Lifestyle practices are powerful tools used to support healing. Food and exercise are two of the most focused on and important factors for optimizing health, but there are many other aspects related to wellness that are equally, if not more, important. Although I still make tailored suggestions of nourishment and movement for my clients, it is within the proper context of honoring their own unique body needs and “hunger” for life. This article will explore the details on why health is more than just the following of the “right” food choices and the “best” exercise program.
The Stigmatizing Diet-Culture Blame-Game
If you’ve been following my writing for a while, you have probably noticed that I have moved away from topics that pertain to moralizing food choices, advocating for weight loss, improving fitness, or subscribing to dietary theories.
In fact, I have become very concerned that overemphasis on these wellness practices are causing more harm than good. After studying the research on Health at Every Size (HAES), I believe that overly focusing on diet and exercise are contributing to the very same negative consequences these “solutions” claim to remediate. (source, source, source, source, source, source, source, source, source, source, source)
The belief that body size is a strong indicator of health is very popular and prevalent in the healthcare profession. It has led to a socially acceptable form of stigmatization of larger body sizes. (source, source, source, source, source, source) This results in those who are not within the deemed “normal weight range” to be at heightened risk for social and psychological harm, eating disordered behavior, and suboptimal medical care. (source, source, source)
The impacts of this prejudice are associated with many of the same elevated inflammatory markers that are blamed on “obesity.” The following article excerpt on this subject provides details on this. I have included the referenced links to the sources cited for those who are interested:
Weight stigma triggers obesogenic processes
Common wisdom and certain medical ethicists [10, 11] assert that stigmatizing higher-weight individuals and applying social pressure to incite weight loss improves population health. We argue the opposite. The latest science indicates that weight stigma can trigger physiological and behavioral changes linked to poor metabolic health and increased weight gain [4, 5, 12–14]. In laboratory experiments, when study participants are manipulated to experience weight stigma, their eating increases [15, 16], their self-regulation decreases , and their cortisol (an obesogenic hormone) levels are higher relative to controls, particularly among those who are or perceive themselves to be overweight. Additionally, survey data reveal that experiences with weight stigma correlate with avoidance of exercise . The long-term consequences of weight stigma for weight gain, as this experimental and survey work suggests, have also been found in large longitudinal studies of adults and children, wherein self-reported experiences with weight stigma predict future weight gain and risk of having an ‘obese’ BMI, independent of baseline BMI [18–20].
The harmful effects of weight stigma may even extend to all-cause mortality. Across both the nationally representative Health and Retirement Study including 13,692 older adults and the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study including 5079 adults, people who reported experiencing weight discrimination had a 60% increased risk of dying, independent of BMI . The underlying mechanisms explaining this relationship, which controls for BMI, may reflect the direct and indirect effects of chronic social stress. Biological pathways include dysregulation in metabolic health and inflammation, such as higher C-reactive protein, among individuals who experience weight discrimination . In MIDUS and other studies, weight discrimination also amplified the relationship between abdominal obesity and HbA1c, and metabolic syndrome more generally [23, 24]. Longitudinal data from MIDUS also showed that weight discrimination exacerbated the effects of obesity on self-reported functional mobility, perhaps because weight discrimination undermines one’s self-concept as a fully functioning, able person .
I regret I may have contributed to the moralizing of a holistic “wellness diet” in the past. For this reason, previous articles that I have written (and caught) on labeling foods as “good” or “bad” and/or promoting a thin ideal now have the following disclaimer: Note: Please see the updates on healthism here. Flexibility, social connection, enjoyment of health, and not obsessing on perfection of diet is what makes health a means, not an end.
Whether it be due to the multi-billion dollar marketing that promotes promised happiness through participating in diet-culture or what has been taught to well-meaning physicians, for those who still advocate for weight loss, let’s look at why it may not be worth the trade-offs for other reasons.
The Weight Loss Trap and Trade-Offs
The fact is diets can make you “lose” weight… until the pounds “find” you again. The statistics report that most people regain the weight they lost, and often more. Even the National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that genetics and other associated factors are determinants of body size, beyond food and exercise:
The principle of weight gain is simple: energy intake exceeds energy expenditure. However, as discussed in Chapter 3, overweight and obesity are clearly the result of a complex set of interactions among genetic, behavioral, and environmental factors. While hundreds, if not thousands, of weight-loss strategies, diets, potions, and devices have been offered to the overweight public, the multi-factorial etiology of overweight challenges practitioners, researchers, and the overweight themselves to identify permanent, effective strategies for weight loss and maintenance. The percentage of individuals who lose weight and successfully maintain the loss has been estimated to be as small as 1 to 3 percent (Andersen et al., 1988; Wadden et al., 1989).
(Unfortunately many experts, including the NIH, still subscribe to the outdated energy expenditure model referenced above.)
If one happens to be among the few that are able to achieve an “acceptable” and “ideal” body size, the restrictive food and exercise practices they must maintain to stay there often put them at risk of unhealthy psychological and/or orthorexia practices of “perfect eating”. More heartbreaking is that many dietary communities advocate to sever any relationships that fall outside one’s current “food beliefs,” regardless if they had previously been supportive in other ways. (source, source, source)
How Do You Want to Live the Rest of Your (Healthy) Life?
As mentioned, I still believe that food can be medicine and movement matters, but they are not moral issues and need to be individualized and in balance with other priorities as well.
Many may be very triggered right now by this article. Some may be angry that I’m even questioning the connection between weight loss, thinness, and health. Others may feel overwhelmed at what they have just learned and are beginning to question their priorities around health.
I invite you to investigate the studies referenced in this article and these resources.
You may be an elite athlete and food and exercise is your life and career! Or, you may be a struggling individual whose priorities include family, friends, celebratory gatherings, hard work, and philosophical discussions. You may feel health is important, but only to enjoy these things more fully.
Decide for yourself what areas you want to focus on regarding wellness practices for the remainder of your life. Don’t let me or any other “expert” make this important choice for you.
In an upcoming article, I’m going to cover the topic of “food addiction” and how I was bamboozled by my own bias and beliefs! Stay tuned!
This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)
Disclaimer: This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.