I’m a chubby girl — my latest BMI reading put me at 28.6 — who has fought her chubbiness for most of her life. But last year I did something I never thought I’d do: I gave up trying to lose weight.
I floundered for a while, going on occasional “cleanses” to get my body “back on track.” But eventually that fizzled out too, and instead I joined a yoga studio. I was going through one of the most anxious parts of my life, and I thought yoga might help. With time, yoga did improve my anxiety, and it opened me up to other forms of exercise like hiking and dancing. I was arguably the healthiest and most content I’d ever been. I still wasn’t thin, but for the first time, I realized maybe I didn’t have to be.
According to Linda Bacon, PhD — a nutrition professor, researcher and author of the book Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth about Your Weight — this is why we need to shift the way we think about health: “If we want to support people in feeling good in their bodies, we need to take the conversation away from weight and put it on the things the matter. Things like having purpose and meaning and community and friends and relationships and eating well and being active — all those other things that nourish us — and let weight settle where it may.”
If I had heard this when I was trying to lose weight, I would have thought, NO! We can’t just let weight settle where it may. Everyone will become obese! As an overweight person, I lived in constant fear that I would put on even more weight. I thought of my body as a kind of out-of-control, glutinous animal that had no idea how to take care of itself.
But Bacon says our bodies are actually pretty good at self-regulating and have all kinds of mechanisms to make sure they’re taking in what they need, like the oft-discussed “set-point,” wherein the body tends to find a weight it’s comfortable at and stay there despite calorie reduction or increase. Dieting, and our culture obsessed with weight loss, is screwing with those mechanisms. “If you’re not getting enough calories or certain nutritional needs met, your body’s going to set you up to be craving more calories and nutrients and fighting the limitations of the diet,” she says. “Threats to people’s willpower are not because of lack of character. There’s physiology that is pushing them to break their diet.”
Still, if that’s what it takes to lose weight so we can be healthy, it’s worth it, right? Not so. According to Bacon, and many other advocates in the body-positive space, we have to recognize that weight is a faulty way of measuring wellness and longevity. “It’s fairly indisputable at this point that the largest indicator of health is going to be what we call the social determinants of health,” Bacon says. These are things like your social status, class, wealth, race or even intimate friendships. And despite the diet industry’s insistence that those are negligible, she says these things have as strong an impact, if not stronger, than diet and exercise on overall well-being.
In fact, Bacon has even suggested that it’s not fat but rather the bias against fat that is causing people harm. “It is hard to live in a larger body in this world. People are just cruel. It affects your ability to make money, to get a job, to advance, to rent an apartment, to get into school [or to succeed in] your social life.” We think we’re helping when we give friends diet and weight-loss tips, but actually we’re fueling some seriously health-harming shame. One study that supports this followed over 19,000 people across 15 years and suggests that people who are satisfied with their weight have better health behaviors and health status regardless of how much fat they have. Liking your body, no matter how much fat it has, is good for you.
Despite the scary headlines suggesting otherwise, the data is remarkably kind to fat. For example, people in the “overweight” category of BMI live longer than those in the “normal” category; people in the “obese” category aren’t living shorter lives than those in “normal” category; and it was actually the thinnest people who had the worst prognosis. This was true of the elderly as well, among whom obesity seemed to make their lives even longer despite the fact that obese people are less likely to see their doctors overall. The reason we’re more likely to hear about the dangers of excess fat is not because fat is especially dangerous, Bacon suggests, but because studies are often measuring only body weight and are ignoring the social determinants of health, like diet or exercise (which fat people can have completely healthy relationships with!), or race, income and close relationships.
If people with larger bodies are eating well, moving their bodies and aren’t suffering the psychological effects of poverty, their fatness doesn’t seem to have much of an impact, and sometimes it can even be a benefit. One example Bacon gives is as follows: “Heavier people are much less likely to get osteoporosis. When you consider that 50 percent of Caucasian women are going to get osteoporosis, that’s major.” Another study reports that losing weight didn’t make people with type 2 diabetes have fewer strokes or heart attacks. There’s also research — what has been dubbed “the obesity paradox” — that in patients with cardiovascular disease, those with obese bodies have better survival outcomes. That study also acknowledged that there is a large subset of the obese population that have no other health complications and that a lack of movement seems to be much more concerning than body size. “Instead of looking at weight as just good or bad,” Bacon asks, “why can’t we just accept it?”
“Are we fatter than we were 50 years ago? Definitely,” Bacon admits. But all the other consequences that we’ve been told come with it — decrying obesity as an “epidemic,” or saying our children will live shorter lives (nope — our longevity is still increasing, although it’s clearly better for rich people) — have been widely exaggerated.
“Even when [weight] does play a role in health, a focus on weight isn’t helpful,” Bacon says. There is too much at risk and too many factors to consider — income, self-esteem, race, social relationships and more. Focusing on weight is like playing the outfield by focusing on your glove — it’s an important part of the game, but it’s unlikely to help you catch the ball. And there’s an elephant in the room that even proponents of weight loss haven’t addressed: “We don’t have any research that shows that we know how to lose weight on a sustained basis,” she says.
It seems pretty clear that our obsession with obesity is not about health like we’re telling ourselves but about vanity. And if the underweight models we idolize in magazines are actually more at risk than the fat models whose bodies we demonize, maybe the problem isn’t them. Maybe it’s us.