Maybe it is the new year, but I have been reading article after article, even a video, about how someone did X healthy thing for themselves, lost weight, and is now healthier and happier! Whee!
While I am very glad that these people have found things that make them feel good physically, even mentally and emotionally, I have an issue with the fact that they 1) lay most or all of their improvement on weight loss and 2) that their individual solution is THE solution. This assumes that weight loss is the only solution to a myriad of issues. It assumes that there is only one solution for health and that that solution will also lead to weight loss. It assumes that weight loss and good health are equated.
These assumptions are just that, assumptions. Health and weight are not the same thing. There is not only one solution to health issues and weight loss certainly is not it either.
I understand the desire to have a simple, single solution. “If I eat this way (with specific rules), exercise this way, take this vitamin, and spin around 3 times every morning, I will live to an old age without any infirmity or illness!” Whew! That does sound nice doesn’t it? To not have to think too much as you follow the rules. To know that there is a guarantee.
Well, I have some bad news, there is no one solution. Health is individualized and it usually requires listening to your own body, mind, and heart. There certainly are general things that help the majority of people, sleep, decreased stress, nutritionally dense food, body movement, laughter, strong social bonds, clean water, etc, but even these things must be adjusted for the individual. For example, some people must be very careful with their water intake, which is generally the first “healthy” tip that is thrown out there, even among health care providers.
On the other hand, a lack of a simple, generalized health guarantee may be good news actually. It means that each person can create a life of good health for themselves that is tailor made for their preferences, schedules, and abilities. It allows for a freedom self knowledge that one cannot get from someone else, though having a guide and a support person is often very helpful.
One of the articles I read was distressing because the author, someone I know personally, talked about the path that lead to that person’s health and weight loss. We have a mutual friend who also followed that path and, while it improved the second person’s health for a long while, that person’s health deteriorated for reasons beyond reasonable control. Did the second person do something “wrong” because that person’s health results were not the same, long term, as the first? Or, did the first person do something “right” that the second person missed? I would say no. Will the first person, who currently has a high state of health, stay that way forever and live a really long, active life? I certainly hope so! However, no one knows for sure, and if I did, I would be likely be a very wealthy woman.
Weight stigma certainly makes many of us want to be thin, even the thin folks, regardless of how it affects our health. I’d love to believe that most of us, in our heart of hearts, would prefer to be healthy and as able as our bodies allow. To enjoy the time we have on the Earth. To be able to appreciate the people and experiences around us. To be allowed to live the lives we choose to live and not be ashamed to be the people that we are. However, we often seem preoccupied with being thin at almost any cost.
Maybe we can focus our efforts on supporting one another rather than assuming anything about the people around us.
Personally, my focus is to love and appreciate the body I have right at this moment for what it is. Every moment it does amazing things to keep me alive. My body may change over time. It may get closer to the health it seeks or further away. It may change sizes. It may stick with me and allow me to be active until old age. It may experience some issues that significantly change how I interact with the world. All I can do is to be the best steward of this amazing body as possible. I can also spread that love and appreciation to others, to help them see their bodies as the amazing bodies that they are!
I am going to write today about something that has been on my mind recently, the things I have noticed on my own journey through Health At Every Size® (HAES®).
I was first introduced to HAES® three years ago. While I was learning to be a naturopath, I noticed (and experienced) a great deal of worry from everyone in school about what to eat, how to eat, when to eat, etc. Everyone, regardless of size, was concerned about these things…occasionally obsessive. To say that the term Orthorexia was one that fit our campus culture may be an understatement. I was definitely sucked into that mindset. The fact that I not only didn’t get thinner, but I actually gained weight made it very demoralizing to be in school.
A teacher told me about Linda Bacon’s book, Health At Every Size®, and I read it during spring break of my third year. It was then that I decided to not worry about what was “right” or “wrong” to eat. I decided to not beat myself up if I didn’t take my 3-4 mile walks as regularly as I used to take them because I was worn out. I decided to relax and allow myself to do what I could do to care for myself and get through school. Often this involved sleep, laughter, water, and relaxation between bouts of studying. Unexpectedly, to me, I stopped gaining weight. I also stopped feeling guilty. I was able to expand my inner self to be able to handle all of the things that were thrown at me during my last year in school.
Now, as I recover from school, start my business, and improve my health, I definitely am considering how to increase the healthy habits in my life. Part of this is to not allow myself to begin to spend all of my time thinking about what I am eating, how much I am exercising, what supplements I am taking, how much I am sleeping, what my stress levels are…etc. In other words, to not obsess about my health and enjoy life. I certainly think about these things, but I am allowing myself to be human. To have chocolate cake without guilt. To have a spinach salad without feeling sanctimonious.
This journey continually forces me to challenge my assumptions about how individuals can be healthier. I certainly know that there are things that I can do to increase my health, but stressing out about those things seems as though it would reduce the very health that I am working to increase!
The thing is, I also find that I have less judgment about those who are still part of the diet/lifestyle changes to lose weight paradigm. I still sometimes want to shake people to get them to understand. I often felt this way when I started learning how to treat people naturopathically: “Why can’t everyone see how incredible this medicine is? Why can’t they understand the potential it has to improve the quality of our lives?” I relaxed on that when I realized that those very questions were the reason I was in school, to spread the medicine. It is also the reason I was shown to HAES®, to add another layer of improvement to the lives of the people I help. I can’t force anyone to believe I am right, but I can speak the truth that I experience and listen to the truth of others with an open mind.
Warning: May contain triggers for some people for disordered eating and fat shaming.
The other day, I was catching up on my podcasts and I saw there was one from Freakonomics radio entitled 100 Ways to Fight Obesity. Because Freakonomics is on NPR, my first reaction was one of hesitancy and a bit of nervousness. I love public radio, but NPR and it’s affiliates have a tendency to be stigmatizing, judgmental, and alarmist about the “obesity epidemic”. I was not incredibly hopeful.
However, Freakonomics, the book and the show, often have very interesting ways of looking at societal, economic, health, and many other issues, so I did have a glimmer of hope that they would point out some of the things that the size activism and Health at Every Size movements have seen over and over throughout the years.
Let’s just say that I had to listen to the podcast in chunks to save my sanity.
The beginning of the show was full of the typical stuff. Huge “obesity epidemic”. How ever will we curb the growing backsides of Americans. We’re all going to die if we don’t lose weight RIGHT NOW! Honestly, I like to pretend that people are running around frantically pulling at their hair somewhere behind the scenes. Maybe they are screaming,”Think of the children!!!” It makes me laugh inside every time and makes it easier for me not to lose my sanity. I like to think about this scenario whenever people are freaking out about something that really does not need to be freaked out about.
Finally, someone said something about how when people stop smoking they gain weight, and there was this huge drop in smoking over the past several decades. I got excited because I thought that maybe they were going to start exploring concepts besides gluttony for the increase in the weight of the population since the 1970’s. However, beyond mentioning that the decrease in smoking would only account for maybe 20% of the weight gain, there was no further discussion about why there has been a weight gain. What about the possibility that the increase in dieting may have increased weight? What about our chemical filled world affecting our metabolisms in a different way? Processed foods? GMOs? I think all of these things need to be seriously discussed. Even the social pressure to be thin at all costs may have a negative effect on weight gain.Nor did anyone mention the lowering of the BMI in 1998, which moved everyone further toward “overweight” and “obese”.
They did talk about how our societal preoccupation with fat has increased along with the incidences of eating disorders, which can lead to a great many health issues, including death. At this point, there was a discussion about how focusing on healthy habits instead of fat leads to increases in health and decreases in eating disorders. That was very exciting to hear!
Then there was a brainstorming session to find solutions to the “childhood obesity crisis” where no idea was considered too outlandish.
Some ideas seemed to be old hat. Shame parents into making their kids eat right and exercise. Use incentives in health insurance to encourage parents to have their children in a certain weight range. There was one suggestion to have standardized testing to determine a baseline for nutrition, exercise, and media literacy, then teach those things. As if the schools have so much extra time and resources.
Some of the ideas, I liked. As an ND, I can get behind getting rid of sucrose and High Fructose Corn Syrup. I can also get behind finding ways to not advertise nutritionally devoid foods to children. There was a great suggestion to make all advertising into “opt in” advertising, which I love because I dislike ads, but it is impractical.
My favorite suggestion was that we stop using “obesity” because it is a loaded word and not a good measurement of health. He suggested that we use malnutrition. Considering the rapidly declining nutritional quality of much of our modern, processed food, I love the idea of using this word. It applies to many of us who get sufficient calories, but not sufficient nutrition, as well as those of us who get neither. Increasing our nutritionally dense foods may change the weight of some, and not others, but we would all benefit.
The end of the podcast what what disturbed me the most. There was a discussion of a fantasy to have a parasite that would stop nutrients from being absorbed. People could then lose weight (by essentially starving) and eat what they want without gaining weight (bulimia anyone?). There was also a suggestion by one of the economists (well his father) to smell something horrible, like vomit, when one is hungry to stop being hungry. (Anorexia anyone?) The end of the podcast was so full of eating disorder behavior that I found it to be very disturbing.
All in all, the podcast threw out a few good ideas, but most of them were glossed over to perpetuate the fear and panic surrounding fat. They also generally encouraged shaming and disordered eating to encourage people to be thinner, though whether they would be healthier is debatable.
Now, if we could use some of the above ideas (not the shaming ones), but coming back to Health at Every Size (R), I think that we could make great strides in the health of our country. HUGE strides. (like that?) Whole foods, cut out GMOs, access to a variety of real food, fun exercise options. Why do we need to make all the solutions to our “obesity crisis”(which I would like to reframe as a malnutrition or health crisis) need to involve weight loss and not focus on health? I, for one, plan to keep pushing for health, not thinness.
Yes, I am a creative title writer.
This is mainly a sort of test post, but I will go ahead and give you a brief idea of what this blog will be about.
I am a licensed Naturopathic Physician in Portland, OR with a passion for Health at Every Size (R) and a weight neutral approach to health. The current climate of fat phobia and the “War on Obesity” have had a detrimental effect on the mental and physical health of people of all sizes, not the major reduction of obesity that has been hoped for when the “war” started. I am also a proponent of size/body acceptance. My focus tends to be on helping people who are fat navigate in a world that stigmatizes them daily, but I also see so many people ranging from very thin to very fat being affected by the push to have an unattainable, “perfect” body. Size/body acceptance affects us all.
This blog will be attached to my practice website and I will discuss health issues here, however, I intend for this to be a mix of health information and, most importantly, size activism.
Comments will be moderated because I want this to be a safe place for anyone to go and get good information. Reasonable, respectful comments that disagree with what I have said may be published, but that is entirely up to my discretion.