We’re approaching the Binge Eating Disorder Association’s Weight Stigma Awareness Week 2014 (Sept. 22-26th), Again, this year, I’m honored to be a Featured Blogger. To get the conversation started early, here’s my WSAW post from last year. It’s about weight and health risks getting all mixed up.
Ever notice that weight loss is celebrated, even when the way it was achieved was clearly unhealthy?
On the TV show “Extreme Weight Loss” a young woman is encouraged to lose 100+ lbs. in three months. At weigh-in , she’s down 108 lbs. In Phase Two, the next three months, she’s told to lose another 60 lbs. But her insanely rapid weight loss has begun to slow. She gets sick. She tells the camera she’s afraid she can’t lose 60 more pounds in time for her next public weigh in, as ordered by her trainer. Now, feeling desperate, she is eating more than she has been told to eat and has started to purge. We hear her vomiting off camera…
My 82 year old mother recently experienced a significant weight loss; the result of an undiagnosed adverse reaction to a medication. After eating almost nothing for a month, my Mom is malnourished, weak, and has muscle deterioration. She can barely stand. Still, my cousin says, “Well, at least the weight loss is a good thing.” He wasn’t kidding. I also wonder if the staff at her nursing home would have sounded the alarm sooner if Mom had been in a smaller body, rather than her size 18.
Weight stigma is harmful for people of all weights, shapes, and sizes.
A client of mine, a middle-aged woman and avid jogger, tells me she is above a “healthy weight” by 15 pounds. “Currently, do you have any health problems?” I ask. She answers, “No, not yet”. I’m curious, “Who says that 15lbs. puts your health at risk?” Her response, “Everyone knows that being fat is bad for you”. She happens to be a physician.
I wish she were alone in her weight bias, but she’s certainly not…
In 2013, the American Medical Association labeled obesity “a disease”. How can that be when we now know that overweight and obesity, alone, are poor predictors of an individual’s health? In recent years, several large studies, including those from the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas, have shown that physically fit obese people actually have a lower incidence of heart disease and death, from all causes, than do sedentary people of “normal” weight. So, where’s the proof that weight, alone, causes disease and/or death?
Upon seeing these new emerging studies, some in the medical field scratch their heads and call this “The Obesity Paradox”. Really? What’s up with ignoring that facts; that there are a lot of fat and healthy folks out there? What makes it so hard to believe that a person can be fat, fit, and healthy? Is this just more weight bias or, hmm, could there be some economic motives at play here…like selling more pharmaceuticals and filling surgical suites?
As a coach who works by telephone, I find myself in a unique position. I never see a client’s body nor do I know what he or she happens to weigh (unless it’s brought up by them in conversation). Still, whether a size 4 or 4x, I hear the same pain, judgments, fear of being large (or larger) and therefore destined to be “unlovable” and/or “unhealthy”. Many of my clients struggle with their own personal bias; favoring thinness…while hating and blaming their non-conforming body for society’s stigmatizing and rude behavior.
I learned a long time ago that weight bias cannot be weighed on a bathroom scale. Regardless of weight, shape or size, we’re all vulnerable.
So, based on more than twenty years in the health and wellness field, here’s what I know about weight and health, and what emerging research is beginning to support. If your goal is to be as healthy as possible, and your focus is on weight, the emphasis is on the wrong syllable. When interventions are focused on weight loss, rather than on improving overall health; emotional, physical, nutritional and spiritual health, people end up feeling like they’ve failed, again, and again, and again.
We all know that diets don’t work for most. And exercise motivated by desperation to burn calories rarely continues because when people don’t lose weight as quickly as contestants on shows like “Extreme Weight Loss” and “Biggest Loser”, they feel like real losers, get disheartened, and they stop doing anything at all to get healthy.
If labeling obesity as a “disease” could lead to the types of interventions and services I see improving health in my clients, I’d be willing to bite my tongue and go with it. I’d love to see research and funding for programs that encourage mindfulness practices, self-care instead of self-loathing; hands on support to be more physically active, increased access to healthier whole food choices spaced throughout the day, better sleep habits, and the development of critically important emotional regulation skills that reduce stress, depression, anxiety, and emotional and binge eating. That could be health-promoting for people of all weights, shapes, and sizes…and varying degrees of health!
In my experience, whatever a person happens to weigh on any given day, when provided with specific, effective tools that empower them to take better care of their physical, emotional, nutritional, and spiritual health, health is more likely to improve. And, as a side note, when the emphasis shifts away from weight and toward healthy practices, a body has its best shot at finding its own natural weight, whatever that happens to be; one healthy step at a time, without dieting, diet pills, surgery, or TV shows that potentially trigger eating disorders and perpetuate weight stigma…
Ellen Shuman is an experienced Coach who specializes in helping people overcome emotional eating, compulsive eating, binge eating disorder, and food addiction. She is the founder of A Weigh Out & Acoria Binge Eating Disorder Treatment (1993-present), Past President of the Binge Eating Disorder Association (2011/2012), and Co-Founder of the Academy for Eating Disorders Special Interest Group on “Health at Every Size”, firstname.lastname@example.org, 513-321-4242.