Weight: Not The Best Indicator Of Health

person standing on a scale
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!

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 ever asked yourself if that number even means what you think it does?

We Are Wrong About Fat

In Western society, most people 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:

  1. Higher weight is not associated with a shorter lifespan.

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

  1. Research that claims a higher BMI is associated with an increased risk of disease often does not control for important confounding factors.

Factors such as dieting, weight cycling, and experienced weight stigma are all reasons why someone is at higher risk for developing disease. Most, if not all fat people experience at least one of these factors. When studies don’t account for these, their conclusions lose their value.

For instance, researchers could be studying a group of diabetic people. 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 participants 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 with being fat and developing diabetes. It is possible that they developed diabetes because they dieted or weight cycled, not due to being fat.

  1. 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, even 30+ years, but certainly not one year. When weight loss studies do follow participants out 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 longer than 1 to 2 years. Even a high percentage of bariatric surgery patients regain some if not all 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 though 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 methods instead:

  • Basic vital signs (blood pressure, heart rate) and blood work can tell you a lot. If something is off, try not to automatically assume it is because of your weight – thin(ner) people can have abnormal vitals/labs too
  • Assess if you are able to accomplish the things you want your body to do in life. Can you walk up stairs? 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, than so be it; but you can do these things regardless of weight change.
  • Your energy levels also speak to your health. All too often, dieting or over exercise decreases your energy because your body is lowering it’s metabolism during induced-starvation.
  • Your mental health is just as important as your physical health and the two are closely tied. 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 and honoring your basic needs for food, drink, rest, and pleasure. No matter what your weight does, practice taking good care of your body and your health will follow! (If your not sure what this looks like, I invite you to read my book and 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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Cited Sources: content warning for stigmatizing numbers and language

1. Flegal KM, Kit BK, Orpana H, Graubard BI. Association of all-cause mortality with overweight and obesity using standard body mass index categories: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA. 2013 Jan 2;309(1):71-82. doi: 10.1001/jama.2012.113905

2. Campos P, Saguy A, Ernsberger P, Oliver E, Gaesser G, The epidemiology of overweight and obesity: public health crisis or moral panic? International Journal of Epidemiology. Feb 2006; 35(1): 55–60. https://doi.org/10.1093/ije/dyi254.

3. Crawford, D., Jeffery, R. & French, S. Can anyone successfully control their weight? Findings of a three year community-based study of men and women. Int J Obes Sept 2000. 24: 1107–1110. https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ijo.0801374

4. Fildes A, Charlton J, Rudisill C, Littlejohns P, Prevost AT, Gulliford MC. Probability of an Obese Person Attaining Normal Body Weight: Cohort Study Using Electronic Health Records. Am J Public Health. 2015;105(9):e54-e59. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2015.302773

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