Weight Loss Doesn’t Equal Health

I started health coaching six years ago. When I decided to pursue coaching, I definitely knew I wanted to focus on overall health without feeding into the diet narrative. I grew up hearing about how weight was the enemy, I heard the mantras of “3 meals a day with nothing in between”. I saw my mother struggle with her own demons around being overweight and thinking life would be better if she was a size 10. I was overly aware of how unhealthy it was that my friends had pantries with Oreos, I had cantaloupe with cottage cheese instead. Yet, I would secretly devour a half gallon of ice cream alone before my mother came home from work.

I wasn’t new to “healthy eating” when I began as a health coach, my family has always been veggie lovers. I also wasn’t new to “dieting”, before I even knew what dieting was I heard my mother’s stories of growing up as a heavy kid and being given diet pills, her struggles to feel beautiful and her glory year of Weight Watcher’s when she finally reached a size she never thought was attainable. 

When I was 12, I went to a dietitian who gave me a food plan that included two cups of lettuce a day, yes, I was told to measure lettuce! I was allowed a slice of pizza one day a week and I guzzled 2-liter bottles of water while standing at the kitchen sink. That dietician was the first person who first told me I “carried my weight well”.  I lost six pounds. It was really the only diet I ever stuck to; I was terrible at dieting. The minute I had a food restriction it set me on a binge. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t try to control food for years. Beginning at 20, I started with my love/hate relationship with the gym. I enjoyed working out to a point but a lot of it was focused on how many calories I could burn or how I could manipulate the shape of my body.

When I decided to go into health coaching I knew I wanted to help people, particularly women, find real health, not a diet or restrictive eating that was disguised as health. I started to dig deeper into the myth that weight loss equals health. My journey with disordered eating and struggles around body image have been long, and I’ve seen the body ideals and the diet fads change along the way. I can’t say that I am totally free of the temptation to want to be thin, but I now have a real understanding of weight stigma, of how our culture demonizes fatness and that being smaller doesn’t necessarily mean being healthier. So, it always surprises me when I see people still arguing this point.

I guess it shouldn’t, we still glorify weight loss and thin bodies, but it amazes me when people use the old ideas to argue that weight loss equals health or that bigger bodies can’t be healthy. I feel like I passed that thinking so long ago. That doesn’t mean I don’t think eating healthy and movement aren’t important for health and longevity, I think they’re vital. But, I also think there are so many other factors that impact our health and that weight and body size are not good measurements.

The other day I saw a post on a health coach forum where a health coach was asking for advice about her current client. The client had stopped binge eating, was eating healthier and exercising but hadn’t continued to lose weight. My reaction was immediate, “why does she need to lose weight?!” I responded that this might be her client’s natural weight, that she should tell her client to celebrate her accomplishments. This client has stopped binge eating. If you’ve ever had experience with binge eating or any other disordered eating behavior, you know that’s HUGE! She’s eating healthier and taking care of herself. I responded to the post asking this coach to please be careful not to encourage other disordered eating habits focused on losing weight after she has successfully stopped bingeing. One other person said something close to my comments, but most other health coaches did not. One coach said to see a functional medicine doctor, one said that the client needed to keep closer tabs on her food, one said she was probably not eating that clean, one said the quantities were probably too much and that this coach had a client who was still eating tahini and that was the culprit! 

Maybe these responses sound reasonable to you. Maybe years ago, I could see that. But the other day when I read them, it drove me nuts! This woman overcame a disordered eating pattern and is taking care of herself. If the client is upset about “being 30 pounds overweight” maybe that’s where the concern should be. 

In Linda Bacon’s “Health at Every Size” her research finds there is not the data to support that heavier people die sooner. In her book she states, “No study has ever shown that weight loss prolongs life”. (HAES, pg. 135) This story that we’ve been told about thinner being healthier just isn’t true. In fact, repeatedly dieting is dangerous for your health. It puts a lot of strain on your body when you’re losing and gaining weight. We also know that most people who lose weight will regain it within one to three years. “Biology dictates that most people regain the weight they lose, even if they continue their diet and exercise program.” (HAES, pg. 164) We have all of this evidence that intentional weight loss isn’t healthy or sustainable, yet we still buy into it.

The people commenting on this thread were “health coaches”, mostly holistic-minded. Yet, I think they might be forgetting what holistic means. It means that your mental health, your spiritual connection, your relationships, all have an impact on your health. Focusing on losing weight is not holistic, it’s narrow minded. If the client has found some peace, if she’s stopped harming herself with binge eating, she’s eating healthier, she’s moving her body, why is it a failure if she hasn’t lost weight? 

Yes, it is possible there may be another health concern that is affecting her inability to lose weight. And she can see a doctor to evaluate that. But why do we think that being healthy will result in weight loss? And why is it not an achievement to do the things this client did without the reward of being smaller?I invite you to sit with that. If you think thinness is the goal, why is that when the research shows that losing weight doesn’t necessarily make you healthier? If we scrape away that answer, that thin does not equal healthy, then weight loss is a goal for an entirely different reason. That is also problematic. But let’s at least start with this first, weight loss doesn’t equal health. Eating healthy, moving your body, reducing stress, finding passion…those things improve health. Weight loss may or may not be a result of those actions. But weight loss on its own does not guarantee health, so let’s stop the lie. 

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