Health-Focused Weight Management

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“So I was just reading the Huffington Post article that you guys posted on Facebook. Serious question, is it possible that the pride in your body movement has gone too far? I understand the evils of anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, but being fat, especially as fat as the woman in that article, is bad, right? If I eat unhealthily and stop exercising, I gain weight (see, e.g., the 4 months after [my son] was born). So fat [name omitted] is more unhealthy than skinnier [name omitted] (to a degree, of course). And the people who I know that are overweight clearly have the worst eating habits and some of them have ended up with diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular problems.

“So why this big movement of pride in your body no matter how fat you are? I feel like it’s teaching a dangerous message. That lady in the bikini needs to lose weight by changing her diet and exercising more, doesn’t she? Being thinner will inevitably be better for her health and decrease the risk of her getting weight-related health problems. So why are we celebrating her being proud of how fat she is and then broadcasting to the world that she should be proud of her body no matter what?”

One of my best friends sent me the preceding email in response to me posting the Huffington Post article he mentioned on our Facebook page. We have been friends for decades and I know he asks these questions with honest, open-minded curiosity. Here are the points I wrote back to him.

1) Obesity is associated with health problems, but to my knowledge the legitimate research has never established a causal relationship despite attempts to do so. In fact, what the research has shown is that behaviors (smoking, physical activity, fruit and vegetable intake, proper sleep, limited alcohol consumption, etc.) are the real predictors of morbidity and mortality. When we control for these sorts of lifestyle choices, health outcomes are basically the same regardless of body weight.

2) Even if being obese was in and of itself a legitimate health problem, we really do not know how to help people lose weight and keep it off for the long run. The research shows that about 95% of the attempts people make to intentionally lose weight fail in the long run, and the majority of these people end up heavier in the end than they were at baseline. Weight regain can be due to behavior change, but it can occur even when the behaviors that yielded the weight loss are maintained. From an evolutionary perspective, consider that we are designed to keep on weight, not lose it, for the sake of survival. I have a patient who lost about 40 pounds, her motivation to keep it off is sky high, and she is very strict about maintaining the behaviors that got her weight down. Yet the weight is starting to creep back on slowly but surely. We can only do so much to fight biology.

3) When somebody tries to lose weight and it does not go as planned, the endeavor is not necessarily harmless. In other words, they do not automatically just return to baseline as if nothing happened. Weight cycling can cause everything from depression to metabolic issues like high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Given that 19 out of 20 weight-loss attempts fail, we need to really consider these risks.

4) The social stigma about being overweight pushes people into weight loss attempts, which we know are likely to fail them. We have a “war on obesity” in this country, which is ridiculous considering there are people everywhere making all sorts of behavior choices that could legitimately be considered unhealthy, but they do not face the same ridicule. Where is the outrage against people who do not get enough sleep? Why don’t we bitch about inadequate sleepers raising health care costs for the rest of us? Why don’t people who yawn in public seem to face the same bullying and looks of disgust that many obese people deal with on a regular basis? Our culture is so unaccepting of people who we deem overweight that we push them into weight-loss attempts that will likely leave them less healthy in the long run.

5) Because they are trying so hard to lose weight, Americans spend upwards of $60 billion annually on weight-loss programs and products. That’s insane. Imagine if we took those same resources and put them towards things that would actually help with health: cooking lessons, sports equipment, fruits and vegetables, walking shoes, gym memberships, comfortable mattresses, etc.

It is true that when somebody adapts unhealthy lifestyle choices, he or she might gain weight. If we have a baby and no longer have time for physical activity or proper sleep, for example, our weight might increase. The weight gain itself is just a symptom of the problem though, as opposed to actually being the problem. The real issues at hand are the lifestyle changes that happened to result in weight gain.

At the same time, we cannot conclude that somebody who is heavier automatically has an unhealthy lifestyle. Too many factors, including genetics, are in play. If we look at a heavier person and make any assumptions about how he or she leads his or her life, we are showing a prejudice that is as abhorrent and as any other stereotype.

The approach I take with my patients is to focus on behaviors, establish healthy lifestyle choices, and let the weight settle wherever it naturally belongs. Because our weight may or may not end up where we, our moms, our partners, society as a whole, etc. would like it to be, I encourage people to love and accept themselves no matter what they look like or weigh. That is why the Huffington Post piece and similar posts that confront weight stigma and call for size and weight acceptance are so important.