Does Weight Determine Your Health?
“Healthy weight is defined as the weight at which people arrive when they normalize their eating, accept their bodies, and turn their attention to creating more fulfilled and meaningful lives.”
– Moving Away From Diets, 2003
Health practitioners have long since believed that being at a “healthy weight” and maintaining it is important because it can help to prevent and control many diseases and conditions. In addition, that being overweight or obese can put you at greater risk for developing health problems like heart disease or high blood pressure.
But does weight really determine your health?
Emerging research is offering a new perspective on weight, indicating that perhaps it’s entirely possible to be fat and “metabolically healthy”. In other words, the scale may say you’re “overweight”, but your lab work is completely normal or unaffected by said extra weight.
When you think about the flip side–just because someone looks “skinny” doesn’t really mean they’re metabolically healthy either. It’s entirely possible they have something like high cholesterol despite them being at normal or even under weight.
Or consider this: if someone was overweight eventually lost 10-15 lbs by eating less junk food (but their whole diet was still full of junk)–would their health have improved just because they lost that weight?
To date, the BMI or Body Mass Index is a quick and popular method used to determine the degree of fatness in the body and whether it is considered healthy/normal, overweight or obese. It’s calculated using your current height and weight. The CDC provides an easy to use BMI calculator for both adults and children. It is considered a single measure of health and not intended to be used as the ONLY measure.
The problem is BMI has lots of flaws. It is not accurate for many people. It may not be accurate for you.
For example, athletes (who tend to have greater muscle mass) might appear “overweight” for their height according to BMI. This is due to muscle weighing more than fat and BMI not accounting for muscle weight vs. weight from fat. For people who have large body frames or very small body frames, the BMI could also be inaccurate. People of Asian descent for example, could be “healthy” according to BMI standards even though they are actually overweight (due to small frame size).
On the flip side, just because your BMI is in the healthy range doesn’t necessarily mean you are healthy. You could be naturally thin (thanks to genetics) despite being on a junk food diet. Or you could be naturally heavy set (thanks again genetics)and in the overweight range according to BMI.
What many don’t know (and what may help to explain the flaws) is that BMI was originally developed by a mathematician as a quick and easy “hack” to determine the degree of fatness of the general population back in the 19th century. Over 200 years ago! And he wasn’t even a physician.
So should BMI continue to be used as a measure of health? fatness? …even if it is quick and painless? even if it is a single measure of health?
Clinicians have known for years that weight is dependent on many things—some of which are out of your control like gender, family history, genetics, frame size, hormones, metabolism—and some things you can control like level of physical activity and eating habits (essentially, your diet). Although, some people can control their weight by simply controlling what they eat and the amount of exercise they do, for others, the uncontrollable things (like genetics) posses a larger effect on their weight than diet and exercise.
There’s definitely more to health than just a number on the scale. And being or becoming thinner doesn’t necessarily make you healthier or happier.
Are you considering weight loss? Instead of focusing on fad diets and reducing the number on the scale, maybe you should focus on living an all-around healthier lifestyle. Are you getting enough sleep? Are you eating more nutritious foods than empty calorie foods? Are you eating mindfully? Are you frequently engaging your body in a physical activity that you enjoy? Are you practicing stress-management? These are things that can improve your health (and maybe even your weight) to a greater extent than dieting alone.
Healthy comes in different sizes. Simply because everyone is different.
By: Scarlett Full, in-house Registered Dietitian