From diet tips in magazines to snack food commercials that emphasize calorie counts and weight loss above all else, the pressure to be thin and the resulting “fat phobia” can be hard to avoid. These messages and the often-contradictory information around dieting, weight loss and body image can make it difficult to know what is healthy, and how we can eat well, live in and celebrate our bodies as they are.
Body weight and health
Despite what popular culture tells us, body weight alone is not an indicator of health. This means that someone can be at a higher weight and be healthy—or at a lower weight and be unhealthy. To say that everyone who appears overweight is unhealthy or that anyone who looks thin is healthy is an inaccurate generalization. To accurately assess health, we have to take into account a person’s natural set point weight range (see more below), height, muscle mass, bone structure, body fat, genetics, activity level, eating patterns, and relationship to food.
Natural set point weight range vs Body Mass Index (BMI)
Set point weight theory says that our weight, like our height, settles at a natural range due to our inherited biology and genetics. Once settled, this is the weight range that our body will continue to work to maintain, despite our efforts to alter it. Therefore, the vast majority of people who lose weight on diets will regain that weight. Although our body will gravitate towards its set point, movement within a range is normal due to fluctuations in activity level, seasonal changes in eating patterns, or illness. Because of the variance among set points, standardized weight charts can be misleading and unhelpful.
On the other hand, Body Mass Index or BMI (sometimes also referred to as Ideal Body Weight) is the ratio of your weight (in kilograms) to your height (in meters) squared and is defined as a measure of body fat based on weight and height. Because BMI does not take into account muscle mass, bone structure, genetics, biology, metabolism, or activity level, BMI can portray an inaccurate, unhelpful picture of your physical health.
So how do I know what a healthy weight is for me?
Throughout your growing years (your teens), your body is still building bone and muscle, so your weight increases steadily. So, if your body is still growing, you may not have reached your natural range yet.
For the rest of you, one way to think about a healthy weight for yourself is to ask what weight range your body has naturally settled in for long periods of time. Pay special attention to times when…
- Maintaining this weight was natural (e.g., you did not have to under or overeat to achieve it)
- You were eating well (in good health, not preoccupied with thoughts of food)
- You had the physical and mental energy to do the things you wanted.
The weight your body settled at during these times is likely your healthy weight range.
I want to lose weight, is there a healthy way to do so?
If you’re eating a variety of foods according to your body cues, exercising for fun and health, and maintaining your current weight, your body is probably at a healthy weight for you. In this case, it is unlikely that there’s a healthy way to lose weight because your body is already at a healthy weight.
Trying to lose weight at this point is likely to disrupt your internal body cues, slow your metabolism, increase likelihood of bingeing, decrease body image, increase obsessive thoughts about food, lower self-esteem, and/or increase risk of developing an eating disorder.
Instead, you might benefit from focusing on the feelings driving the desire to lose weight and improving your body image through self-acceptance and compassion (see fact sheet: Body Image). You can also change things up while still maintaining healthy habits by trying new recipes or attempting a new sport.
If you believe your body is at a higher (or lower) weight than might be natural for you, you might want to change your eating patterns. This type of weight change might occur due to inactivity, over or undereating, or disconnection from your internal body cues, In this case, try not to focus on weight loss (or gain), but rather on restoring health.
You may want to try:
- Practicing intuitive eating: Learn more here.
- Avoid dieting through set foods and restrictive eating
- Being mindful while experimenting with small, simple changes will be helpful in this process (see fact sheet: Eating Well).
Can your set point ever change?
Although our natural set point weight range is, for the most part, “set”, certain conditions can shift it over time. Chronic dieting, overeating, or not getting enough activity can all increase your set point. Dieting for periods of time, in particular, can cause a person’s metabolism to slow, resulting in lower calorie requirements to maintain the same weight. For people who have experienced increases in their natural set point, restoring their set point may be possible through increasing awareness (mindfulness) of internal body signals (e.g., hunger, fullness), the experience of eating, and through becoming more active if not already so.
I used to have an eating disorder. Is there a healthy way I can lose weight or diet?
If you’ve recovered from an eating disorder, developing a healthy relationship to food, eating, and your body was hopefully a part of your journey. If you’re engaged in eating well, listening to and respecting your body, then chances are your body is at a healthy weight and the urge to lose weight is an important emotional signal to pay attention to and understand.
For example, we are often taught that when we feel uncomfortable in our body, we should do something to change our body. Or sometimes we transfer emotions to our body and try to resolve them through the way we eat or treat our bodies. These are important issues, but they are not resolved through weight loss.
If, on the other hand, you are not engaged in eating well and are having difficulty listening to your hunger and fullness cues, it might be tempting to turn to a diet or weight loss to structure your experience and “get things back on track.” The issue with this, however, is that diets ultimately alienate us from our bodies, overriding our body cues and making it difficult for us to eat intuitively and mindfully.
Rather than focusing on a diet or weight loss, if you’re struggling, try shifting your focus to restoring connection to and trust in your body, restoring health, and if needed, seeking out support from others—including, if necessary, a therapist, nutritionist, or doctor.
Steps for seeking support around weight loss
If you’re curious about losing or gaining weight or have questions around your natural set point, it’s a good idea to consult a health care professional. Your local doctor, nutritionist or dietitian should be able to help you with this information.
With support, you can focus on mapping out healthy, sustainable ways of eating that don’t just measure success through weight loss.
If you are working on changing your eating patterns, it may be helpful to check out community health centers or a nutritionist for information about the products and plan.
Before spending money, become fully informed about the weight loss program and check out the safety and credibility of the program or product you’re considering. If you have a complaint about a program or product, address your complaint directly to the company involved, so they are aware of the problem and have an opportunity to fix the problem. If you feel you have been misled by the claims of any weight loss products or programs, contact the Food and Drug Administration or the Federal Trade Commission.
Finally, if you ever find yourself becoming obsessed by the desire to lose weight or maintain a certain weight, it’s important to seek help. There are often underlying emotional issues behind this drive and support can help you address both the emotional and physical components.
For more information on health eating habits check out the nutrition website provided by the US Department of Agriculture.
For more information on body image, check out this fact sheet on loving the skin you’re in.