Weight: Not The Best Indicator Of Health

person standing on a scale with no numbers

How many times have you stepped on the scale first thing in the morning and your day was ruined by the number you saw?

Too often we use a number, such as weight or body mass index (BMI), to evaluate health when there are much better indicators we could use!

In this article, you will learn how the scale could be actually hurting your health.

The Scale: Your Daily Mood Regulator

It was a sunny Friday morning. I was on my way to the bathroom to weigh myself for the first time since starting my new diet.

I had tracked my calories, hit the gym, and even attended a yoga class after work twice that week. I was nervous but also excited to see the number.

I just felt like it was going to be lower! I stepped on the scale and…what?

How could it be? Not a single ounce lost? Suddenly all my motivation went out the window. All that hard work had been for nothing. Diet officially over.

How many times has this happened to you?

Maybe you stuck with your diet longer than I did, but I bet you know that feeling.

The disappointment, frustration, what am I doing wrong feeling when the scale doesn’t go the way you want or expect it to. The whole day can be ruined; your mood turned sour.

On the flip side, when the scale reflects what you were hoping for, the day is brighter, the sun sunnier, and your outlook more positive.

How silly is it that one number can change your entire mood? Have you asked yourself if that number even means what you think it does?

We Are Wrong About Fat

In our culture, we associate thinness with being healthy, and therefore fatness with being unhealthy.

This is a stereotype about fat people (check out my previous post on weight stigma), not a claim actually supported by research. If we look at the current research we see a number of shocking things:

Higher weight is not associated with a shorter lifespan

In a 2013 meta-analysis published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (content warning for stigmatizing numbers and language), researchers found that people with a BMI of 25 to 34.9 had a significantly lower risk of death overall compared to people in the “normal” BMI category (BMI 18.5 to 24.9).

This suggests that people in larger bodies actually live longer. Fatness could be protective.

Research does not control for important confounding factors

Factors such as dieting, weight cycling, and experiencing weight stigma are known risk factors for developing a chronic disease.

Most, if not all, fat people experience at least one of these factors. When studies don’t remove these individuals from their study populations, their conclusions become skewed.

For instance, researchers could be studying a group of diabetic patients.

The researchers might say that because most of the participants in the study are at a higher BMI, that being fat is associated with developing diabetes.

But unless the researchers excluded all the patients who had a history of dieting or experienced weight cycling in their lifetime – which most fat people have done thanks to diet culture – the researchers cannot say there is a strong association between being fat and developing diabetes.

It is possible that they developed diabetes because they dieted or weight cycled, not due to being fat.

Consider this: a fat woman in her thirties has been trying to lose weight for years. Thirteen years to be exact.

She has tried every diet she can get her hands on. She can keep her weight down for a few months at a time, but it always creeps back up.

She goes to the doctor one day. The doctor recommends she get her labs checked. Her results indicate she is at risk for diabetes.

The doctor recommends weight loss and to come back next year.

She tells her doctor she has been trying to lose weight, but now she is at her highest lifetime weight.

The doctor gives her some general recommendations and says if she doesn’t lose weight she will develop diabetes.

This of course scares her. She doubles down on her dieting efforts only to lose a few pounds. Exhausted and defeated, she gives up.

A year later comes and goes, and she doesn’t schedule a new appointment. She is so ashamed of her weight that she can’t face the doctor.

It is not until 5 years later that she makes an appointment with a new doctor. This doctor not only shames her for her weight but also for how long she has put off seeing a doctor.

What do you think will happen next? Will she go back to the doctor and try to work on her health?

More likely she will continue to struggle and not get the proper monitoring and treatment. This is how a fat person’s health gets worse.

This is why researchers must remove patients with these experiences from their data and then draw their conclusions.

On average, 95% of people who intentionally lose weight will regain that weight (and sometimes more) within 2-5 years

This tells us that dieting for weight loss fails in 95% of people.

When we look at the details of weight loss research, we see that they do not follow their participants long-term. At the most, these studies follow their participants for one year (and call this long-term follow-up!).

I would consider long-term to mean 5, 10, or even 30+ years, but certainly not one year.

When weight loss studies(CW) do follow participants for 2 to 5+ years, they don’t find the same amazing and significant weight loss numbers.

Instead, they find what is typical, that most participants didn’t keep the weight off(CW) longer than 1 to 2 years. Even a high percentage of bariatric surgery patients regain some, if not all, of their weight over the years.

fork twisting up measuring tape like spaghetti

Time To Change Your Measure Of Health

Since weight loss is destined to fail for most people, and BMI doesn’t give you a good gauge of your health anyways, why not spend your energy and time on what actually serves your health.

There is not a single definition of health. Everyone defines health subjectively. What may be healthy for person A is not necessarily healthy for person B.

Health is also not static. You will go through waves of health and sickness over the course of your life. You can only do your best with the body you have.

Think about what health means for you. Instead of using the scale to measure health, try looking at these measures instead:

  • Vital signs: blood pressure, heart rate
  • Blood work (if something is off, try not to automatically assume it is because of your weight – thin(ner) people have abnormal labs too)
  • Assess if you are able to accomplish the things you want your body to do in life. Can you walk upstairs? Get up from the floor? Jog a 5K? In case you didn’t know, your body won’t be able to do these things unless you train it to! If weight loss comes as a side effect, then so be it; but you can do these things regardless of weight change.
  • Your energy level. All too often, dieting or over-exercise decreases your energy because your body is lowering its metabolism during induced starvation.
  • Your mental health – it is just as important as your physical health! Assess your mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Try using a mood/feelings tracker or journal to start getting more attuned to your emotions.

Practice being more mindful of how your body feels when you are honoring your basic needs for food, drink, rest, and pleasure.

Final Thoughts

We’ve been told that restriction and weight loss are the way to health. As hard as it is to admit, we were wrong.

Good nutrition means increasing nutrients and energy, not taking it away.

No matter what your weight does, practice meeting the needs of your body.

If you’re not sure what this looks like, I invite you to read my book The Anti-Diet Workbook to work on your intuitive eating skills.

Get to know yourself again and reconnect with your body! Give up the emotional roller coaster that happens when looking at the scale. You are worth more than a number.

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