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Does Health at Every Size Mean Weight Loss Is Inherently Evil?

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No. No, it doesn’t.

So, I did a post on Monday about how Health at Every Size is for everyone and how separating our ideas about health from our ideas about weight can help anyone, large or small, become healthier.

I’d like to continue this series to address a few other important ideas and misperceptions related to Health at Every Size. I believe it’s a really important movement for people to be educated about.

Disclaimer: I’m not formally educated in health or dietetics in any way. I am summarizing and synthesizing ideas from folks who are educated in health and dietetics. As someone who teaches college-level research-based writing, I’m moderately confident in my ability to accurately summarize and think critically about texts.

But to quote LeVar Burton: don’t take my word for it! My ideas in this post summarize and synthesize ideas from the books Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon or Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch–check ’em out! Or, read some wonderful bloggers who are registered dietitians and support Health at Every Size and intuitive eating approaches, such as Robyn, Kate, Kylie, and Rachael.

I’ll link up with Amanda to share these thoughts with you today.

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Today, I’d like to write about a question/critique I often get when I talk about why I support HAES. (It comes up a lot more now because I wrote my master’s thesis about it.) I often hear stories about a friend or family member who made some changes in lifestyle, lost weight, kept it off, and feels great now! Surely, I get asked, in that person’s case, wouldn’t I agree that weight loss was healthy?

Well, first of all, I have no credentials to make claims about other people’s health, especially people I don’t know. But I do think it’s important to be aware that the Health at Every Size movement DOES NOT advocate that every person will be healthy at any weight. Rather, it advocates that different people will be healthy at different weights.

As someone whose weight has fluctuated considerably with changes in health, it would be hypocritical of me to claim that any person can be healthy at any weight.

When I was a kid, I was not an intuitive eater at all. When I was hungry between meals, I usually ignored my hunger, even if it was very intense. And at mealtimes, I almost always ate two large helpings, even if I wasn’t actually hungry for two large helpings. I was not very active at all. And I weighed considerably more than I do now.

When I had anorexia, I was also not an intuitive eater. I frequently ignored my hunger, and I usually ate a very small amount at meals, regardless of how hungry I felt. I was very active and exercised myself to complete exhaustion. I weighed considerably less than I do now, and I had amenorrhea.

Now, I eat, for the most part, according to my intuitive hunger and fullness signals. I have a healthy relationship with exercise. I easily maintain the weight I’m at now. And I’ve started menstruating again. Yay! (Sorry if that’s TMI–but this blog is about ED recovery among other things and menstruation is a really important component of ED recovery.)In other words, I have been a wide variety of sizes and shapes since adolescence, and not all of those sizes and shapes were right for me.

I’ve found that my experience is consistent with what I’ve read about intuitive eating and Health at Every Size. In their book Intuitive Eating, Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole write that many of the clients they worked with lost weight as part of the process of establishing an intuitive relationship with food and exercise. Some gained some weight. And some experienced no weight change at all.

On the other hand, in Health at Every Size, Linda Bacon points to numerous scientific studies showing that, if you look at the population overall, weight doesn’t correlate with health very strongly at all, whereas healthy behaviors, particularly exercise, correlate very strongly with health–regardless of whether the participants in the studies were big or small. As part of my master’s thesis research, I personally read these peer-reviewed journal articles and confirmed that, indeed, that is what the data says.

These two things may seem contradictory, but they don’t need to be.

Conventional understandings of BMI state that, if you live a healthy lifestyle, your BMI will magically fall between 18.5 and 24.9. It’s been widely documented that that’s false. One person might exercise and eat a wide variety of nutritious food and maintain a BMI of 32, whereas another person might do the same and maintain a BMI of 17.

But saying that someone might make lifestyle changes for the healthier and gain or lose weight as a result doesn’t contradict what I just wrote.

The key difference here is that when clients of Resch, Tribole, Bacon, and other intuitive eating advocates experience weight change as part of an intuitive eating regimen, they’re not counting calories, forcing themselves to exercise a specific amount each day, ignoring when they’re hungry or ignoring when they’re full. And they don’t have a particular goal weight in mind because they know that their body will settle where it is healthiest.

 

Have more questions about Health at Every Size? Let me know, and I’ll be happy to answer as best as I can, based on my own reading and self-education, or point you to sources that can explain better than I can.

 

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2 comments

  1. Cora says:

    Really interesting, Joyce. Your skill in research and writing shine through here.

    I do believe that living intuitively and listening to what your body and mind truly wants is what will ultimately lead to overall health – whatEVER that may end up “looking” like for that specific individual. I’m just in such a hairy place right where I am working hard to live intuitively. I just don’t know if that is going to be enough – or if I still need to eat and relax MORE than what may be “intuitive.”

    Congratulations on getting your cycle back lady. That is amazing. You’ve been working so hard. I’m really, really, really happy for you <3 <3

    1. Joyce says:

      That’s a good point, Cora. I do think those of us with histories of eating disorder do have to often follow more of a meal plan approach. So hard. But you know what’s best for you. <3 Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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