, is she less healthy than a “normal” weight person who eats nothing but fast food, sits on the couch all day, and is miserable and depressed? Should “normal” weight individuals ignore their eating habits and forget about moving their bodies? Doesn’t this line of thinking do “normal” weight people a huge disservice?
I could post lots of links to studies that question just how linked weight and health actually are, but let’s say that health IS weight, just for the sake of argument. Let’s say that all overweight people are unhealthy. Well, we’ve spent the last 20 years hearing about how unhealthy fat people are and our collective weight continues to rise. Clearly this line of messaging is ineffective. I would argue it is counterproductive as well.
When the primary focus is on losing weight, the first step is generally to Go On A Diet. This is what we as a society do when we want to lose weight, we go on diets. Yet studies show that in the long term, diets do not work. As a matter of fact, it is becoming more and more clear that dieting leads to weight gain, not loss, in the long run. In the short term, of course it works. You do lose weight on a diet. The problem is if there is not permanent change to habits, the weight will return as soon as the old habits return. All this focus on losing weight and dieting compounds the issue, rather than making a start at a solution.
Weight is a difficult thing to control and true changes take time. People find this very discouraging. If you find yourself 100 or more pounds overweight, it can seem insurmountable. It took me 18 months to lose 100 pounds. There was no immediate gratification. There were many weeks when I did not lose any weight at all. You need a ton of patience and commitment to reach a goal so overwhelming. Patience is a rare thing. Telling people they will not meet their goals for years can be incredibly discouraging. Many people simply give up before they start.
Let’s forget weight for a moment though. No matter what your size, everyone can make changes to our lifestyles in pursuit of better health right now. I promote eating healthy and nutritious food for everyone. You can choose vegetables or fruit instead of cake or chips right now. I promote fitness through moving your body for everyone. You can get up out of your chair and go for a walk right now. I promote getting a proper amount of sleep. You can choose to turn off the TV and go to bed earlier today. I promote reducing stress in your life. You can start being kinder to yourself today.
You can have instant gratification when you change your focus from weight to actions. You can control your actions immediately. You only need to make the choice. And if you did any of the things I mentioned in the previous paragraph, that is worth celebrating no matter what your size. You should be proud. Give yourself a pat on your back! And do it again tomorrow.
When I was 250 pounds, I was eating the right amount, tons of vegetables, very little junk food. I was exercising regularly, 6 times a week for more than an hour each time without fail. I had lost almost 40 pounds but I was still obese. People could look at me and make assumptions about my lifestyle based on my size, but they would have been wrong. Lucky for me, I realized that improving my health was about actions and behaviors. Repetition of those behaviors led to weight loss.
When I was 230 pounds, I could run a 5K. I have “healthy” weight friends who cannot run one mile. Who is more fit, the fat girl who can run 3 miles or the thin girl who gets tired walking up the steps?
At no time at any weight did I ever have high blood pressure, diabetes, heart problems, or any other diagnosable health problem. “Healthy” weight people can have heart disease. Heart attacks. Triple bypass surgery. Diabetes. High blood pressure. These issues can often be resolved by lifestyle changes. Inactivity and over-consumption of junk food can harm your health even if you are thin. Our focus is in the wrong place. How many thin people afflicted by lifestyle-related diseases thought they were immune because their weight was within the “right” range?
Keeping people focused on weight is a lucrative business for the food, diet, medical, and pharmaceutical industries. This is not about health, because living a healthier lifestyle is free. This is about money. You don’t need to buy anything to start making better choices right now.
Weight loss can be a wonderful thing for people. It has been for me. I am certainly healthier now than I was when I was 100 pounds heavier. I feel better, both mentally and physically. But I also know that in large part, those improvements are due to my actions as much as, if not more than, my reduction in size. I have to keep doing those things, eating right, exercising, even now that I do not want to lose any more weight. If I had gone to unhealthy extremes to lose the pounds, I sincerely doubt I would be experiencing so many benefits. Many people end up in a worse mental state after weight loss than they do before. Mental health is a large part of health. For some people, focusing on their weight can lead to very unhealthy mental states. I fully believe that being a few pounds over the “ideal” weight range, but mentally content can be healthier than obsessing about lowering your weight and feeling miserable or guilty about your food choices.
Finally, health is a very personal issue. I do not think it’s up to me to tell other people how to be healthy, whether that is to be a certain size, eat a certain way, or exercise a certain amount. I know that life is complicated and we make sacrifices in one area to focus on another. Being “unhealthy” is not a moral sin to me. Many times, no matter what great lifestyle choices we make, we will still suffer health problems in some capacity nonetheless. I find the finger-pointing at others and judgment of health completely counter-productive, and frankly obnoxious. The only people who should be involved in health-related decisions are the individual, their doctors, and their loved ones. Such personal and life-changing decisions are not for strangers to make from afar.
For those of us, like myself, who would like to help others find a path to a healthier life and enjoy all the benefits, I believe the best way to go about it is to lead by example and be inclusive. That’s why I talk about things you can do right now. It’s not about being perfect all the time, it’s just about taking small steps each day to lead you to feel a little better. If you took one of those steps today, I applaud you – no matter what your size.