New Year, new you. Chances are you’ve spend the last couple of days recovering from a cheese induced food coma, assessing your life and vowing that you’ll change for the better as 2019 kicks off. The most common reason for our January weight loss goals is to improve health. But does this actually work?
Is thinner healthier?
Thinness is what we consider to be the gold standard of physical health. Whilst there are obviously people who are both thin and healthy, this restrictive standard puts pressure on the rest of us to focus on weight loss – sometimes by drastic measures – rather than behaviour that’s actually good for us. One study investigated the effects of four healthy behaviours – eating at least five fruit and veg per day, exercising regularly, limiting alcohol intake and not smoking. Researchers found that people who kept up these behaviours had similar beneficial health outcomes regardless of their BMI, proving that you can improve your health without any need to lose weight.
The problem with focussing on weight loss is that it doesn’t last. If you take up morning runs in January, you’re probably going to drop a few pounds. Your body will be readjusting to a life where you no longer eat wheels of camembert for lunch (unless you’re like me, because that habit runs all year long) and it will happily burn off the excess energy. N.B. Your body does this anyway by speeding up your metabolism if it has more energy than it needs. After a while, your body will be back in it’s comfortable weight range and satisfied with its efforts, but you keep trying to burn off more energy. Thinner is healthier right? At this point, your body stops you – it slows down that metabolism, it makes you want to eat more – and you hit the dreaded weight loss plateau.
Weight loss plateaus are disheartening, especially in a society that brands weight loss as a simple “calories in, calories out” formula. Feeling as though your plan no longer works, you might dangerously restrict your food intake or over-exercise in order to shift the number on the scale, without realising that this makes your body fight even harder to return your weight to it’s optimum range.
The important thing to remember is that weight loss is sometimes a side effect of pursuing a healthier lifestyle, but is by no means a necessity. If you stop losing weight – or never did in the first place – exercise and healthy eating still WORK, they are still good for your health. Reducing the superpowers of eating healthily and exercising is a huge disservice to the benefits of the nutrients and endorphins they provide.
Measuring health by a scale
Researchers in Denmark found a shift in what it means to be a healthy weight, finding that those who live longest and have fewest health complaints actually now those who fall into the ‘overweight’ BMI category. The aptly named Jeffrey Hunger also reported that, based on a range of health markers (blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol etc.), 47% of Americans who fell in the ‘overweight’ category were physically healthy whilst 30% of the ‘normal’ category were physically unhealthy.
This isn’t to say that you should then try and change your weight to fit a different standard – these studies show that judging our entire lifestyle on how our weight compares to our height is simply ineffective. It reduces us to two dimensions, when we are (literally and figuratively) so much more. That’s hardly a surprise, considering the BMI scale was devised almost 200 years ago by a Belgian astronomer and statistician. The creator himself suggested that his scale could not measure body build or fat, and therefore should only be used on groups – not individuals. Sounds like its like to throw the BMI in the bin, along with your weighing scale.
What about mental health?
In addition to physical wellbeing, thinness is often associated with positive mental wellbeing. We’ll be happier once we’re smaller. Well obviously, does the media ever show you a fat woman smiling? Reinforced by every diet ad, every ‘before and after’ and every woman laughing alone with salad, joy is the reward you reap from weight loss. These aspirational images fail to mention the emotional toll of pursuing weight loss (could be something to do with trying to sell you an ‘easy’ solution..?)
A meta analysis of studies investigated the link between weight change and symptoms of depression, with interesting results. Overall weight loss programs were found to improve symptoms of depression. But did thinness equal happiness? Firstly, mood still improved in programs that were not aiming to reduce weight. Secondly, depressive symptoms were reduced even when participants did not lose weight. Programs that focussed on exercise and provided group sessions were the most beneficial, meaning the impact of sweet endorphins and social support was superior to the number on the scale.
In contrast, another study by the University College of London considered people who were not depressed to begin with. Those who maintained weight loss of more than 5% over the four year study period were a staggering 52% more likely to report feelings of depression. Lead researcher Sarah Jackson has speculated that participants’ mood may improve once they have hit their target weight and are instead focussing on maintenance. Firstly, four years? Still working towards that target weight? A dieting red flag for sure.
Her comments also ignore the fact that, for most of us, maintaining a target weight is the same as dieting. The majority of dieters will need to restrict their eating forever in order to maintain their reduced weight – potentially missing out on social occasions, feeling guilt whenever they indulge, and easily regaining weight if they fall off the rickety restriction wagon. It’s not hard to see how this might be affecting their mood. Long term food restriction has also been found to negatively effect mood, motivation, intellect and sex drive during a six month period, so four years sounds pretty brutal.
The yo-yo diet
Strokes, cardiac arrest, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and early death. These are conditions that we widely associate with obesity. However, they have also been linked to repeated weight fluctuations, AKA yo-yo dieting. After dieting, most people regain the weight they lost. So they restrict again and regain again, sending their weight up and down repeatedly. The effects of this cycle are potentially more harmful for your body than not dieting at all.
A study by Nine News Australia argues that these weight fluctuations are “not as bad as you might think” based on the finding that yo-yo dieters usually ended up a similar weight to non dieters. Bizarrely, they failed to mention that the same study shows yo-yo dieters were more likely to have symptoms of depression. If anything, it’s a perfect representation of how we, as a society, prioritise weight over literally any marker of health. It wasn’t effective? And makes you depressed? No worries, at least you didn’t get fat! It’s time to change this mindset.
The bottom line is, if you are looking to improve your health (and you don’t have to, so no pressure) you don’t need to lose weight. If you lose weight whilst pursuing healthy habits then so be it. However, if you need to resort to extreme restriction, repeated dieting and potential harm to your mental wellbeing, then chances are your body isn’t meant to be any smaller.
People of any shape and size can be physically and mentally healthy, what matters is lifestyle. If you make healthy changes, you will FEEL the benefits of more exercise and veggies or less booze and cigarettes. The weight loss mentality teaches you to ignore your internal cues, but your body knows best. You don’t need a scale to measure your success. You don’t need a scale to tell you how to feel.