From an early age, women are conditioned to believe that not only are thin bodies more “attractive” than fat bodies, but that being thin is a clear indicator that a person is healthy and in excellent shape. I won’t bore you with the details of the autoimmune condition that left me way too skinny and decidedly out of shape (or the young women who clamored to my cubicle to ask about my nonexistent workout regimen) — but the myth that thin is always healthy and fat is always unhealthy has got to go.
“A person can absolutely be thin but out of shape,” Ginger Hultin, a Seattle-based registered dietitian, nutritionist and Arivale coach tells SheKnows. “They may have poor blood lab values like elevated inflammation markers, high cholesterol or out-of-range nutrients like vitamin D or essential fatty acids and be at risk for cardiovascular [disease] or diabetes.”
Conversely, Hultin says it’s not uncommon for a person with a higher body mass index to have excellent lab results, good physical fitness and a reduced risk of chronic illness.
“Once they stop using a bit of weights, the bone mass goes down too,” she explains. “If someone is thin, that does not mean they have healthy bones or normal cholesterol or fats in the blood.” Torchia notes she has seen many average-weight and thin patients who have higher cholesterol or triglyceride levels than patients who were considered overweight.
Dr. Sean McCaffrey of McCaffrey Health Clinic says that far too often we look at health from the external standpoint that a lean body is automatically a healthy one. “But as we often see, many athletes and seemingly fit people have heart attacks and strokes, for example,” McCaffrey tells SheKnows.
McCaffrey emphasizes the danger of judging a person’s health and fitness simply by looking at them. “A thin person could still have chronic inflammation inside the body that is not related to weight, such as bacterial infections, immune system problems or toxins as a result of smoking.” If a person’s extra weight is purely from fat and not muscle, it’s not healthy — but McCaffrey makes the important point that a heavier person can still be healthier than a thin person if their only health issue is excess weight from fat.
Marta Montenegro, a fertility nutrition and lifestyle expert at IVFMD, tells SheKnows that the myth of thinness equaling health can be harmful to people seeking medical care. “Unfortunately, we continue to measure people in terms of the way they look, and sometimes with health care management, this can lead to overdoing it or not treating the person as they should be treated,” she explains.
Montenegro says if a patient is thin, health care professionals are often less likely to test them for cardiovascular conditions or look into whether or not they’re at risk for diabetes and gastrointestinal issues. As a result, patients often don’t receive the proper health assessment they sought.
“Meanwhile, the overweight patient already senses our bias when we assume they may already have elevated lipids and impaired glucose, when they may not,” Montenegro says. “And we can end up frustrating and even overtreating patients that are already struggling with their weight management.”
Hultin stresses the importance of living a healthy lifestyle, and her advice applies to people of all shapes and sizes. Eating balanced meals, exercising daily, getting enough sleep and managing stress “can optimize blood markers and lead to a healthier person overall,” she says. “These [lifestyle] improvements can benefit a person of any size.”