Making Sense of Weight & Health

An article posted by an acquaintance last week (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sarah-koppelkam/body-image_b_3678534.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009&utm_hp_ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false) had caught me at the right moment – or maybe the wrong moment. It really made me think about how to not pass onto children those things that it is too late for us to avoid catching from our own parents – messages and mentalities that are self-destructive and lead to nowhere. In a rare opportunity to read the actual hard copy broadsheet of The Guardian a few days later, I noticed a short editorial from a woman who has been attacked for making inappropriate comments about being fat or thin. I’m not saying her comments were inappropriate – just that she has been accused of that. I had never heard of her myself, but I guess she had written about overcoming an eating disorder and the discrimination against super skinniness. At least she had battled against and overcome her own under-eating. In the short piece I read, she only suggested that fatness and under-eating may have something in common psychologically. I think, some of the time, this might very well be true. She pointed out the defense of it and I have recognized this pattern myself in clients and other individuals. Certainly, an extra layer of fat can be like armour. And, there’s, of course, issues of control. Unfortunately, she added in comments about how fat people just need to try harder. I don’t think all fatness derives from the same place. I do think genes matter and biological differences coupled with lifestyle habits make one person very different from another. Body weight and overall health are also not the exact same thing.

Of course, health is correlated with body weight and, if we really are trying to care about ourselves, that should matter. Ideally, losing weight (or gaining it) would just be a symptom or side effect of healthy change. Obviously, it is hard for many of us to change our mindset, though. I watched “The Men Who Made Us Thin” today on the BBC and realised how quickly and easily we can lose the plot. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b03863jg/The_Men_Who_Made_Us_Thin_Episode_1/) This was a great programme. I learned more than I had in years about this stuff. A study done in the 1940s or 50s, not so far from where I grew up in the States, starved men on a 1500 calorie daily diet and had them workout heavily. I was less surprised by the outcome (moodiness, rapid weight gain when it finished) than by the information that 1500 calories was a starvation level for men. That suggests 1000-1200 calories is probably a starvation level for women, but I was put on diets at that level more than once when I was younger.

Weight and beauty all seem so predominant, that figuring out what healthy even is becomes nearly impossible for the regular person. It’s a mire. People will say – “It’s simple. Calories in. Calories out.” Yet, research increasingly is suggesting what people who struggle with weight have been saying for years. It isn’t simple. There’s lots of factors affecting weight and determining what is a healthy weight for your age and individual make up is more confusing than BMIs and scales suggest. And, as the BBC programme pointed out, even if you are overweight, dieting triggers that primal starvation mode and you end up just gaining the weight back. Your body is finely built to put survival above beauty and long-term health.

The best I think any of us can do – whether we think we’re too fat, too thin, or just right – is to try to eat delicious, satisfying, whole foods in a balanced and satiating (versus stuffing or under-filling) way and to get fun physical activity in everyday (even if just a little on some days). I’m in no way qualified, though, to guarantee that I’m right. I don’t really have the answers. I do care, though, deeply about how big of an impact all of this has on the self-esteem and behaviour of so many people.