A recent Listener had a cover story promoting health at any weight. It described the pressures and discrimination suffered by those who are above a healthy weight and advocated for a society where there is greater size acceptance.
The argument was that weight and Body Mass Index (BMI) are not ideal measures of health and that programmes that push for weight loss are doing more harm than good. While I agree that weight and BMI are not good indicators of health, I do not agree that we should stop supporting people to lose weight just because it makes some people feel like failures. Rather, we as a society should address the broader issues involved and look at ways we can promote better health (physical and mental) for all.
Health at any weight is an interesting concept. While there are certainly people like athletes and All Blacks who are healthy while above a healthy weight (as measured by BMI), experience tells me this is not the norm. The reality is we live in an environment where it is easy to gain weight and where the factors that make this easy also promote ill health. Such factors include ready and easy access to energy-dense/nutrient-poor foods, aggressive and irresponsible marketing of fast food companies to hook kids on such foods ‘from cradle to grave’, a culture where sugary drinks and alcohol are normal and celebrated, and where cooking has been relegated to TV screens only (to name but some). Along with our status as third fattest nation in the world, we have some of the highest statistics for lifestyle conditions such as type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer. We cannot ignore the fact that in populations, being overweight and ill health DO go hand in hand. They are both symptoms of a society where the food supply is out of kilter with health needs.
The cynical side of me wonders if size acceptance is just another way of shifting social norms. Because more than 60 per cent of New Zealanders are overweight, should we just accept that as normal? Not in my mind, particularly if being overweight is accompanied by increasing ill health, which evidence tells me is usually the case.
So what can we do?
Firstly, we as a society need to tackle the big picture determinants that make it so easy for people to gain fat in the first place; we need to create environments where health is the default status rather than something we have to battle to achieve. This involves caring and taking a stand against fast food advertising to children, the number and positioning of fast food outlets, food pricing that has soft drink cheaper than milk, and town plans where cars are favoured over active transport.
Secondly, we as individuals need to prioritise health instead of weight. This means good physical health (fitness, healthy blood pressure, cholesterol, strong bones etc) plus good mental and spiritual health. Healthier people are likely to have healthier weights. If we put weight loss into the background, it is more likely to happen!
The third challenge is to enjoy and celebrate the journey. Enjoying food, health and a healthy weight at the same time IS possible without dieting or deprivation. Fine-tuning habits is the secret (more about this later). While weight loss may not be immediate (it takes time to change), the rewards will be in the new energy, vitality, better health and better looks you reclaim each day.
So should we try to lose weight or just accept ourselves the way we are?
My answer is to strive for health and being the best version of you. That is the perfect place for acceptance.
Bronwen King is a NZ-registered nutritionist and qualified chef, and regular contributor to Healthy Food Guide magazine. She specialises in population health nutrition and weight management and currently manages Appetite for Life, a primary care-based healthy lifestyle and weight management programme in Canterbury. She enjoys everything about food! Check out Bronwen's personal blog, www.eatlosewin.com.