Over the past few years I’ve noticed a rise in the prevalence of news reports, magazine articles and even family conversations focussed on weight loss. They all suggest that, as a whole, we need to lose weight for our health; that our children need to lose weight for their health. But let’s stop and consider something for a moment: is our weight the best determinant of how healthy we are?
What the Scales Do Tell Us
When we stand on the scales, the number that shows up simply reflects our relationship with gravity at that given point in time. It does not tell us how well our body is functioning, how much activity we’ve engaged in, how strong our bones and muscles are. It does not tell us whether we are getting a good amount of necessary vitamins and minerals, what our energy levels are like or the health of our body’s organs. It tells us nothing about our mental and emotional health.
So what’s a better alternative?
Health at Every Size®
I support the Heath at Every Size® (HAES®) approach which considers factors above and beyond our weight or body shape.
The five basic principles of HAES® are:
- Accepting and respecting the diversity of body shapes and sizes.
- Recognising that health and well-being are multi-dimensional and that they include physical, social, spiritual, occupational, emotional, and intellectual aspects.
- Promoting all aspects of health and well-being for people of all sizes.
- Promoting eating in a manner which balances individual nutritional needs, hunger, satiety, appetite, and pleasure.
- Promoting individually appropriate, enjoyable, life-enhancing physical activity, rather than exercise that is focused on a goal of weight loss.
The great thing about HAES® is that it is constructed around our behaviours and thought processes, whilst accepting that there is both a genetic and environmental component to our body weight and shape. When we try to force every person into a set weight range, we may inadvertently lead them to developing an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise, including chronic dieting, disordered eating or even clinical eating disorders. Further, positive dietary and exercise behaviours are important even if you do fit into society’s so-called ‘ideal’ body weight/shape. Do you know of someone who is quite slender yet regularly eats fast food and never exercises? It’s important to remember that HAES® doesn’t suggest that everyone who is overweight is healthy but likewise, it recognises that not every ‘healthy’ weight person is actually healthy either.
HAES® and Children
I believe the HAES® approach is even more important for children. We know that children grow at different rates; the age at which each child will experience growth spurts and puberty varies considerably. During these times it’s natural for children to gain weight (sometimes at a different rate to which they are growing taller); unfortunately this often becomes a time that they begin to feel uncomfortable in their bodies and develop a strong awareness of the ‘importance’ of weight and body shape within our society.
This presents a great opportunity for parents, schools and health professionals to shift the focus from weight and instead encourage joyful movement (organised sport or exercise, incidental activity, games, Wii sports etc) and mindful eating. These are behaviours that a child will be able to take with them through their teenage years and onwards to adulthood whilst hopefully alleviating some of that pressure to achieve a particular body shape.
The Key Point
Behaviours are a better indicator of health than weight. Everyone can engage in healthy behaviours; not everyone can achieve society’s ‘ideal’ body shape/weight.