A Call to Focus on Healthiness Rather than Weight

I recently completed my first half marathon (I suppose by referring to it as my 'first' I also plan on running more). During my training, I also cycled and would have a weekly average of about 15-20 miles running and 80-100 miles cycling, depending on the weather.  That is not as much as some folks, but a lot more than the average person. I enjoy exercising, feel better when I do so, and have more energy, too. And, despite the energy expenditures that have been maintained for some time (I have averaged 4500 miles of cycling for three years), my weight is pretty constant and over what the CDC recommends. 

It is with this awareness in mind, that I keenly read the recent article from Christine Logel, Danu Anthony Stinson, and Paula Brochu.* The authors argue that there is an undue focus on weight loss, and as a result, people should focus on well-being and healthiness, instead. This assertion is based on several factors: 

  • There is relatively little evidence that weight gain causes poor health. There are associations between the two, but these are correlational data. In other words, the research shows that A and B are related to one another, but there is little evidence that A causes B. In this case, there might be some relationship between weight and health, but little evidence showing weight gain causes poor health. 
  • There is also mixed evidence that weight loss for extended periods of time is attainable. Genetics represents about 70 percent of what affects one's weight, and people who lose weight through dieting usually gain it back (and then some) within 3 months. 
  • The authors also question whether weight loss improves health. In most research, authors report two conditions in their study: one focusing on weight loss and the other not. People in the former condition receive moral support, exercise, and eat healthy food. Thus, it is entirely possible that these factors, more so than any weight loss that might occur, are responsible for health improvements. 
  • Finally, weight stigma is associated with poor physical and psychological health. In fact, among people considered overweight, those who experience stigma and prejudice are more likely to have negative health outcomes than are their peers who are not subjected to such treatment. 

Based on these arguments, the authors propose a shifting of the focus to healthiness and well-being--not weight. They suggest: 

  • Focusing on healthy approaches to the way people eat and their physical activity. This includes eating for health, rather than to lose weight. It also means being physically active because of activity's inherent value.
  • Reducing weight stigma and discrimination. This can be done by developing interventions, as well as having laws in place at the local, state, and federal levels that prohibit discrimination based on weight. 
  • Promoting ways to effectively cope with weight stigma. This includes altering the attributions people make about their body weight, among other strategies. 

Logel et al.'s work is appealing for a number of reasons. First, it focuses on health and well-being rather than one's weight and appearance. Second, we have found this approach to be appealing to people. When fitness clubs focus on health, for example, people are more attracted to the clubs and more likely to engage in physical activity. Given the many benefits of being physically active, and the very serious deleterious effects associated with weight stigma, such a shift is needed. 

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* Logel, C., Stinson, D. A., & Brochu, P. M. (2015). Weight loss is not the answer: A well-being solution to the 'obesity problem.' Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 9, 678-695.