As long as I can remember, I’ve been told that weight loss equates to better health. That I must weigh a certain number and look a certain way in order to be healthy (and beautiful). For me this resulted in disordered eating and exercising behaviors as well as years of body hate, distraction and stress.
Then, I discovered the truth. It started organically. I started to realize that my mental health was deteriorating because of my want to fit the “ideal” mold and that my constant dieting, body-obsessed/stressed life had to stop for me to actually live a healthy life.
I just had this intuitive hunch that my health was not determined by my size. And even more so, that for me, being healthy included enjoying dinners out with my friends where I could order the cheeseburger and enjoy it without stress and guilt.
Then I discovered that my hunch was on to something. Thanks to instagram, YES, instagram, I found out there was an actual thing called Intuitive Eating.
When I first read Intuitive Eating I was in a state of awe. It was like OH MY GOSH THERE ARE WORDS AND RESEARCH AND ACTUAL TOOLS THAT DESCRIBE MY OWN PERSONAL JOURNEY! I couldn’t believe it. There was a real, science-backed reason why I had such a terrible relationship with food and my body, and my hunch was right! Health DOES include being able to eat food without guilt and stress!
Then I found Health at Every Size (HAES) and my mind was blown even further. HAES is filled with information that proves, scientifically PROVES that dieting is the real problem, not our weight or that fat on my butt!
I honestly felt liberated.
As I moved fully into this Intuitive Eating/HAES framework and have begun to be more vocal about it, it’s been interesting, to say the least-- especially because I worked in the fitness world.
There are people who love it, who are totally on board or want to learn more. These people thank me.
And then there are the people who aren’t so sure about this whole thing and just don’t care very much either way (whatevs!)
And then there are the people who don’t understand it (rightly so, it’s not the norm!) and thus think it’s a bad thing, that I’m promoting an unhealthy lifestyle. I’ve actually been attacked because of my beliefs in this area.
So I wanted to provide a brief overview of what this whole HAES thing is all about and provide you with some facts that I find to be incredibly empowering. I want to increase understanding around HAES and debunk some myths about it.
Let’s start talking about the health risks of fat. We’ve been told our entire lives that we need to lose weight because FAT KILLS.
However, according to Linda Bacon, PhD in her book HAES, “the benefits of weight loss have been misinterpreted and exaggerated. At both extremes—high and low—body weight adversely affects health. But the vast majority of Americans fall closer to the middle of the body fat bell curve, where weight is little more than a benign marker of an individual’s genetic predisposition to carry it.”
Bacon also reports that being fat is not a death sentence. In fact, she states, “almost all epidemiological studies indicate people in the overweight or moderately obese categories live at least as long—or longer—than people in the normal weight category…. An analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys I, II, and III, which followed the largest nationally representative cohort of U.S. adults, also determined that the “ideal” weight for longevity was in the ‘overweight’ category.”
What?! So fat isn’t really that big of a deal? Nop, the research shows us: it’s really not.
So here you might be thinking, wait does HAES encourage people to gain weight?
HAES simply says that some of us are more genetically inclined to have more body fat than others. Some people are naturally thin, while others naturally have more fat. And that’s OK.
Furthermore, weight/fat gain is often caused by, dun dun dun: DIETING! And the more diets we go on, the most likely we are to gain weight in the future and raise our “set point,” which is the regulated weight our body wants to maintain. (Yes, our bodies have biological mechanisms that work to maintain a typical weight range for each unique body).
The HAES research says that in most cases (extremes are the exception) fat isn’t what matters. In fact, that fat may help us live longer lives and cope better with a variety of diseases! Cool!
In most cases, fat just doesn’t matter that much. What DOES matter is that we take care of ourselves. “It is well established that the relationship between activity and longevity is stronger than the relationship between weight and longevity,” says Bacon.
So what does that mean? It means what actually matters is that we move our bodies, what doesn’t matter as much is what we weigh.
Here’s some more crazy information: most diseases blamed on fat actually aren’t typically a result of FAT itself, they’re actually a result of things like living a sedentary lifestyle, not paying any attention to nutrition, being sleep deprived, chronically stressed, etc. So fat itself isn’t the problem. Weight loss isn’t the solution.
However, we are consistently told that if we are fat, we need to lose weight.
Unfortunately, Bacon reports that, “weight fluctuation (from dieting) is strongly associated with increased risk for diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular diseases, independent of body weight. In other words, the recommendation to diet may be causing the very diseases it is purported to prevent!”
Mind blown? Mine was.
What matters is that we drop the stigma and shame around fat. According to Bacon, “cross-cultural studies suggest that larger people are not subject to the same diseases in countries where there is less stigma attached to weight.” This, she says isn’t surprising because of the strong connection between stigma and stress… and as most of us know, it is stress that is the culprit for most diseases.
Because studies consistently show that restrictive diets lead to future weight gain and disease, HAES includes a powerful intuitive eating framework that empowers people to build healthy habits in an easy, accessible, sustainable way to change their lifestyle for good. It empowers people to feel freedom around food, rather than war.
That is what matters: doing things daily to take care of ourselves. What doesn’t matter is if we end up losing tons of weight or not.
Weight loss is the wrong prescription to disease. The right prescription? Healthy life-style habits.
When I talk to my clients about this, some come to me wanting to lose weight. I acknowledge this desire, and gently ask if we can put it on the back burner so that we can effectively focus in on the principles of HAES/intuitive eating. This allows my clients to get to know their bodies on a deeper level and transform their relationship with their bodies so that they can take good care of themselves forever, not just for a month or two.
What I assure them is this: we focus on building lifelong healthy habits that make them feel good every day. These habits transform their health and happiness. This is what matters: consistently showing ourselves kindness.
If someone’s body truly needs to lose weight, weight loss may be a result over the long term. But it also might not (due to the studies that show our bodies really hate losing weight, but that’s a subject for another day).
The incredible thing that HAES/Intuitive Eating approach shows is that our health improves drastically when we develop these loving healthy habits, regardless of weight loss.
Want some science to prove this? Ok great, because I have it for you.
With a grant from the National Institutes of Health, Bacon performed a study through the University of California, Davis that recruited 70 non-smoking, Caucasian women between the ages of 30 and 45 who wore at least a size 16. She needed 70 people because that is what would determine statistical significance (ahh, so happy my master’s degree is coming in handy here, hehe).
They also needed subjects to be similar in gender and ethnicity, which is why they studied Caucasian women.
There were two groups in the study.
One group was in a dieting group, they received conventional messages about dieting and attitudes about their body for a year. They did things that a normal diet would do:
· Restricted fat and calorie intake
· Encouraged to monitor diet with a food journal
· Weigh themselves weekly
· Walk or participate in exercise
The other group was the HAES group. They received a copy of the HAES book that was still in draft form. Their year-long program focused on:
· Enhancing body acceptance and self-acceptance
· Living a full life regardless of weight
· Disconnecting their feelings of self-worth from their weight
· Nutrition information
· Lifestyle choices
Ok so what were the results? The HAES group did SIGNIFICANTLY better than the dieting group.
The HAES group:
· Overcame their struggles with food
· Became intuitive eaters, free to eat what they want, when they want, in an empowered way
· Improved their body image and self-esteem
· Showed significant declines in “bad” cholesterol (LDL)
· Showed significant declines in blood pressure
· Almost quadrupled the amount of energy they spent being active
· Reported feeling more vital and enjoyed their bodies more
The Dieting group:
· Showed initial weight loss, only to regain it and return to their original size by the end of the year
· Blood pressure, LDL, activity level, and depression either stayed the same or worsened
· Almost half of the dieters dropped out (compared to the 8% of the HAES group) showing that people don’t stick to diets
· Self-esteem plummeted
Yikes! Crazy, right? So what can we do? We can say ENOUGH ALREADY to the diet culture that tells us we must lose weight and be a certain size to be healthy and beautiful. We can work to accept our bodies as they area right now and start treating them with the love and care that they deserve.
We can read books like HAES, Intuitive Eating, and Body Kindness and work on adapting the HAES/intuitive eating principles, or get a coach if you struggle with this on your own.
We can fill our instagram feeds with people of size diversity and who advocate for HAES/Intuitive eating. My favorites are:
We can listen to podcasts like Food Psyche by Christy Harrison to surround ourselves with EMPOWERING, healthy messages rather than the opposite.
We can work hard to change our beliefs on health and beauty.
We can work to accept our bodies just as they are and say good-bye to the societal ideal.
We can practice showing ourselves compassion and love.
We can move our bodies because we love ourselves and want to take care of ourselves, instead of punishing ourselves for food we ate.
We can discover and eat foods that make us feel alive, energized and fabulous.
We can prioritize things like sleep and drinking lots of water to stay hydrated.
We can prioritize having fun because it’s good for our health! (Bye-bye, stress!)
We can surround ourselves with people who support us in this radical journey to self-acceptance.
So there you have it. An overview on HAES. I highly recommend reading the book, as it provides study after study that reveals the real truth behind our weight. This article just skims the surface.
If even one person reads this and has some sort of breakthrough, mind-blowing, ah-ha moment, well then, my job is done.
Cheers to loving your body + living your life, friends.