Is a focus on weight loss the best path to health?
At some point in life we all look in the mirror and have the thought: “I need to lose weight”. Over time we all develop our own image of what an ideal body looks like, but one pervasive societal message drives the narrative: If you’re bigger, you should probably try to be smaller. This sentiment is generally accepted “because, health”, but is putting emphasis on weight loss the best strategy to achieve wellbeing?
As a Health Coach, I see the contrary: A focus on losing weight does not guarantee improved health; A focus on health however, will result in weight loss if that’s what your body needs.
This article will cover the following topics:
- Understanding the Weight Loss industry
- The reality of BMI
- What dieting does and does not do
- How to break away from the diet mentality
- How to reset health-related goals
- What to track instead of weight
Regardless of how much you weigh: If you want to feel better in your body, consider refocusing your weight loss efforts towards actions aimed at improved health. Here we’ll explore the effectiveness of this approach by taking a look at diets and the emotion of shame, how we’ve been brainwashed by Weight Loss industry marketing, and what to do to break the cycle and regain health.
The Weight Loss Industry is huge
- Only 1 in 5 people will be able to lose weight and maintain it for at least a year.
- Within 2 years, most people will regain at least 50% of weight lost.
- Within 5 years, most people will have regained at least 80% of weight lost.
- 1 in 3 dieters (33%) will regain more weight than they initially lost.
If success with weight loss is so futile, why do we keep chasing our collective tails? The answer lies within human psychology and emotion, but is perpetuated by how we measure the link between body fat and health.
BMI and …
Overweight and obesity stats are misleading because they are based on the measurement of BMI, which is not an actual health metric. BMI was created 200 years ago to measure population statistics, not to be used for the evaluation of individual health. Despite these origins it has become the global point of measure and comparison for classifying people’s weight and proposed health risks, strictly because we have more data points for BMI than we do of any true health metric. Simply put, BMI remains the measurement of choice because it is convenient and plentiful, not because it is accurate or helpful.
This is unfortunate because for most people, simply being labelled into an “overweight” or “obese” class of BMI will be sufficient enough to trigger an emotional shame response (“must lose weight”), and the cycle begins; and this doesn’t even encompass the multitude of other societal body image triggers that we’re exposed to on a daily basis. Shame however, is unlikely to drive positive change. Research shows that fat-shaming in particular tends to drive weight gain and leads to decreases in health.
The mere existence of a scale that dictates socially-accepted levels of body fat leads each of us to develop our own subjective internalized weight bias (i.e bigger = bad, smaller = good), and people with high levels of weight bias are three times more likely to develop metabolic syndrome, even after controlling for BMI. Yes, this means that people can increase their risk of chronic disease, not due to being overweight, but from simply believing they’re not an ideal body weight (which is sadly very common). Throw in the aforementioned shame that comes from not meeting perceived societal standards and the stage is set for the Weight Loss industry to profit handsomely.
The Damage of Dieting
Is yo-yo dieting bad for your health? Or is it beneficial because it keeps weight from rising in a linear fashion?
When mice are forced to yo-yo diet across their lifespan, they live longer than mice who become obese. This demonstrates that in mice, periods of dietary restriction counterbalance periods of overeating and this helps maintain health and longevity.
When we look at the more complex lives of humans however, we find that yo-yo dieting often leads to worse health outcomes, as well as increased weight gain over time. The research isn’t conclusive, but it is clear that even with BMI and weight gain aside, dieting is associated with increased stress (whether physical, psychological, or both), and chronic stress is the catalyst for chronic disease.
So while the Weight Loss industry pretends to be about health and wellness, all we’re sold are “solutions” like cleanses, low-fat food-stuffs, sugar-free beverages, extreme diets, liposuction, plastic surgery, and so much more. What do these products and services have in common? They’re either temporary or they make the root health problem worse (by design, to lead to more sales). They tap into a shameful belief (“I’m not worthy until I’m smaller”) and they drive desperate behaviour (to invest in quick fixes).
The Brainwash Playbook:
1. Create a Problem
- Make it Subjective
- Make it emotionally charged
2. Sell a solution
- Make it seem simple
- Lie about how it always works (if it doesn’t, it’s your fault and you lack discipline)
Weight loss is a perfect vehicle for this system:
- The “ideal” body weight and body image are subjective, and have arbitrary scales like BMI to trigger people into an emotional shame cycle.
- Many solutions are simple, many “work” in the short term, and since everyone is trying to make a buck, testimonials abound.
We live in an era of convenience where we no longer move our bodies and where our food environment provides too much energy for too little nutrition. This environment has made us bigger, and corporations prey upon this increase in body size by weaponizing shame through quick fixes that make the core problems worse.
Indeed, the Weight Loss industry is built on a foundation of brainwashing and manipulation, and is fuelled by shame. Given we understand that chronic disease stems from chronic stress in our systems, might a healthier solution be to live with a focus on health-supportive habits? Or should we keep up the perpetual shame-cycling with fad diets and extreme measures in pursuit of nothing but a smaller number on the scale? If the former resonates with you, let’s look at how to break the cycle.
Breakaway from Brainwashing
1. Figure out what *truly* matters to you
- Ask yourself why weight loss matters. What will weight loss do for you? What feelings will it change for you day-to-day? What will it enable you to do that you cannot do right now? As you dig deeper, you’ll discover that what you’re seeking isn’t just about a number on the scale and is more often centred around life experiences; from daily ease to adventure or functional longevity. Be curious, and find the driving force behind the focus on the scale.
2. Reduce your emphasis on calories
- A calorie is how we measure energy intake, but it is not something we can accurately count. For one, calorie estimates vary wildly, and two, we have no way to calculate how many calories will be absorbed from food vs. used in the digestive process (meaning the same amount of the same food can result in a different calorie intake on one day vs. another or between two humans). Unless you do a fecal analysis, counting what went in vs. what was absorbed is not possible, and your actions will be based entirely on a false sense of control.
- When you lower energy intake, your body adapts by lowering energy output. Storing body fat is important to survival, so the body works hard to preserve fat stores. This is why weight loss inevitably plateaus on all diets.
- Exercise output and food intake are not an equal mathematical equation. The human body is not an abacus.
3. Lose the scale
- Body weight is easy to measure, but just because it is easy to measure does not mean it is the right thing to measure.
- Many behaviours that are good for sustainable weight loss over time will actually result in a higher short-term body weight: Adequate hydration, eating a high protein and/or high fiber diet, vigorous physical activity, etc. can all cause a short-term weight “gain”. When you do the right thing (train, eat well, sleep, drink water), but get negative feedback about your actions (a small and brief increase in weight), it amounts to mental sabotage.
- The scale tells you nothing about body fat (even if it claims to give you a body fat reading). The scale measures your gravitational pull, nothing more, nothing less.
- The scale does not accurately measure your lean mass (muscle mass) which is ultimately a far more important health-related metric than total weight. How do you ensure you have lean mass? Movement and exercise, not diets.
4. Stop watching or reading health & fitness-related content
- Social media is a trap. You can’t be brainwashed by content if you remove your exposure to it. The less time you spend on social media, the healthier you will become, mentally and physically. The brief “inspo” of a post turns to shame fuel as you subconsciously buy into the fact that the person is more disciplined and “better” than you.
What To Do Instead
If you’re ready to stop yo-yoing and obsessing over the number on the scale, here’s your blueprint:
1. Work on Acceptance and Gratitude
This may seem fluffy, but don’t forget that you’ve got years of brainwashing to undo! The gateway to change is to first accept where you’re at; change cannot take place if you’re still stuck in the land of “shoulds”. Get a journal and remind yourself daily of the things for which you’re currently grateful, and to track your daily wins (not your weight). Do not skip this crucial step.
2. Be Conscious and Curious
Be an active participant in your daily life and give thought to your actions. You can call it mindfulness, being present, conscientiousness, or any other word that resonates with you, but the overriding objective is to make your choices instead of allowing choices to be made for you. Convenience, marketing, and social pressures lead to mindless choices, so overcoming these obstacles and taking responsibility for your actions creates the foundation for sustainable changes in health.
When you do make a choice that doesn’t go well, this is where curiosity wins the day. Nobody always makes the “perfect” choice (whatever that means), so dig into why you made that choice and brainstorm how to make a different one next time. You can’t learn if you don’t fail, so embrace those failures as stepping stones to your better future.
3. Track Habits, Not Calories
Weight loss is an outcome that you can achieve, but only if you’re consistent with the behaviours that drive the change; if you continue to do what you’ve always done, you’ll continue to have the same results. There are many habits you can track, but some of the top habits for health and body recomposition include:
- Physical activity: Not to burn calories, but because the human body cannot be healthy without daily movement.
- Eating breakfast: People who skip this tend to move less and eat more later at night thus perpetuating the cycle.
- Protein intake
- Fruit & vegetable intake
- How your digestive system feels with the foods you consume
- Sleep quantity, quality, and consistency
Start by choosing one of these habits and track it until it’s automatic, then move on to the next.
Bonus info: According to the National Weight Control Registry, the 2 habits that most correlate to the long-term maintenance of a healthy body weight are:
4. Track Meaningful Outcomes, not Bodyweight
As previously mentioned, tracking body weight is just tracking an arbitrary number; it’s an emotional endeavour, not a productive one. Instead of weight, track something tangible that impacts your daily life. A few examples include:
- Physical endurance, strength or capacity
- Energy levels/mood swings/sense of well-being
- Ability to fall asleep, sleep through the night, and/or wake up feeling rested
- Blood pressure, resting heart rate, or any personally meaningful health marker
- Daily walks
Instead of being concerned about your gravitational pull, focus on increasing what your body can do, on feeling better in your body, and on boosting your overall health status. When you affect positive change to these areas, you’ll find that improved body composition is an inevitable side-effect.
- Statistics show that a focus on losing weight rarely results in sustained weight loss and health. A focus on health however will result in weight loss if that’s what your body truly needs.
- Fat-shaming, weight bias, and yo-yo dieting lead to decreased health (and often to increased weight gain)
- The Weight Loss industry sells products and services that lead to temporary results and often make weight regain more likely. This serves to feed the complex that you’re “just not trying enough” because “weight loss is simple”, and heightens the drive to find the next “solution”.
- Social media, calorie counting and measuring body weight are traps that keep you looped into the shame cycle of the Weight Loss industry.
- Improve your health by embracing acceptance, gratitude and conscious decision-making, and by tracking daily habits and health metrics.
Move Daily is a Health Coaching provider. For more details, or to set up a personalized nutrition consultation or coaching program, you can reach out to us directly.
High and Low Intensity Interval Training with Prof Martin Gibala