Myth-Busters, Weight Loss Edition

You know those ridiculous stock photos of women laughing at their salads? Did it ever occur to you that they might be laughing because they know the truth: that even bottomless lettuce won’t bring them the happiness they want and deserve?

Okay, I might be reading a little too deep into this. Still, it’s a great segway into what I’m here to talk about today, which is the lies we tell ourselves about losing weight.

Women in particular love to shame themselves and their bodies. Many of us look in the mirror and, instead of lovingly accepting what we see, list off all the parts of ourselves that aren’t good enough. Our thighs aren’t thin enough, our boobs aren’t big enough, our tummies aren’t flat enough….at what point do we say “enough is enough” and accept that we are, well, enough? (Whew, that was a lot of “enoughs!”)

Even worse still, society justifies the pressure it places on women to lose weight by citing myths like “losing weight will make you healthier!” or “you should lose weight because your doctor told you to!” Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you (I’m looking at you, Oprah – more on my vendetta with her later), but many of these so-called “truisms” are less fact and more fiction.

Here, I present my case against blanket weight loss advice – and instead argue for a more nuanced approach to health, all while busting the myths that drive us toward weight loss in the first place. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait!

Myth #1: Losing weight will make you happy.

Let’s get the most difficult truth out of the way first: losing weight will not bring you the happiness you crave or deserve. Here’s why.

Every day, we’re sold an unrealistic beauty ideal that’s poisoning our minds and ruining our health. A survey by 8fit shows 30% of women report they will go to extremes to lose weight and only 36% of women say they have a healthy relationship with food. (And considering 8fit profits from users’ workout and diet routines, the real numbers are probably even more startling!)

The relentless pursuit of thinness can have devastating mental health consequences if gone unchecked. In the U.S. alone, 30 million people suffer from eating disorders, with at least one person dying from an ED every 62 minutes. The number of patients suffering from disordered eating behaviors, while not meeting the criteria for a fully-fledged eating disorder, is astonishingly higher.

According to the American Psychological Association’s diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa, one way diet mentality wreaks havoc on our lives is by impairing our ability to acknowledge the seriousness of extreme weight loss. Many people suffering from eating disorders will continue to pursue weight loss, even when it threatens their health – or even their lives – because they find that even when they reach their “goal weight,” the number they see is never low enough to warrant their self-worth.

I don’t know about you, but that’s not what I call happiness. True happiness shouldn’t be tied to a number on the scale – and especially not to an unattainable goal that only shrinks to accommodate further weight loss.

Myth #2: Obesity leads to illness and death.

At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, let me be the first to break the news: the government is spreading lies about obesity. As much as they want us to believe we’re becoming increasingly fat and sick as a nation, it’s simply not true that our weight is an accurate indicator of our overall health.

Study after study has proven that obesity itself isn’t an independent factor leading to health problems such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Rather, what’s bad for us is the conditions often leading to obesity: too much fast food, not enough gentle movement. As Dr. Michael S. Fenster writes for Psychology Today, “The alternative hypothesis may be that it’s not simply the mass of food we ingest, but the quality that makes the difference.”

To put it bluntly, excessive body fat is not the reason we are getting sick. In fact, underweight – a small category, but nevertheless one encompassing many of the models whose bodies we aspire to – causes more deaths than class I obesity. In one study, even severe obesity failed to generate a statistically significant risk of mortality.

Myth #3: [Insert diet here] is the weight loss miracle you’ve been waiting for!

Paleo, gluten-free, dairy-free, low-carb, Keto, Whole30, vegan, pescatarian, pescavegan….if we haven’t tried them all ourselves, everyone knows at least one person who has. But here’s the cold, hard truth about dieting: it’s an industry. More so, it’s an industry that’s exploiting your insecurities, knowing full well that weight loss is unhealthy, unsustainable and typically unnecessary.

The weight loss and dieting industry is now worth a record $72 billion. According to the same article, since 2017, commercial diet programs have begun to surpass medically-supervised ones. And it’s no wonder, considering that weight loss products are everywhere – everything from Lean Cuisine frozen meals to sketchy dietary supplements can be considered part of this multi-billion dollar industry.

Evidence shows that 97% of dieters regain the weight within three years – but what people like Oprah and Kayla Itsines won’t tell you is that it’s both normal and healthy to maintain your present weight. The reason? Set-point theory, which states that our bodies each have an individually-programmed ideal weight range. Our bodies fight to maintain that healthy weight range -explaining why so many people regain lost weight.

So, why won’t Oprah and Kayla admit that what they’re selling is wrong? Simply put, because they’re selling it. Kayla Itsines and her partner Toby Pearce boast a net worth of $46 million, while Oprah’s investment in Weight Watchers is worth over $400 million. And no one likes to lose money, least of all the already-rich.

Myth #4: If your doctor tells you to lose weight, they’re probably right.

Something I’ve learned since dating a medical student is that as much as we all want to have the answers, not even your doctor knows everything there is to know about your health. Thanks to the way medical education works in the United States, student doctors face a lot of pressure to excel on standardized testing. These tests rely on stereotyped clinical vignettes – for example, the student must decide if a rail-thin 15-year-old girl with anorexia should be admitted for total parenteral nutrition based, often solely, on her BMI.

As a result, schools are teaching to the test – and students learn to recognize buzzwords and lab values as indicators of a disease. Furthermore, few schools, if any, acknowledge studies that contradict conventional medical advice. To name just one example, most doctors probably aren’t familiar with these studies, many of which associated overweight with a decreased risk of death.

To some extent, fat positivity is becoming mainstream among some members of the health community. The Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) pioneered its Health at Every Size (HAES) principles. Now, HAES physicians wear these four letters as an indication that they view health holistically, as a sum of your healthy habits and behaviors rather than a number on the scale.

In my opinion, HAES is the future of medicine. With more and more practitioners accepting the inherent diversity of sizes, shapes and skin colors in our world today, I’d advise you not to take your physician at their word when they tell you to lose weight – and instead seek out a second opinion from a HAES doctor.

After all, if there’s anything you can count on from a HAES practitioner, it’s that they will cut past the bullshit to give you the raw truth about the state of your health – independently of the size of your body.

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