“I want to lose 10 pounds.”
“I really need to get to a healthy weight.”
“Last time I felt good in my body I was 40 pounds lighter.”
I hear these statements whether it’s someone I overhear at a restaurant, a family member or a potential client calling to schedule an appointment.
What does a “healthy weight” even mean? Yes, there are ideal body weight calculations: BMI, body fat assessments, growth charts, caloric intake algorithms. All meant to answer the question of “ideal”, but in my experience humans aren’t that simple. Humans aren’t like machines that follow mathematical equations and formulas.
Cutting-edge science is giving us more and more information about why and how we don’t follow these equations. Research points to a myriad of influencing factors beyond the simplistic “calories in, calories out” calculation.
Weight is impacted by many things including:
- Gut bacteria
- Stress levels
Our bodies don’t follow rules very well (although we often try to force them into submission). On top of all of that, we don’t exactly live in a controlled environment.
So . . .
If we include other factors into the conversation, how do we find our way to a healthy weight?
Darlene* came to me after finally getting a little extra time and money to call her own, so decided to finally prioritize herself. She was a typical 40-something, busy mom with the usual to-do list on her phone. Job, carpool kids, bathe the dog, get dinner on the table, clean house, witty, charming wife-check, check and check. “Stay healthy” often slides to the bottom.
After making the call to me, she was excited about taking the transformative step of taking time for herself and her health. She was really motivated to be healthy and she hopes this might help her avoid the diabetes diagnosis her mother faced in her 50’s.
I began asking questions and together we explore what “health” means to her.
|What she says to me:||What I get curious about:|
|“I want to lose 40lbs to be healthier”||I love that she is motivated by a drive for health.
I wonder if she’s open to describing what health means to her in ways that focus on daily habits, not just weight.
|“I know I need to eat better”||I wonder if she equates eating “right” with being on a diet and cutting out certain foods.
I wonder if she has an inner critic that is constantly pointing out “good” and “bad” foods. I wonder if she has rules about what, when and how she eats.
I wonder if her inner critic is loud enough that she feels like a “good” or “bad” person depending on how she eats. I wonder if eating the “wrong” food leads to a flood of guilt that will ruin her day or even her week.
I wonder if she finds herself caught up in perpetual food-strategy sessions with herself, negotiating when and how much she can eat.
I wonder if she finds this process exhausting and there’s a part of her that really wishes she could have a vacation from thinking about food.
|“I want to get active again”||I wonder if “exercise” is a four-letter word to her, but she feels like it’s a necessary evil.
I wonder if being active has been a punishing experience because it generally only happens when she’s on a diet, hungry and low-energy. I wonder if exercise leaves her sore and exhausted for as long as she’s “on track” with her activity goals.
I wonder if she has rules about what “counts” as exercise. Eg “it only counts if it’s over 30min in the cardio zone” or “it only counts if I am sweating.”
I wonder what she did as a kid when she would go “play” and actually found a lot of joy in moving her body.
|“There’s so much conflicting advice out there”||I wonder if she knows what things she would like to do but struggles to do them.
I wonder if she feels burdened with the constant inner dialog of “I shouldn’t eat this” and “why can’t I look like that?”
I wonder if social media impacts her perception of body image and nutrition beliefs.
|“It’s time for me to do something”||I wonder if she’s at a war with her own body, constantly feeling ashamed that she’s not better at controlling her food and her weight.
I wonder if she’s tired of the body shame she’s been carrying around for so long.
The diet mentality is all too familiar and leads to a guilt-driven, shame-based miserable state. The best way to correct this is to start talking about health differently. I believe that weight and health should be two separate conversations.
Most people are weight first in how they talk about health. What I mean is this: they start with a weight goal and then follow that to find a healthy life. This is based on the belief that getting to a healthy weight will take you to health. The problem with talking about weight first instead of health and well-being is that we start talking about controlling weight. When we talk about controlling weight we’re talking about controlling food. And when we’re talking about controlling food, we’re talking about a diet (or an eating disorder). We already have the statistics: diets don’t work. So why don’t we start looking for a different philosophy? Why don’t we start with health?
Let’s look at it this way: suppose you are the health expert. Pretend you have two people in your office. One person, you would consider “skinny” and another person you would consider “pretty overweight.” Both want to be healthy. Would you tell the person in the bigger body to work out every day and the other person to be a couch potato? No. Why? Because being healthy is about… health. Not weight. Doesn’t it make sense to just start with health as the goal?
Would you tell the person in the “skinny” body to cut calories and start a rigorous daily exercise routine? No. If you did some might say you’re telling that person to adopt an eating disorder, or more accurately, disordered eating behavior. But isn’t this what diets endorse all the time? Disordered eating? Why would it be healthy for someone in a bigger body to adopt disordered eating but not for someone in a smaller body? It just doesn’t make sense to do something unhealthy in the name of “health”.
We should start with health, and stop there. If you start with a weight goal to push yourself to be healthy and in the process, you end up adopting unhealthy habits, it doesn’t make sense. It’s a lot smarter start with heath as the goal and bypasses any dicey ground that may lead to a miserable, calorie-obsessed life or a full-blown eating disorder at the worst? When we talk about weight we are on a slippery slope to unhealthy food practices and disordered eating.
Being healthy is about self-care first and foremost. I don’t believe that weight can tell you how healthy you are nor should we have weight goals. I believe that we should have daily self-care goals. All of us, no matter what body shape or size should include a variety of foods, honor our hunger and fullness, practice mindfulness and challenge habits and beliefs that get in the way of this. I believe that a healthy life is a body-positive life, not one filled with body shame. Being healthy includes moving your body in ways that feel joyful and life-enriching, not driven by guilt over what you ate for lunch.
I really do believe this is possible, and I’ve seen it play out for many of my clients. What happens to their weight? Honestly, I believe that’s the wrong question. What I see happen for them is so much more important than a number on a scale: I see them stop worrying about weight and started living fuller lives. I see them deepen relationships over meals that are now focused on connecting instead of calorie-counting. When someone embraces a goal of health for the sake of health I see people get healthier, happier and lead more meaningful lives than when they’re dieting and burdened by weight-worry.