We live in a society that is obsessed with shape and weight. Everywhere you look there are advertisements about weight loss, new diet trends, and wellness practices (which I would argue 90% of the time, are just some kind of diet).
It’s hard to not let yourself get wrapped up in this rhetoric, but it’s important to know some facts when deciding what of this unavoidable, ever abundant information will actually change your feelings about your body, your diet (aka what you eat, not the newest fad), and your behavior.
Here are some not-so-frequently-discussed principles that may help you have a more healthy relationship with food and your body.
1. Diets don’t work.
Sure, if you eat only lettuce, grilled chicken, and watermelon for a week you will lose some weight, but in the long term, this isn’t sustainable. This is, of course, an extreme that I hope no one subjects themselves to, but you can apply the idea to most of the diets out there.
Cutting out a whole food group for example (unless there are specific allergies or medical reasons to do so) makes our bodies crave that group on a physiological and biological level. Our bodies need fat, sugar, carbs, protein, and all other food groups to survive and function properly; cravings are oftentimes our body's way of making sure we get it.
There’s a common cycle discussed in eating disorder treatment that restriction (aka dieting) can lead to overeating, or binge eating in some cases, which can lead to the urge to restrict again, to “undo” the overeating. This is a lot to put our bodies through and it can mess with hunger and fullness cues, further disordering eating patterns, not to mention the emotional toll such a cycle can take.
2. Genetics are the strongest predictor for the majority of people of weight, shape, and size.
Some bodies are bigger, some bodies are smaller, and this is challenging to truly manipulate. Most bodies have a sort of set point that they will naturally try to return to, and this is usually a stronger predictor than exercise and diet. (News flash: it’s not just skinny people who work out! Heavy people can exercise, and be healthy. And they might still be heavy!).
Combine this with the idea our society puts forth that thin is best, and many people are left wondering why their body isn’t a size 2 (enter unhealthy attempts at weight manipulation). There is a small percentage of the population that genetically may be able to be size whatever while 5-foot whatever, but it’s just not physically possible for everyone.
3. Skinny does not always equal healthy.
Did you ever have a friend or acquaintance who seems to eat exclusively junk food, but still seems to be incredibly thin? It’s genetics, and this does not necessarily mean they are healthy; in fact, they probably aren’t.
Skinny people can have high cholesterol. “Obese” people can have normal cholesterol. Your shape does not always equate to your health. Skinny also doesn’t equal smart, attractive, successful, happy, and perfect, despite the media’s attempt to get us to believe it.
4. We do have some control over our health: increasing health behaviors.
I’m of course not arguing that we should just throw our hands in the air, give up exercise, and let genetics play out. Or that we should sit on our couches 24/7 eating nothing but potato chips. The opposite of restriction is not a free for all. We can eat more vegetables. We can limit (but not eliminate) the amount of sugar we eat, or how often we get take-out food. We can engage in exercise. We can allow ourselves a treat here and there. We can take care of ourselves.
5. There are many things that contribute to weight loss and weight gain that aren’t talked about enough (other than food).
For example, there are many underlying health conditions that can cause “unexplained weight gain.” Stress has been linked to weight gain and weight loss, as has depression and poor sleep, to name a few.
Think before the next time you compliment someone on their weight loss. You could very well be complimenting an eating disorder, a recent cancer diagnosis, or a period of depression following the death of a family member.
6. BMI is a pretty poor measurement of health.
BMI doesn’t take into consideration body type, muscularity, metabolic rate, and depending on the scale you look at, sometimes even gender. But, for some reason, it’s still the most often used scale of measurement when it comes to size. If your BMI has labeled you as “overweight” or “obese,” it might not actually mean much—so are virtually all professional athletes according to this scale.
7. Fatphobia and weight stigma are real and incredibly harmful.
There are many, many things to say on this topic, but I will just touch on a few. Think about the world we live in. It is built for smaller bodies, despite the actual average size of humans. Seats on airplanes, subways, and in waiting rooms, desks in school classrooms, and even gym and medical equipment are all geared for a relatively smaller size.
Imagine the toll this could take on someone who happens to inhabit a larger body on a daily if not hourly basis. The world is almost literally telling these people that they don’t belong. These stigmas and biases have unfortunately even crept into some medical offices. Some (not all!) physicians are more likely to recommend a patient “lose weight” when presenting with a given problem if their BMI is in a certain range, rather than investigate other causes for sickness, and patients suffer because of this.
So now what? There’s no golden set of rules to guarantee you’ll be happy with your shape and weight and also healthy (wouldn’t that be nice?). There are things we can do to increase our health, but acceptance will likely get you a lot farther than obsessing over any of these issues.
Flexibility is the name of the game; allow yourself to eat foods that will nourish your body and foods that just taste good when you want them to prevent feeling like you are deprived, which actually leads to one being more likely to overeat.
Move your body if you can, when you can, and think about why you are doing it. Find something you enjoy, and I hope for your own sake that it’s not obsessively counting steps or calories burned on an elliptical.
Shape and weight do not define you. We are truly worth more than the bodies we inhabit.
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Norah Wallace, M.A is currently a second year student in the clinical psychology PhD program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She completed her undergraduate degree in psychology at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and moved to Boston after graduating in 2014 to work at the Harvard Medical School affiliated Judge Baker Children's Center conducting research alongside a psychiatrist on child language and developmental psychiatry specifically among the population of Latino children of immigrants. She also worked for a psychiatrist's private practice during her time in Boston. She is currently an extern at the Newark Beth Israel Regional Diagnostic and Treatment Center working with children who have been victims of abuse. She hopes to continue to work with children and families throughout her graduate studies, and later in her career.
Konstantin Lukin, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in Ridgewood, Hoboken, NYC, Jersey City and newly opened Englewood. He has extensive clinical and research experience spanning individuals of all ages, in both inpatient and outpatient settings. He specializes in men’s issues, couple’s counseling, and relationship problems. His therapeutic approach focuses on providing support and practical feedback to help patients effectively address personal challenges. He integrates complementary modalities and techniques to offer a personalized approach tailored to each patient. He has been trained in cognitive-behavioral, dialectical behavior, schema-focused, and emotionally focused therapy, and has also been involved with research projects throughout his career, including two National Institute of Mental Health-funded studies. He is a member of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, New Jersey Psychological Association, Northeast Counties Association of Psychologists, New York State Psychological Association, The International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy, The New York Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy, the International OCD Foundation, the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACSB) and a regular contributor to Psychology Today.