Linda Bacon, Ph.D, is the author of the must-read book Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight. She’s also a nutrition professor in the Biology Department at City College of San Francisco and serves as an associate nutritionist at the University of California, Davis.
Last year, I had the great pleasure of speaking to Linda about Health At Every Size (HAES) and her book (part 1 and part 2). It was truly an eye-opening interview that has forever changed my opinion on the importance of weight in health.
It’s affected me personally in how I live my life – with a focus on healthy habits, listening to my body and engaging in physical activities that make me happy – and the message I choose to spread.
As a reminder, here’s what HAES is all about (taken from Linda’s website):
“Health at Every Size is based on the simple premise that the best way to improve health is to honor your body. It supports people in adopting good health habits for the sake of health and well-being (rather than weight control). Health at Every Size encourages:
- Accepting and respecting the natural diversity of body sizes and shapes.
- Eating in a flexible manner that values pleasure and honors internal cues of hunger, satiety and appetite.
- Finding the joy in moving one’s body and becoming more physically vital.“
In 2010, Linda went on a speaking tour around the country, talking about HAES and debunking the research that shows weight is a critical factor in health.
I was curious to see what reactions she encountered during her talks. So below Linda talks about her presentations to the public, health professionals and researchers.
Be sure to come back tomorrow for part two!
Q: Were there certain topics or misunderstandings that you faced during your tour?
A: One thing that came up frequently in the talks I gave to the general public was a sense of anger. I discussed the weight myths – that weight defines health, that diet and exercise will result in sustained weight loss, that weight loss is necessary for improved health, etc. – and showed the evidence that none of these are true.
It wasn’t hard to convince audiences. They felt like what I said made a lot of sense – it matched their experience. But it brought up an incredible amount of anger at a culture that had lied to them. People expressed that they’d done everything they were told to do to help them lose weight.
For instance, many had been watching their diets and thought that getting thin was going to be really important in defining their health. And it had resulted in feeling either guilty or unfulfilled every time they ate, and feeling like a failure because they couldn’t sustain any weight that they might have lost.
When they heard the message that weight doesn’t play that large of a role in their health, and all the things they tried weren’t based on good science, there was a tremendous sense of betrayal. A lot of anger was directed at the healthcare profession for not being more supportive.
Naturally, many people had questions about what to do next. Now that you’re aware of this, what do you do with all of this information?
What I felt really strongly was a need for people to find community and safety; people talked about how they need places to go where there is support, something to counteract the messages they were getting from their doctors, families and friends.
At just about every talk that I gave, there was a sense of desperation: How do we find one another? How do we get accurate information?
Also, at many of the places that I spoke there was a spontaneous decision to form groups and have regular meetings. At California State University, Chico, for example, they have just established a HAES Think Tank.
Other schools that invited me had organizations already established. For instance, my talk at the University of Michigan was sponsored by Body Peace Corps and my talk at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, was sponsored by the Women of Worth Network, both wonderful organizations that are dedicated to supporting HAES values.
It seems like there are a lot of alternative groups and interest in people joining in on this. It’s really exciting to feel people so fired up.
Q: How have health professionals reacted to your talks?
A: I found enormous enthusiasm. Many people haven’t been exposed to Health at Every Size. In most healthcare clinics, it’s standard practice to weigh people and calculate their Body Mass Index (BMI), and make recommendations based on those results. Prescribing diets and weight loss is common.
Despite this being common practice, I learned that many of the physicians and healthcare professionals weren’t surprised to hear the data showing that the approach they were using wasn’t working. They can see the anguish on their patients’ faces. They knew this process isn’t helpful or valuable.
But what I heard from them was they weren’t aware of any alternatives. They’re so accustomed to calculating BMI and giving weight management advice as a necessary part of an exam. So there was an incredible sense of relief from this audience to hear that they didn’t have to do this.
They were relieved to hear other messages and advice they could give to their patients/clients.
At every talk for health professionals, I was told that they were required to take people’s weight. These professionals didn’t feel like as individuals they had power to stop these rituals. When I heard this, I helped them brainstorm about how to make this a better experience for patients.
We discussed many different possibilities: Patients can step on the scale backwards so they don’t see the number; or health professionals can use this as an educational opportunity.
Specifically, professionals can explain as they are weighing people that people give weight too much power and meaning. They can discuss that there is other, more meaningful, information that can be gathered about a patient’s health.
Professionals can use this as a positive opportunity to educate people, instead of the negative stigmatizing experience that it usually is. (I give a lot of examples and ideas like this in my book, Health at Every Size.)
Q: What about negative reactions to your talks?
A: Surprisingly, I had little negative reaction. When I did get negative reaction, it was most commonly from the academics. It was difficult for them to hear this information.
Researchers are well trained to believe that fat is killing us, so it’s harder to hear a message that the data are showing something else. They’ve just absorbed it so strongly. And really it implicates them – because what I’m showing is that the problem lies in how we interpret data. So it’s obviously very threatening.
My general sense is that most people come into this field with a sense of wanting to help others. So it’s really quite threatening to consider the idea that despite their good intentions, by accepting the beliefs of their various disciplines, they’ve done a lot of damage.
In other words, what they get praised for, what is considered a mark of a good scientist, is the problem. People get into this strong defensive mode. What I’ve learned over time in handling these challenges is to acknowledge the emotions in the room, how scary it would be to accept this new message. To understand that anger, grief, defensiveness, are normal and expected reactions.
Overall, though, the larger view was an incredible sense of relief.
Thank you so much, Linda, for speaking with me!
Please stay tuned tomorrow for part two of our interview, where Linda discusses the idea that obesity is killing us and how consumers can find accurate information.