There Is No Healthy Weight

There is no such thing as a “Healthy Weight”.  People have a certain level of health (which can be judged through metabolic tests or physical fitness etc) and people have a weight (which can be judged in pounds, kilos, stone etc.).  These are two separate measurements.

The idea of combining them has a lot to do with the use of  Body Mass Index (BMI) (a ratio of weight and height) as a measure of health by  insurance companies who wanted to save money by not having to perform actual tests. Helping them out were diet and pharmaceutical companies who found that if they could convince people that anyone over a certain BMI would have dire health consequences, it was easier to convince them to buy their stuff.

They got on committees within the CDC,  and soon 3 people with ties to pharmaceutical companies that create diet drugs, in concert with the chief “scientist” at weight watchers,  managed to convince the CDC to lower what was considered a healthy BMI and then recommend their products as a solution to the problem that they had just created.  This process meant that about 60% of Americans became “overweight” overnight and we were off to the races. The next day newspapers ran the story “Millions of Americans Don’t Know They’re Fat”, but failed to mention it was because less than 24 hours ago those 25 million Americans had been “normal weight”.

Now despite having perfect health by any measurement, many fat people (including me) can’t get health insurance.  Healthy fat people who do have health insurance are encouraged to undergo a risky major surgery with an extremely poor success rate at 20K a pop so that their bodies can be smaller, and the diet industry makes over 60 Billion Dollars a year. Meanwhile plenty of sedentary thin people who eat a poor diet are constantly sold the idea that they are healthy simply because of the ratio of their weight and height.

And we are hearing from everyone and their dog that we need to get to a “healthy weight”.  Often it’s suggested that we should do this by any means necessary, the implication being that it doesn’t matter what crazy unhealthy things we do to get thin, because once we get there we’ll be automatically healthy just because our bodies are smaller.

Except it doesn’t work that way.  The best suggestion that doctors can give us is that healthy behaviors have the best chance of creating a healthy body, but even that’s not guaranteed.  Most of us know someone who followed every health guideline and got sick.  Most of us know someone who eats like crap, never exercises and is as healthy as a horse. Marathon runners drop dead of heart attacks at 45 and sedentary.  Grandmas eat frozen dinners, smoke unfiltered cigarettes, and live to be 102.   There are healthy and unhealthy people of every weight, shape and size and I think that the medically responsible thing would be to look at each person as an individual and recommend scientifically proven solutions for specific issues, instead of trying to stereotype people based on how they look and then try to find a way to blame them for their health conditions instead of treating them.

If doctors were honest with us, they would say that the human body is extremely complex and they haven’t yet scratched the surface of everything that is involved in being “healthy”.  They would also ‘fess up that even if they could prove that weight loss makes you healthier (which they can’t) they don’t have a single proven method of weight loss.  They would tell us that the caloric restriction method (aka “eat less and exercise more”) has an abhorrently poor success record.  Were it a prescription, doctors would be forced to remove dieting from the shelves for its complete lack of efficacy and all of its safety concerns. But it’s not, so they just keep recommending the same thing, even though it just doesn’t work. More and more we are finding that physical fitness is a much better indicator of health than is weight.

There are so many things to be improved in this system, but let’s do one simple thing today:  Let’s decide to eliminate the phrase “healthy weight”.

As always, this is your decision.  If you’re in for this then I suggest that we start with ourselves – check our own assumptions about people’s health based on their size, including people who are very thin.

Then I suggest the following scripting as an example when this comes up:

Person who still buys into the healthy weight myth:  “blah blah blah healthy weight blah blah blah”

Enlightened person (that’s us!) “Actually, there is no such thing as a healthy weight, and I wish people would stop spreading that myth.  There are people who are healthy and people who are unhealthy at every shape and size.”

Now, this can often lead to the VFHT:  Vague Future Health Threat.  This is when someone suggests that even if I, as a fat person, am  healthy now (and it doesn’t seem to matter how old I happen to be) “it”  will catch up to me “someday”.

For now:  No more saying “healthy weight”:  Never ever, never ever, never ever.

11 thoughts on “There Is No Healthy Weight

  1. Yes. This. So much. Time to dust off my copy of Linda Bacon’s HAES book and read it again. At least, remind myself that if I take up physical activity again, I’m not doing it to get a “hot, healthy bod.” I’m doing it because I’m grateful that my body basically works the way it’s supposed to, and that moving is a joy. (I don’t quite “believe” that last part yet…this may be a fake-it-’til-you-make-it situation.)

  2. Thank you, Ragen. I am looking forward to the day that people stop assuming things about my health just from looking at me. I am looking forward to the day when people stop cursing me with the VFHTs that they have chosen to be terrified by. Every time I grab the salt at a dinner table, I am warned that it contributes to high blood pressure and heart disease. When I tell them that I have low blood pressure and that my doctor has told me that I can enjoy all of the salt I want, they look incredulous and try to warn me of some other VFHT that they heard salt causes.

    While I think it’s great that they are taking care of their own health, I think they should mind their own business and leave me to follow the advice of my own team of health care providers.

  3. The VFHT makes me want to scream! The ignorance behind it saddens me. I commented on an article on yahoo the other day about HAES and some of the replies were just horrible! Reading them you’d think people who promote HAES are horrible kitten stomping, America hating garbage disposals.

    Reading your blog makes me happy, so, so very happy. Keep up the amazing work you’re doing! You’re an inspiration for sure.

  4. Once again I say “Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou!!!!” Luckily I have been able to convince my mother of the fact that VFHTs do not necessarily exist (at least when it comes to my weight), but my father is another story. Then again he’s another story for a lot of things in my life. It makes me laugh almost every time we get together for two reasons: 1) We pretty much always go out to eat, so if my weight is so much of an issue why “tempt” me? Which leads to 2) Which is the fact that I generally have much smaller portions and healthier selections than he does at said places.

    Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t see any food as intrinsically bad (although the debate is still out on the Krispy Kreme doughnut burger), but I can see the health value of the things we eat and it always makes me want to giggle madly when he mentions something about it. I happen to like salads. For one, they’re freaking tasty in my book, but for two I simply can’t eat very much. This used to confuse the devil out of my step-father (who was closer to a “real” dad for me in so many ways). He even stated once to my husband, “I don’t get it! She barely eats anything, and yet she looks the way she does. I know it bothers her, it hardly seems fair!” Bless his soul he was so much more understanding about these things.

    Perhaps the reason my biological father assumes the things he does is for many reasons, some of them being:

    1) He sees me maybe once a month, when we’re on good terms.
    2) Since we always go out to eat, he only really sees me in the context of food.
    3) Maybe he thinks that even though I generally eat “healthy” food with him, I don’t do so on a regular basis without his harping on me.

    Thanks to you, and others like you, I have been able to bring science into the equation which, for the meantime at least, has shut him up fairly well. I still love to say stuff like, “Oh, so my body is a Bunsen burner now?”, which makes him gape like a fish and then shut his mouth once more. Yeah, I held my snark for almost 30 years, I’m tired of it. Not only is it part of who I am, but it usually gets the point across that I don’t care to talk about these things.

    I own a mirror, several in fact. I also own and shop for clothes (albeit not often, because of financial constraints). Oh yes, and stairs, I have those in my home as well. Am I as active as many people? Probably not. Is it because I’m lazy? No, it’s because a few years back I had to have spinal surgery and the metal plates and rods in my spine make moving anything but enjoyable, but I do it to keep active.

    I have only recently been able to be happy with myself. I had a friend say to me a few months ago “Do not value yourself on the fact that someone cannot see the diamond in front of them,” and I fully intend on living that way. I may not be perfect, but dagnabit I’m me, and that should be good enough! Some days I love my body more than others, and that may be a never ending battle, but it’s a fight worth fighting and I will continue on to do so.

    Thank you again Ragen for all you do, and for being the amazing “diamond” that you are.

    P.S. Sorry this got so long winded, I tend to go a bit nutty when I get excited about something. 🙂

  5. “Meanwhile plenty of sedentary thin people who eat a poor diet are constantly sold the idea that they are healthy simply because of the ratio of their weight and height.”

    (Extremely) Skinny person’s perspective: This is absolutely true. Even though a lot of people assume that I’m unhealthy because I’m kind of skeletal, there are others who automatically think that I’m healthy because my body is almost devoid of fat (the presence or absence of which should not define your overall idea of health). I make an effort to eat a good diet, but appearance-wise, it makes no difference what I put in my mouth. And I never have time/energy for exercising, so you can’t really say that I’m “in shape.” I just happen to be lean enough that most of my body is muscle – because there’s nothing else to it.

    Since neither diet nor fitness really manifest themselves physically for me, it’s a lot more satisfying when I do get into those routines because I’m doing them for myself – because I like the way I feel when I take care of my body. I guess I am lucky to be on my end of the spectrum in that sense. To me, “healthy weight” refers to MY ideal – the point at which I feel best. I spend a lot of time wishing I were heavier, but I’ve always been able to recognize that it’s just a vanity thing. It has nothing to do with my actual health.

    Just as a sidenote, the fact that you’re a wonderful dancer is evidence that weight isn’t so simple. I loved dancing as a child and I still look like I have the frame, but I realized as a teenager that I just couldn’t control my body the way the other girls could. Scoliosis ruined my flexibility and my arms are so long and thin that the movements look jerky. I’ve just stopped dancing around mirrors (and people, obviously). It’s very frustrating, because even though I doubt it would make a difference, I always think to myself, “If I could just gain ___ lbs, I’d seem more fluid and smooth.” It’s not because I don’t feel graceful; it’s because I don’t look it.

  6. Oh so well said. Love it!

    I am slowly letting go of wanting everyone to understand this message and instead focusing on those that do, one by one. Firstly because I feel much happier because I am not so frustrated and angry and secondly because I then have more energy to give to those people in a postive and meaningful way. The rest of the people can live in their deluded diet obsessed world while I do what I love with people I care about.

  7. Came here via Jezebel and love the idea of HAES. But as I former journalism major, I can’t help but ask: where did you fingd out that “3 people with ties to pharmaceutical companies that create diet drugs, in concert with the chief “scientist” at weight watchers, managed to convince the CDC to lower what was considered a healthy BMI and then recommend their products as a solution.” Do you have some documentation?

  8. Yes, yes, yes! I apologize for responding to older entries, I just recently discovered your blog. The “healthy weight” myth drives me nuts, and you’ve laid it out so eloquently.

    My former roommate is a very skinny girl. It bugs me that people assume she’s healthy, and that I’m not, based simply on our weights. Having lived with her, I can tell you exactly what kind of lifestyle she leads: She eats exclusively fast and processed food, she drinks alcohol every single night, she smokes, and she avoids exercise at all costs. But she’s still thin. But me? I ride my bike everywhere (literally– I don’t even own a car), I rarely drink alcohol, I don’t smoke, and I try to make meals at home from scratch whenever possible. But if asked who was healthier on looks alone, folks would still pick her every time. And you know, I worry about her. I worry about all my skinny friends who eat and drink and do whatever that want and never worry about how it might impact their health. Whereas, as a big person, I think about my health a lot because people are constantly criticizing it. Pretty backwards, if you ask me.

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