Everything You've Heard About Weight Could Be False

The list of popularized diets goes on and on: low-fat, low-carb, Paleo, keto, South Beach, intermittent fasting, and so on. Given that our culture—including the sport of cycling—idealizes thinness, it's no surprise that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one in every five middle-aged women has died in the last few years. Many people have regained their weight and consider themselves to be failures. In a research involving over 100,000 women, less than 1% of very large persons reached a "normal" weight, and the majority of those who did regained the pounds they had lost within five years.

Some medical professionals are now stating what many of us have hoped to hear: losing weight long-term is exceedingly difficult for reasons that have nothing to do with willpower—and it may not even be necessary.

"The government, health groups, and the media all send forth the idea that weight and health are linked. But, as Jeffrey Hunger, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Miami University of Ohio and a longstanding weight-stigma researcher (and yes, that is his real name! ), points out, "There is no compelling evidence to suggest that being overweight inherently leads to ill health."

Dropping a few pounds will preserve your joints from arthritis and make it easier to exercise if you're particularly large-bodied. However, for most women who are over their "ideal" weight, other health indicators may be far more important than what the scale indicates.

Why, then, isn't it a message you're likely to get from your doctor? "The data has been mounting for years, but specialists are so set in their ways that they refuse to acknowledge anything that contradicts their convictions," Hunger argues. Add in all the persons and businesses having a vested financial interest in disseminating anti-fat messages, from diet corporations to pharmaceutical companies to book authors. Plus, the notion that body fat is harmful and should be reduced as much as possible is so widely accepted in our culture that it's difficult to imagine it's not true.

Here are eight crucial truths that many people are unaware of. These facts could be exactly what you need to feel better about your body, regardless of your weight.

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1. Weight is not a reliable indicator of health..

Doctors are concerned that obese women are "cardiometabolically unwell," a term that combines blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood glucose levels, as well as other heart and vascular fitness indicators.

Researchers from UCLA and the University of Minnesota, on the other hand, looked at almost two dozen studies and found "no obvious association between weight reduction and health outcomes." In other words, losing weight had no effect on blood pressure, diabetes risk, or cholesterol.

Researchers from the University of California concluded that equating being overweight with poor cardiometabolic health and being slim with the inverse is incorrect. They examined data from more than 40,000 people who took part in the government's annual National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and discovered that nearly half of those classified as "overweight" (and more than a quarter of those classified as "obese") had perfectly healthy blood lipid and glucose levels, indicating that they were cardiometabolically healthy. Meanwhile, 30% of "normal-weight" subjects had dangerously high levels of these markers.

Bottom line: Because weight alone is not a reliable indicator of health, no one can tell whether or not a person is healthy simply by looking at their weight.

2. The number on the scale is less essential than healthy habits.

Hunger and colleagues evaluated many studies on weight and health in a report published in Social Issues and Policy Review, and discovered that healthy practices, not fitting into our tight pants, are what keep us healthy—and help us live longer. People who are overweight but maintain a healthy lifestyle are just as likely to thrive as anyone else. Physical activity, eating nutritious meals, and quitting smoking are all on the list, but so is socializing enough to avoid isolation, reducing stress, and managing depression.

"Your focus should be on how many days you plan to exercise this week and how much produce you'll be eating, not on a target weight," says Mary S. Himmelstein, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Kent State University in Ohio. Then call a friend, get a ride, and, if necessary, seek out a reputable therapist.

3. You can be both overweight and fit..

Our culture frequently associates being overweight with being out of shape, but plenty of big-bodied women can easily run laps around their slimmer counterparts at the gym. That's because, according to Himmelstein, fitness and weight have little in common.

This was demonstrated by a group of multinational researchers who followed 43,000 (mainly white) volunteers across the weight spectrum. They began by taking blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose, and other vital signs, and then used a treadmill to assess the participants' fitness levels. Those who were metabolically healthy and physically fit died at the same rate during the next decade, regardless of weight. Obese and inactive people, on the other hand, were more likely to die.

4. Losing weight may not always imply improved health.

Dropping pounds would immediately make people healthier if low weight equals excellent health, but this isn't the case. Hunger cites a meta-analysis that indicated that even after dieters lost weight, their blood pressure, glucose, and other blood markers were not significantly better two years later when they were reevaluated. When obese persons are placed on a weight-loss program, such as the famed Diabetes Prevention Program of 2002, their risk of developing the condition is reduced. However, as the UCLA and University of Minnesota researchers note out, participants in this study, like those in prior weight-reduction trials, were encouraged to exercise, which the experts believe was more important for their health than the weight loss.

5. Calories in, calories out isn't the whole story when it comes to weight.

"There are so many factors that go into your weight," Himmelstein explains. Even if most doctors focus just on calories, genes, ethnicity, medicines used, where you live, your income, and how much sleep you get all have a role. Even seasoned experts don't fully comprehend all of the elements at play when it comes to weight. Because food is so readily available these days, people may be overweight. Perhaps it's the astronomically larger quantities served in restaurants today compared to 35 years ago.

Barbara Corkey, Ph.D., director of the Obesity Research Center at Boston University School of Medicine and professor emeritus of medicine and biochemistry, is intrigued by the idea that chemicals used in farming, additives in processed foods, and/or other toxins that end up on our plates cause our bodies to release too much insulin, a hormone that makes us want to eat more. Many doctors feel that obesity causes problems like insulin resistance, while Corkey believes that obesity and insulin resistance are caused by abnormally high insulin levels.

6. It is possible to be overly slim.

There may be no limit to how wealthy you want to be, but there is a limit to how skinny you should be. When a team of worldwide researchers evaluated hundreds of studies with over 30 million individuals, they discovered that having a BMI below 23 (less than roughly 130 pounds for a 5' 3" woman) is connected to higher mortality than being a few pounds heavier. Even when they eliminated patients who were slim because they were already sick, this was true.

Furthermore, having a BMI that is too low can make you feel terrible. Oprah Winfrey informed crowds at her wellness events in 2019 that she was always agitated and weary when she plummeted to a low weight for her. She felt better only once she regained some weight and attained her ideal weight. (It's worth noting that BMI has been criticized as a poor measurement because it doesn't distinguish between fat and muscle, classifying athletes and others with a lot of muscle as "overweight," and it ignores ethnic differences in body shape, among other difficulties.)

7. Many health-care workers have severely skewed perspectives.

According to Himmelstein, most persons with high body weight have a narrative of how their doctors judged, blamed, or didn't listen to them. This is true of all types of providers, including those who specialize in weight loss! It can create a vicious cycle in which women avoid going to the doctor because they don't want to be judged for their weight, and as a result, they miss out on treatment or early detection, according to Himmelstein. In other circumstances, health problems that have nothing to do with weight are incorrectly attributed to a person's size, resulting in patients receiving the wrong therapy.

Doctors' bias can make individuals sicker in this way, among other things, adding to the idea that all people who are large-bodied are unwell. When a study of the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic found that obese persons had more difficulties and died as a result of the sickness, the authors speculated that this could be due to the fact that those patients weren't given vital antiviral drugs as early as others. (It's unclear whether they didn't seek care right away or because medical experts didn't offer it to them.)

Diabetes, cancer, and autoimmune diseases are particularly crucial to detect early, when they are easier to treat, and health professionals' overemphasis on body weight appears to be preventing people from receiving the best care.

8. A healthy diet will take you further than a fad diet.

Dieting can help you lose weight, but maintaining that weight loss is a different matter. Many weight-loss strategies aren't sustainable because of their poor nutrition intake and excessive exercise, according to Hunger. Furthermore, when you restrict your calorie intake, your metabolism slows to a crawl. "Our biological architecture doesn't grasp what the slim ideal is—trying it's everything it can to protect us from what it sees to be famine," he explains.

Because of these circumstances, a European study of large-bodied women estimated that their odds of attaining a "normal" BMI were less than one in 100! "Rather than making a drastic temporary change for a short-term goal like how you'll look at a class reunion, focus on small, long-term changes like eating more whole grains and plant-based foods and less red meat and processed fare so healthy eating becomes your new lifestyle to set you up for long-term health," suggests Ruwanthi Titano, M.D., an assistant professor of cardiology at Mount Sinai in New York City.

Even skinny people, according to Himmelstein, benefit from a weight-loss mindset. She points out that counting calories or carbs takes a lot of brainpower—time and energy that could be better spent elsewhere. "Start appreciating what your body does for you instead of attempting to minimize it," Hunger advises. You'll be well and happy, which are the most important things, regardless of your clothes size.

This item first appeared in the Prevention magazine in May 2021.

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