3 Myths About Weight and Health, Debunked

Research suggests that a person's weight is not a good indicator of their health

Posted Nov 19, 2015

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Source: Pixabay

As someone who writes frequently about ditching dieting and accepting yourself at your natural size (ie set-point weight), I tend to receive some pushback from readers. This makes complete sense, as dieting and the fruitless pursuit of weight-loss is the pervasive paradigm in our society. Some commenters state that I have simply “given up” or that I am encouraging others to lead unhealthy lives. This could not be further from the truth.

The reality is that you can work towards improving your health and happiness-without attempting to lose weight. This isn’t just a simplistic platitude aimed to make people feel better about themselves, rather it is a truth that is based upon evidence-based research. If your aim is to improve your health-it is important to shift your focus from changing your weight- to the idea of adding in healthful behaviors that make you feel good and honor your body.

I had the privilege of hearing a talk by Dr. Linda Bacon, a professor, researcher, and author of Health at Every Size and Body Respect. Dr. Bacon lead a workshop at The 25th Annual Renfrew Center Foundation Conference. In the workshop, Dr. Bacon debunked many myths about weight and health. The following are some common misconceptions about weight and health-and what the research has found.

MYTH: Obesity leads to increased mortality.

We’ve all heard the prevailing false belief that being classified as “obese” or “overweight” leads to increased mortality. This belief is so pervasive in our society that many believe it to be scientific fact. However, a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association that looked at BMI and mortality, found that the lowest mortality was in the “overweight category.” The study also found that moderate obesity had the same risk as normal weight and that “even severe obesity failed to show up as a statistically significant mortality risk.”

In addition, Dr. Bacon referenced a meta-analysis, which is “the most comprehensive review of epidemiologic research.” This meta-analysis “pooled data from 26 studies and found overweight to be associated with greater longevity than normal weight.”

Further, a phenomenon known as “the obesity paradox,” that is supported by several hundred research studies, indicates that “higher weight is associated with greater longevity for people with numerous diseases that include, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and chronic kidney disease.”

MYTH: Weight loss improves health

Many people believe that losing weight equals improving their health. There are numerous industries that make huge profits off of people believing that weight loss is the key to increased health and happiness. However, “recent research suggests that losing weight doesn’t actually improve health biomarkers such as blood pressure, fasting glucose, or triglyceride levels for most people.”

A study entitled, “Long Term Effects of Dieting: Is Weight Loss Related to Health?” concluded that, “in correlational analyses, however, we uncovered no clear relationship between weight loss and health outcomes related to hypertension, diabetes, or cholesterol, calling into question whether weight change per se had any causal role in the few effects of the diets. Increased exercise, healthier eating, engagement with the health care system, and social support may have played a role instead."

In our society, one's weight has become inextricably linked to one's health. However, a person can improve their health markers through adopting healthy habits, regardless of their weight. For instance, research shows that "lifestyle changes can reduce blood pressure, largely or completely independent of changes in body weight. The same can be said for blood lipids. Improvements in insulin sensitivity and blood lipids as a result of aerobic exercise training have been documented even in individuals who gained body fat during the intervention."

This seems to sum up a basic concept-that goes against our prominent societal belief. You can be thin and healthy. You can also be fat and healthy. Health is not dependent upon one’s body size. Additionally, rather than focusing on the self-loathing (and frankly nearly impossible to maintain long-term) goal of “weight loss,” it can be empowering to shift one’s mindset to adopting healthy habits, such as finding pleasurable movement, attuning to hunger cues, and mindfully nourishing yourself with food that you enjoy.

MYTH: You can judge a person’s health and eating habits on the basis of their weight.

You cannot determine anything about a person’s health and their eating habits based on their body size or weight. First off, there are people who are thin and who do not engage in healthy habits. There are also people who are thin who engage in healthy habits. Judging someone’s health or eating habits on the basis of their weight-is not only stigmatizing-it ignores people who fit society’s thin ideal standard of beauty, but who are engaging in unhealthy behaviors.

In regards to the myth that fatter people consume more calories than thinner people, Dr. Bacon pointed to a study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which found that “energy intakes for those with a BMI ≥30 were lower than energy intakes for overweight or healthy‐weight subjects.”  Dr. Bacon also discussed an article from The National Academy of Sciences, which stated, “Most studies comparing normal and overweight people suggest that those that are overweight eat fewer calories than those of normal weight.” 

Further, Dr. Bacon discussed how the "war on obesity" is politically and financially motivated. After all, declaring a "war on obesity," leads to large financial gains for the diet industry and for doctors who "treat obesity." In addition, she stated that "the war on obesity is really a war on people's bodies." I would urge you to take back the power from the people and industries, which send the message that you should fight against your body-if it doesn't fit our thin-ideal standard of beauty. 

Health at Every Size is a movement that emphasizes detaching “health” from “weight.” Adopting a Health at Every Size approach benefits everyone. Body-hatred, fat shaming, and weight-stigma, is serving nobody and is doing psychological and physical harm to individuals in our society. Body-diversity exists and we are not all meant to fit the thin ideal standard of beauty. Whatever your shape or size, you can work to honor and respect your body by treating it with kindness and care.

As a mental health therapist who works with adolescent girls, I am a proud advocate of The Health at Every Size movement. My aim is to help my clients to learn how to love and embrace themselves, to treat their bodies with kindness and respect, and to practice healthful habits-at any size. A prominent HAES website sums it up best when it states,

“The war on obesity has taken its toll. Extensive "collateral damage" has resulted: Food and body preoccupation, self-hatred, eating disorders, discrimination, poor health... Few of us are at peace with our bodies, whether because we're fat or because we fear becoming fat. Health at Every Size is the new peace movement. Very simply, it acknowledges that good health can best be realized independent from considerations of size. It supports people of all sizes in addressing health directly by adopting healthy behaviors.”

Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LGSW is a mental health therapist, intuitive eating counselor, and blogger on The Huffington Post and Psychology Today. She specializes in treating adolescents, survivors of trauma, and individuals with eating disorders and mood disorders. She is also a junior board member for The National Eating Disorder Association. “Like” Jennifer on Facebook at Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LGSW. Or check out her website at www.jenniferrollin.com