Women are being sent two very different messages about our bodies these days. On the one hand, everyone from Tyra Banks to Glamour magazine says it’s oh-so-enlightened to “rock your curves” and accept the shape you have. But on the other hand, news headlines, doctors and even the First Lady (bless her sculpted arms) trumpet the dangers of being overweight.
So how can you accept your body and still strive to be healthy?
New research, along with in-the-trenches experts, suggest that the answer may lie in reexamining what a “healthy” weight means for you and focusing first on building good behaviors rather than achieving a specific number on a scale.
Redefining “Healthy” Weight
It’s inescapably true that this country is getting larger. The latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention peg the percentage of Americans who are obese (that is, have a body mass index of 30 or higher) at nearly 36 percent—far more than the 23 percent in the 1980s. About 33 percent of us are in the “overweight” category with BMIs of 25 to 29, a number that hasn’t changed much over the decades. But how this translates to actual health may surprise you.
A new meta-analysis by well-respected researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention involving nearly 100 previous studies found that people who are overweight or on the lower edges of obese (a BMI under 35) actually have a slightly lower risk of death from illness than those of normal weight or underweight people. That said, people who were heavier than that did show a significant 30 percent increase in the risk of dying from a myriad of causes. “The facts are that there are definitely health risks associated with obesity,” says Cynthia M. Bulik, Ph.D., director of the University of North Carolina Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders in Chapel Hill. “The grey area is in the overweight category. Having a BMI of 26 simply does not carry the same health risks as having a BMI of 40. Once again, people like seeing the world in all or nothing terms—either you are not overweight or you are. It isn't a dichotomy, it's a continuum.”
What’s more, weight or BMI may not be the most important measure of a person’s fitness. “Body weight is not the only indicator of health and it should be one of multiple indices, such as cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar, that are considered,” says Rebecca Puhl, Ph.D., director of research at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University.
Case in point: Chevese Turner, 45, founder and CEO of the Binge Eating Disorder Association, describes herself as a larger person who’s had weight concerns her entire life—but she (and her doctor) also consider Turner to be remarkably healthy. “I don’t have diabetes, I don’t have high blood pressure, my cholesterol is perfect,” she says. “My biggest problem is fatigue from running two businesses and having two kids! I move five days a week, sometimes even more. I swim once or twice a week—it’s my absolute favorite thing to do. Other days I walk on the treadmill or outside. I joined a tennis league. I love Zumba. I mix it up.”
One key for Turner was finding a doctor who could be a partner in her health journey instead of simply pestering her to lose weight. She had obsessed about weight and dieting for years and all that had done in the end was worsen her binge eating disorder and leave her body even heavier, she says. “Together, my doctor and I track my blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol, and I do my part to stay healthy every day,” says Turner.
She also tries to incorporate as many healthy foods into her diet as possible, but has decided not to directly focus on losing weight anymore. Even though Turner’s weight may not be in the “normal” range on a national chart, both she and her doctor feel it’s fine for her, both physically and emotionally.
How to Slim Down Happily
Of course, plenty of people do need to lose weight for their health—and it helps to get your head in the right place when you set out to do it. “It’s important to get rid of the diet mentality; this really has to be about lifestyle change and maintaining these changes over time,” says Puhl. “Real weight loss is something that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s going to take time, and it’s important to set realistic goals.”
One way to do that is to focus on changing your not-so-great habits, such as drinking soda regularly, and adding healthier behaviors, such as daily walks, rather than making sweeping proclamations like, “I need to lose 30 pounds.” Being realistic about how much you will lose counts, too. “When people set ideals that are extreme and unlikely to be achieved, it really sets them up for an unhealthy emotional process and failure,” says Puhl. “Despite what we hear from the diet industry, that anyone can lose 40 or 50 pounds easily, what we see from science over and over again is that the long term effectiveness isn’t there.”
In other words, people may drop gobs of weight on fad diets, but they gain it back. So what is realistic? “We’ve seen that people can often lose 10 to 15 percent of their body weight and keep it off over time,” says Puhl. “That may not end up giving people their ideal shape, but it can make the difference in health, allowing people to get off medications, and it can mean increased energy and mobility. It’s important to recognize the benefits that can come from even modest weight loss.”
Another smart step in achieving a healthy weight is to take a look at your motivations for wanting to shed pounds and addressing any body hate with therapy or self-help before actively trying to drop weight. “Body shame and an overemphasis on shape tap straight into emotions, not rational thinking,” warns Bulik. “When you are [dieting or exercising] out of emotions like desperation and self-hatred, you glom onto extreme measures and it’s harder for you to come up with a rational step-by-step plan that includes appropriate self-reward and sensible goals. If you really do need to lose weight for health reasons, it takes energy, determination, resilience and optimism”—and you’re more likely to successfully lose weight if you start from a place of solid self-esteem and body acceptance, notes Bulik.
Perhaps the best way to think about healthy weight loss is to recognize that it’s not just about achieving a certain number on the scale. It’s about accepting your natural shape (rather than striving for a skinny look that only a few are truly built for), and giving yourself the compassion, time and support you need to find your healthy, happy shape—whatever that turns out to be.
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