One of the more pervasive (and exasperating) ideas I hear in therapy sessions is the notion of pursuing weight loss and dieting in the name of “health.” I am speaking specifically about the vast sea of us that are otherwise perfectly medically healthy, but, for one reason or another (ahem, cultural pressures and social media, ahem), are looking to diets to change our size and make ourselves smaller. We inevitably frame this as “eating healthy” or “getting healthy.” In my experience, it’s rare that health is the outcome of dieting practices.
Health is physical, emotional, and mental. When we place all of the emphasis on the pursuit of “health” purely as it relates to the size and shape of our bodies, we rob ourselves of the significant health benefits of socialization, spontaneity, fun, and flexibility. We corner ourselves into a regimen that robs us of the joy in life.
Health is physical.
We can think about health in terms of weight, but we’re probably (definitely) getting an inaccurate picture. Without going into a diatribe on the failures of BMI to indicate health (at all), let me simply suggest that we try to measure our health based on how we feel, rather than by a set of numbers and percentages. Do we have energy? How’s our mood? Digestion? How does food and exercise make us feel?
To illustrate, I once worked with a woman who felt that she should exercise five days a week for one hour (the very arbitrary holy grail of exercise amounts), and that she should be running during that hour, because that’s what exercise means. She hated running (preach, woman), it made her feel sick, and she frequently had issues with her feet and knees as a direct result of her running. Yet, the idea of “quitting” made her feel like a failure, and invoked guilt and hopelessness.
This is not what health looks like. Injuring ourselves in the name of performing something that not all of us like or are meant to do (and if you love running, more power to you – go for it) is not helpful or useful, and is certainly not healthy. That particular woman eventually discovered that she loved yoga and swimming, and is now an avid exerciser, but looks forward to it and moves her body for the pleasure of the movement rather than to fulfill the shoulds.
Health is emotional.
As I mentioned in the introduction, focusing on weight and diet has a way of limiting us. In pursuit of making ourselves smaller, we sometimes end up making our lives smaller as well. We miss out on friends and adventures because we don’t want to eat at a particular place or skip a workout. This is totally understandable – diet culture programs us to think this way.
I watched a comedy special once in which the comedian shared that she loved her belly because “this means I have dinner with friends!”. Good health is being able to spend time with friends and enjoy the connectivity that comes from eating together. I suspect this will matter more than the number on the scale in the long run.
Health is mental.
One of the most difficult parts of weight loss and diet mentality is how overwhelming it can be. We think about macros at breakfast. We count calories up to a prescribed amount and then stop eating for the day (even if we are still hungry). We force ourselves to exercise when we’re tired, when we’re sick, in a tornado, because the anxiety that comes with not doing these things is worse than the doing of them.
To take care of our health is to accept that stress and anxiety play a major role in disease, and should be mitigated to the best of our ability. Sometimes we need some support to begin to work with the anxiety that accompanies not dieting, and this is 100% normal and okay. I recommend looking for a therapist that specializes in treating issues with eating, that practices from a Body Positive and/or Health at Every Size lens.
The pursuit of health is complex and multifaceted. Dieting doesn’t get us there. Can we reframe health to include all shapes and sizes, and allow for larger, more fulfilling, healthier lives?