5 Things You Didn’t Know about Health and Weight
The Relationship Between Health and Weight Is Complicated
Overweight and obesity are associated with an increased risk of a whole slew of serious health conditions, from heart disease to diabetes and everything in between. But let’s tap the brakes right there. Being fat is associated with those diseases… but does that mean the fat itself is the problem? Not necessarily. Let’s talk about some little-known facts about health and weight.
1. BMI Is Bonkers
Hopefully, more and more people are becoming aware of this fact.
The idea of BMI was introduced in the 1800s by a mathematician—not a doctor. And, he explicitly said that BMI should not be used as a measure of fatness for individuals. BMI doesn’t consider waist circumference, muscle mass, bone density, or other key metrics that can be used to indicate health.
What I find really startling is that in 1998, BMI standards were lowered. Before that change, “overweight” was classified as having a BMI over approximately 27. But then that number dropped to 25. Guess what? There was actually evidence for raising BMI standards instead of lowering them. The task force who lowered the standards only cited one relevant peer-reviewed study in their report, which indicated that BMIs of over 40 are associated with increased mortality.
2. Activity Is More Important than Weight
If you see a relatively thin person standing next to a fat person, it’s easy to think that the thin person is healthier. Not necessarily. Research has shown time and again that physical activity is a much better indicator of health than how much a person weighs. An obese individual who walks an hour every day is likely to have better health and live longer than a sedentary person whose weight falls into the “normal” range.
3. The Diabetes-Obesity Relationship Isn’t Straightforward
People with type 2 diabetes are often told to lose weight to help them manage their condition. If they succeed with their diet and exercise plan, they may find that their diabetes is less severe or that it goes into remission entirely.
But is it actually the weight loss that causes the positive changes, or was it the new habits that these people adopted during their weight loss journey? It seems that the latter may be the case because there is evidence to suggest that weight is not as closely related to insulin resistance as many people believe. One study even found that while weight loss appears to produce short-term benefits for diabetics, it doesn’t do much in the long-term, even when the weight loss is maintained.
Plus, it’s fascinating to note that people with diabetes who undergo bariatric surgery often see an improvement in their diabetes within days—before they lose a significant amount of weight. This suggests that the diabetes-weight relationship isn’t as cut and dry as many healthcare practitioners would have us believe.
4. Body Image Matters
Sadly, we live in a world that places a lot of emphasis on looks. If someone’s body doesn’t match the societal ideal, they may begin to hate what they see in the mirror and experience heightened stress as a result. Stress is a well-documented risk factor for tons of medical conditions, including heart problems, insomnia, headaches, and accelerated aging.
I love what Dr. Linda Bacon, PhD, wrote in her book Health at Every Size: “Cross-cultural studies suggest that larger people are not subject to the same diseases in countries where there is less stigma attached to weight… When researchers looked at a nationally representative group of more than 170,000 U.S. adults, they found the difference between actual weight and perceived ideal weight was a better indicator of mental and physical health than BMI. In other words, feeling fat has stronger health effects than being fat.”
5. Long-Term Weight Loss Is Complicated
Weight loss seems simple. All you have to do is create a calorie deficit, right? But creating that deficit and maintaining the weight loss is way more complicated than most people think. A lot of people believe that a lack of compliance is the reason why so many people gain back the weight they have lost. That might be true in some cases, but there are also physiological considerations to think about.
The human body is designed to resist weight loss, and it is designed to hover around a certain “set point.” If your weight dips significantly below its set point, your body is going to do everything within its power to get you back up to it—in fact, your set point is probably going to rise to higher than what it was previously. That’s why diets fail 95% of the time. It’s not the people who fail. It’s the diets that fail.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to change your body’s set point, but typical dieting methods are unlikely to get you there.
What Should We Take Away from All of This?
I’m not a medical professional. I’m just a girl who has received wrong messages throughout my life. Society, and even well-meaning friends and family, have told me that I should lose weight. When I do lose weight, I’m applauded, even if the means I’m using to shed the pounds aren’t healthy.
I say it’s time for the insanity to stop. I say that as a society, we should adopt a more balanced view of weight and its relationship with health. Yes, obesity is associated with a lot of health problems, and it can actually cause a few of them (for example, obstructive sleep apnea). But it’s time to put a stop to the black and white thinking.
Some of my sources for this article:
Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon, PhD (This book is downright fascinating. I highly recommend.)