One of the most common reactions to what I write about learning to accept our bodies at the weight they are and taking a Health at Every Size® approach is, “But I’m not at the weight I’m supposed to be…I should be XXX pounds because that’s what I was [when I was my healthiest weight; when I was an athlete in college; before I had three kids; before I developed this knee condition; when I ran marathons all the time].” I totally get it. Lots of us have that utopian time in our lives when our weight was perfect (or so we think in hindsight), our health was optimal, and we were going to live forever…and we so desperately want to get back to it.
Even when, intellectually, we know that dieting doesn’t work, that weight loss is typically short-term (<3 years) at best, that even when our own personal experiences tell us that previous weights were not sustainable, we resist in accepting this. I recently read a great term for this: data resistance, meaning no matter how clear the science is on this topic, people still want to believe that long-term weight loss is possible for more than a tiny fraction of people. The propensity for magical thinking is strong in us humans, and weight is no exception.
Let’s roll with it, then. Maybe you aren’t at your optimal weight. Do you want to diet to try to get there? Is that something that has been sustainable for you in the past? If not, why do you think things would be different this time? What happens if, despite all your efforts, you never get anywhere close to your desired weight? How do you live your life then? What happens if the weight you are now is your weight for the rest of your life? I think it’s worth it to have this conversation with yourself, so you at least have some options.
There are also important things to know before you decide what to do next. First of all, despite what we have been told ad nauseam by the diet industry, your weight is not really within your control, at least in the long term. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you are well aware by now that intentional weight loss has a 90-95% failure rate over the long haul (>5 years). If you’re new to this blog, head on over to my Scientific Lit page and have a look for yourself.
Your weight is really determined by a combination of your genetics, your metabolism, and your environment (past and present) – and not so much by the weight you actually want to be. Do you have fat parents or family members (genetics)? Have you spent any part of your life restricting calories or foods (environment)? And if so, did you know that your metabolism is probably running slower than if you hadn’t (metabolism, obviously)? Possibly most significantly, if you have made multiple weight loss attempts throughout your life or were put on diets as a child, your natural set point will be higher than what it might have been had this never happened. Unfortunately, we’ve all been fed the calories in/calories out bullshit, and have been taught that calories out are totally within our control, when in reality our sneaky metabolism comes along and adjusts everything to make sure we aren’t spending too much energy, because Lord knows the body loves homeostasis.
So now you’re well-armed with information about the spectacular failure of long-term weight manipulation. That’s all well and dandy, you think, but maybe I’ll be one of the 5% who keep the weight off. Maybe you will be! I was for a long while – before The Diet Monster took over my life and made me more miserable than I had ever been as a fat person. It’s a dicey gamble to make – you might be one of the 5% who manages to maintain long-term weight loss by making it your life’s work, OR you might be one of the 95% who gains some, all, or even more of your weight back, leaving you even fatter than you started. In the words of Dirty Harry, “You gotta ask yourself, ‘Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya??
“But I’m simply not healthy at this weight.” Hey, you might not be. I don’t know your particular health habits or your lab values. Just remember, though, that weight is not a health behavior; it’s a size. Health at Every Size® does not purport to say that everyone is healthy at whatever weight they’re at; it simply means that whatever weight you are right now, you can start to work toward better health. So maybe your health isn’t great right now – is losing weight truly the only way you can improve your health? What about improving your eating habits or activity level? If you consider yourself too large to exercise, check out The Fat Chick’s webpage for activity for people of all sizes. Plenty of studies show that fitness is a better determinant of health than fatness and recently even more are showing that weight loss in some populations is associated with greater mortality rates.
“Well, I’m just not comfortable at this size.” I understand; moving in a thin body is different than moving in a fat body. While I personally don’t notice all that much difference (I’m lazy at both ends of the weight spectrum!), I also recognize that my weight difference might not be as great as someone else’s and that my experience is not universal (I also developed osteoarthritis in my feet at my thinnest, so even that wasn’t a guard against joint problems). Whether your discomfort is physical or psychological, how much do you think our culture’s prevailing attitudes about weight are influencing your discomfort with your weight?
I used to feel like I had to suck in my stomach, no matter what weight I was. As I regained weight, my stomach was beyond sucking in – I could tighten those ab muscles all I wanted, but that layer of fat wasn’t going anywhere. Sucking in made me feel physically uncomfortable. Not sucking in made me feel psychologically uncomfortable. I felt out of proportion, and I felt like I was being outed by my tummy as a fat person. When I finally acknowledged that how I felt about my stomach had more to do with how the world views fat people and less to do with how I actually felt, I eased up on my expectations of my body. If your feelings of discomfort are 100% physical, consider a HAES® approach in which you could find activities that you are comfortable doing right now, and work your way up from there. Bodies are amazingly adaptable, especially when we are being kind to them.
I wish I could tell you that our brains controlled our weight. That it’s just a matter of trying really hard and you’ll have some satisfying weight loss that lasts forever without totally ruining the quality of your life. My own personal experience, the experiences of all the other people I’ve met in the fatosphere, and the bulk of available science on the subject does not permit me to do so. I can only recommend a kinder approach in which you let your body decide what it will weigh – it will do that eventually anyway – while you find your own way of living as healthfully as you want and can. That will give you a stable weight that is right for you. Because, with this one life you have, how long do you really want to struggle against your body?
Dietitians Unplugged episode coming this week!