Rethinking Weight and what it means to be Healthy
From the title, it’s easy to assume that Healthy Weight Week—which runs January 21 through 28—is all about weight loss. But this national health observance has a unique and valuable focus. Healthy Weight Week focuses on realistic, body-image and positive weight goals. Instead of swimsuit size, these goals target true health and well-being.
Unhealthy eating vs. unhealthy body image: a personal war
America is deeply divided between unhealthy extremes. Our supersize-it culture leaves nearly 90 million Americans struggling with the dangerous effects of obesity, including 13 million children. On the other side, millions of us follow unrealistic beauty standards down a dangerous path toward eating disorders, which have the highest mortality rate of any behavioral condition.
It’s time to create some balance. Here are three ways to approach weight gain or weight loss from a healthy perspective.
1. Stop using the word “weight.”
You’ve spent months eating well and exercising. You’ve gone down a waist-size or two, and most importantly, you feel great. And yet, the scale seems to be telling a different story. This might be because you’ve been strength training. Strength training has many health benefits. Because muscle is denser than fat, you might see your body weight stay the same or even go up even though you are slimming down.Don’t stop what you’re doing just because of the scale!
Weight alone is not an accurate way to measure the positive effects of exercise and nutrition. Change the language behind you goals from “weight loss” to “healthy body.”
2. Instead, focus on these three measures of health
Body composition, BMI and waist circumference are better ways to gauge your healthy body.
Body composition measures the ratio of fat, muscle, bone and water. Instead of measuring your weight, strive for a healthy ratio between fat and muscle. A body composition monitor is one way to gain this kind of insight while measuring healthy attributes like bone density and muscle
BMI or Body Mass Index is another, potentially more accurate way to measure body fat. A BMI calculator looks at height and weight to produce a score indicating whether a person is underweight, normal weight, overweight or obese. BMI is helpful, but remember that a lean yet muscular person may weigh more, even though they have a healthy body composition.
Waist circumference is what it sounds like, a simple measurement of your abdomen. Wrap a tape measure around your waist between the bottom of your ribs and the top of your hipbone. Generally, men should strive for a width of 37 inches or less. The number for women is 31.5. Why are these numbers important? Extra fat carried around the waist lessens the ability to control blood sugar, bringing risk of diabetes. It may also put unnecessary strain on the heart and blood vessels. But some of us may have a larger waist size than others and still be perfectly healthy. It’s important to become comfortable with your own body type and follow the recommendations of a health care professional.
3. Retrain your thinking about body image
It is very possible to have a healthy body composition (or weight) without looking like a supermodel or athlete. And yet, many of us compare ourselves against these unrealistic images. You can start to alter your body image by paying attention to your thoughts.
Catch yourself checking. Do you check your waistline, the fit of your clothes, or look at your body in the mirror multiple times a day? When you do, does it reinforce negative feelings?
Catch yourself comparing. Note the thoughts that go through your head when you see a shirtless action hero or the cover of a fashion magazine. Does this start a negative pattern of thinking?
Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is about paying attention to your thoughts. This allows you to see individual ideas that hijack your thinking down a negative direction. Paying attention to the present moment is one way to anchor your mind, giving you a strong ground from which to develop this kind of perspective. The next time you feel tempted to check or compare, take a moment to relax your body, notice your breath, and pay attention to your surroundings.
Negative body image can have serious consequences. Negative body image can be a symptom of body dysmorphic disorder. In this condition, people see themselves far differently than the rest of the world. This may include vastly overestimating their own body weight, and it can lead to eating disorders. Like mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of practical counseling that can help make you aware of troubling thoughts about your body.
The interesting thing about body image is, when you become more comfortable with who you are physically, it’s actually easier to maintain healthy habits.
The bottom line: focus on health, not appearance
If you’re prone to obsess about your weight, mindfulness may help you pause and ask yourself, “Am I healthy?” If you’re keeping track of your diet and focusing on a healthy body composition, the answer is yes. This may help you let go of the extra baggage of negative thoughts and comparisons. If the answer is no, it helps reframe body weight as a health and well-being goal—not a moral or aesthetic failing.