Thin is beautiful – and nowadays it seems thin is healthy, too.
We’re told an “obesity epidemic” of massive proportions is gripping the nation, and doctors are warning worried citizens about the dangers of being overweight – arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and more. More and more, the idea that thin equals healthy is being sold as by the media as common knowledge and established fact.
In Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight published by BenBella Books, Dr. Linda Bacon, a UC Davis researcher and professor at San Francisco City College, sets out to debunk the myths surrounding weight. Using results from her research at UC Davis, she discusses how individuals can maintain a healthy lifestyle through the principles of Health at Every Size (HAES).
Working with What Works
Bacon makes it clear HAES isn’t about weight loss – it’s about healthy living. In her government-funded UC Davis study, Dr. Bacon and her colleagues recruited a total of 80 women – 40 of which participated in the HAES program and the other 40 of which underwent a conventional diet, which served as the control in the experiment. The women were middle aged, overweight and largely unhappy about their weight.
Each group met regularly for six months in groups of 10 women each.
“The diet group got the standard dieting message: exercise, eat healthy, lose weight. The HAES group got a different model,” Bacon explained. “We didn’t tell people they had to lose weight. We start with the opposite message, predicated on self-acceptance. [We tell them] this is the body you got – it’s not a sign of betrayal, it’s who you are, let’s celebrate it.”
The dieting control group would spend sessions talking about their weight, giving each other support. They would weigh in at the beginning of each session. Conversely, the HAES group was told their weights were not the issue (an initial disappointment for some, Bacon admits, because of an ingrained desire for weight loss). Instead, they would spend sessions discussing healthy habits in nutrition and movement.
“[Next] was body trust – if you are hungry, it’s your body saying you need nourishment … and movement is a celebration of the incredible body you have. We came up with much more creative ways to move … take the stairs, go to a further bathroom, go on a ‘walk and talk’ with your boss instead of a meeting in their office. The key is to make it part of your day.”
Participants were encouraged to keep eating journals to “read” and trust their bodies. Over time, participants could see patterns of food consumption, what types of food satisfied them and what types did not, what physical (as opposed to emotional) hunger felt like, and could recognize satiety (fullness).
“We innately know how much to eat. It’s hard for us to trust our bodies … when [participants] had high-sugar meals, they realized they were really hungry shortly after. But when they had a lot of fiber, they had a lasting sense of fullness. The idea was to recognize all the clues your body is giving to get the kinds of nutrients it needs,” Bacon said.
The HAES group was not told what and what not to eat, or to lose weight. The goal was simply, as Dr. Bacon put it, to “live in your body-to become embodied.”
Healthier and Happier on HAES
Bacon’s study was concluded two years later. The participants spent an entire year without any of the requirements dictated during their time in the study. When they came back to weigh in, their weight was the same. That was somewhat expected and disregarded – weight was never the issue.
Then, they measured objective health indicators – blood pressure and cholesterol, which, in the HAES group, were lowered considerably. More importantly to Bacon, individuals’ self-esteem and self-perception improved dramatically – they felt comfortable and healthy in their bodies regardless of weight.
“Healthy habits seemed to be the secret. All of this happened without a changing weight … [it showed] there is something really wrong, culturally, when we tell people it’s all about weight,” Bacon said.
The dieting group, on the other hand, experienced disappointing results. Weight, as well as health indicators, remained the same.
“Everything backslid – what was most depressing was the one thing that really worsened – self-esteem,” Bacon said. “And that’s what’s happening to people – they feel like failures, they feel lousy about themselves. We are pushing them into this model that makes them feel bad.”
The “D” Word is Dead
“None of this stuff that we commonly believe really works,” Bacon said. “And health myths with exercise are the same as myths with diets – [both say] if you exercise regularly everybody is going to be thin and happy. At first, the same thing happens – in the short term, almost all of them are successful … [but] the vast majority regain the weight that they lost.”
The bottom line: dieting – the big “D” – is dead. Research has shown that, contrary to the authoritative claims of late night infomercials, those pills, plans and exercise contraptions only help you lose money. And not only is dieting ineffective, it’s the wrong idea.
“[Dieting] is about depriving, which can set off all kinds of physiological backlashes. Very few people are able to do it and keep the weight off. The body is not set up to lose weight, it is set up to maintain weight,” said Sarah Josef, an adjunct professor at San Francisco State University who also teaches an HAES course at John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill, Calif. “I’m a dietician – I used to teach weight management, and I watched people lose and gain and lose and gain and it was so frustrating. Working with HAES, I saw a difference in people being able to change their lifestyle and maintain it; they were healthier people and happier people.”
According to Bacon, Josef and others, even the idea of “overweight” is wrong, especially since those with moderately high body mass indices (BMI’s) have been shown, on average, to have longer life spans than “normal weight” people.
Cinder Ernst, a personal fitness trainer at Gold’s Gym in San Francisco and follower of HAES, knows from experience that the idea of “overweight” itself is harmful.
“Liking yourself isn’t easy in our world, in our society, at any size, but it’s especially not easy if you are bigger than what you “should” be. The word “overweight” is a judgment, you are judging somebody’s weight as over what you think it should be,” Ernst said.
Health and Happiness at Every Size
For college students, it’s a hard pill to swallow – many of us want to lose weight regardless, with health and well being as nothing but a false pretense. But in her book, Bacon asks her readers to reevaluate their values, their perceptions and their commitment to the health of their bodies.
“We need to acknowledge how difficult it is to live in a culturally stigmatized body,” she said. “Socially, we don’t accept them, we have stereotypical ideas about what they must have done to have that body. Honestly, we have to lighten up on other people, and not buy into all these cultural ideas of what’s attractive.”
Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, is an all-in-one: it serves as an exposition of Dr. Bacon’s research, a self-help book and a searing critique of a society that accepts a single standard of weight and equates that standard with health.
“Health has a lot of components,” Ernst said. “Fitness is one. Diet, as far as nutrition, is another. So is volunteering, family, community … [things] that we don’t address at all as a society. We’re too busy shooting Botox in our foreheads.”
For more information, visit the book’s website at haesbook.com. Health at Every Size is also available at the UC Davis bookstore.
ANDRE LEE can be reached at email@example.com.