Did you know there is no research showing higher weight causes poor health?
I used to believe high weight caused poor health because messages in our society tell us exactly that. However, the research only shows a correlation between high weight and poor health. This is an important distinction.
For example, there’s a correlation between male pattern baldness and increased risk of heart disease. Does this mean that going bald causes heart disease? Of course not. In this case, genetics is the key factor at play, with a link between the gene for baldness and the gene for heart disease risk.
Imagine if we treated baldness as the cause of increased heart disease risk. We would tell men to stop the balding to improve health. When they failed at stopping the balding (because, it’s genetic) we would blame them for causing their own health risks.
When we find this correlation between weight and health, we do just this. We focus on weight loss as the treatment, and when we fail at weight loss (which the research shows happens in 95% of weight loss diets), we blame and shame the individual.
Although, just as baldness does not cause poor health but rather a common gene influences both, weight also is not the cause of poor health. In this case, there’s several common links that influence both weight and health.
Common links that have a direct affect on health regardless of weight
These environmental and behavioural factors increase our risk of poor health but are often not accounted for in research. Many also affect those in larger bodies more commonly than smaller bodies. When looking at the results without these common links, we are left with the weight and health correlation, although this is missing the bigger picture.
A 2012 study looked into this. They calculated the body mass index (BMI), a measure of weight against height, as well as lifestyle habits and risk of disease in 40,000 people.
The specific lifestyle habits they measured were:
What did they find about health, weight and behaviour?
In those who had no healthy habits in these 4 categories, a higher BMI showed an increased risk of disease. Although, when we add in just one healthy habit, the risk comes down across all BMI groups. The more healthy habits, the lower the risk in all groups. Importantly, there was no difference in health risk across all BMI categories.
We can see that encouraging healthy behaviours is what makes the difference to our health. Yet, despite all this, larger bodied people are often recommended weight loss dieting which is shown to lead to a reduction in long term health behaviours. Rather than promoting health, health promoting behaviours are made less accessible.
There’s no harm in trying right? Actually, there’s statistically a much greater chance of negative side effects from dieting than of any long term benefit. Although, this is usually not disclosed in the same way it is disclosed in other medical settings.
Dieting is shown to:
When we initially start dieting, it can feel exciting. We might lose weight, feel fitter and have confidence in our body. Although, the research shows this rarely lasts. Over time, and with each subsequent diet, our body begins to fight back. It’s hard to imagine the negative effects are coming from the diet that felt so good initially, so we blame ourselves.
The effects of dieting are shown to come on and last for years after finishing a diet. Even in this case, the diet is the cause. The long term risks of dieting far outweigh the likelihood of any potential benefit, both physically and mentally.
As a culture we are obsessed with weight. We are constantly surrounded by messages that elevate some bodies while shaming others.
Through societal messages we are constantly reminded that beauty is associated with thinness, body size can be controlled by food restriction or fat people don’t have favourable qualities. None of this has any validity but when the messages are pervasive and prolonged throughout life they form belief pathways in our brain that are difficult to question.
When we live in fear of a doctor visit because we know the appointment will involve sitting through a body-shaming lecture again or we endure daily comments about fat people being lazy or rarely see ourselves represented in positive ways in the media, of course we want to lose weight to fit in.
When we really dive deep into the messages around weight loss, we find it is not actually about health, but really the messages are implying:
The pursuit of weight loss is shown to worsen both our physical and mental health as well as our confidence in our body. While weight shaming is shown to lead to less long term healthy behaviours.
If pursuing weight loss has not been helpful or you just don’t want to go down a dieting path. You can work towards health with a non-diet approach. Some gentle tips to get started are:
Emma Townsin is a Registered Dietitian in the UK and a Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor. She is specialised in working with our body’s innate signals, our emotions and the impact of our cultural messages on eating behaviours. She understands health is complex and takes the focus off weight to focus on improving the health and wellbeing of her clients, whatever that means to them.
For nutrition coaching or intuitive eating support with Emma, you can get in touch here for a free consultation.
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