You can't escape the tyranny of the scale in this culture: At the grocery store (where calories are now listed prominently on many foods), at the doctor's office, in the schoolyard, at the gym, among friends, our national obsession with weight is at an all-time high. This emphasis on weight, and losing it, is doing us no good, physically or mentally. There's never been more shame and stigma around "overweight" and obesity, despite the fact that more of us are heavier than ever before.

That shame and stigma and relentless messaging around weight costs us dearly. It costs us in physical health, since so many of us start dieting young and keep it up. A recent longitudinal study at the University of Minnesota followed about a thousand boys and 1200 girls from ages 13-16 to 23-26. About half of all teenage girls and a quarter of teenage boys in the study reported they'd dieted in the last year. For boys, the percentage increased the older they god, so about 28% of boys were dieting in middle young adulthood. Girls used diet pills and other "unhealthful" dieting practices the older they got. And teens who dieted and had disordered eating habits carried those practices into adulthood.

Why does this matter? For a variety of reasons, starting with the fact that dieting doesn't work. Oh, it works in the short term; it's relatively easy to lose weight. But if we're looking at long-term results, it's clear that dieting is counterproductive for both weight loss and health. "The majority of people regain all the weight, plus more," says Traci Mann, a professor of psychology at UCLA and lead author of a study published in 2007 in American Psychology. I've written before about the research showing how stigma, prejudice, and stress around weight contributes to or even causes poor health outcomes. (Don't believe me? Start with this study.) 

The bottom line is this: Our national obsession with weight is hurting us. It's hurting our children, girls and boys. It's hurting our health. It's hurting, not helping, our overall quality of life. Heck, it's hurting our souls.

It's time to shift the conversation, from weight to health. We're so used to treating weight as a proxy for health that at first this concept can feel mind-boggling. But weight is not the same as health. The number on the scale is just one tiny descriptor of our overall health, physical and mental.

In my next blog post, I'll explore the concept of Health at Every Size, and share some of my own fitness (but not weight loss) journey. In the meantime, think about it.

Harriet Brown is the author of Brave Girl Eating: A Family's Struggle with Anorexia, out this fall in paperback. Read more about her work here.

Be sure to read the following responses to this post by our bloggers:

A Lesson in Cause and Effect is a reply by Pattie Thomas Ph.D.

About the Author

Harriet Brown

Harriet Brown is the author of Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight—and What We Can Do About It, Brave Girl Eating, and other books. 

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