The term “you are what you eat” gets banded around a lot, but however casually it is used, the meaning behind it can actually be quite harmful and leads to the misconception that our health is solely down to the food we eat and how much of it we consume. Weight loss does not equal health.
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When we focus on weight loss, we engage with very restrictive diets. And those restrictive diets might mean that you might lose out on some good nutrients. Now, you might also be focusing on what you’re eating, so in that case, you might be getting some great nutrients in there too. But the thing is when we keep thinking about food and we’re focused on it and then perhaps, for whatever reason, we can’t sustain it, well, this is when the emotions kick in.
So many people tell me they can’t sustain a diet because something always happens where it all goes pear-shaped and they fall off the diet. The emotions that kick in are guilt or shame, and our brain starts telling us things like, “sure, it’s gone now. I may as well let it all out of the bag” or “I’m a failure because I haven’t succeeded in this again”. And maybe even if you succeed in staying on the diet for a while maybe six months or twelve months and you’ve managed to lose weight, but then you’ve regained it after a couple of years. Either way, it’s usually a really big disappointment in our lives and so the emotions cycle begins again.
Shifting the approach away from weight loss
So, we(my peers and I) are really trying to shift this approach. It doesn’t mean that weight loss can’t be a part of your agenda if that’s what you truly want. I nor nobody in my field, I feel should be here to tell you that that’s not what you can aspire to achieve. What we are trying to say, however, is that when we talk about lifestyle changes, magic things happen, great things happen. And those emotions that you have, they tend to subside. So, those feelings of failure and shame and guilt, tend to dissipate away. And really what are we talking about when we talk about health, is how you feel on any given day. So, whether we’re in a big body, small body or medium-sized body, what we’re talking about is how we feel when we wake up in the morning.
Overweight versus normal weight
When you’re trying to focus on weight loss only and you don’t achieve the weight loss or you do and you regain the weight, it’s that all or nothing mentality that gets people stuck. Interestingly, long-term studies have found that people who are overweight or even in the moderately obese category actually live just as long as those of us in normal weight. (If you’re interested in learning more about this, you might want to check out if the Obesity Paradox). In fact, there was a 2012 study, which found that people of normal weight, overweight, or obese classification that engaged in regular exercise – they were exercising more than 12 times a month – that ate five portions of fruits and vegetables a day, that reduced down their alcohol consumption and that avoided smoking, actually lowered their risk of mortality. So, they lowered their risk of dying earlier.
In that alone, there’s great advice. We’re talking about trying to get rid of smoking. We’re talking about reducing down alcohol. We’re talking about increasing fruit and veg intake, and we’re talking about regular exercise. All fantastic health-promoting behaviours, without being restrictive.
I would always add to that when we talk about our health and wellbeing, that we work on our sleep and that we establish regular eating patterns. I would call this front-loading your day. So, try to eat earlier in the day than later in the day because you need to eat to fuel the work that you’re doing. If we’re eating at night-time when we’re just sitting down, well then we’re not going to use up the energy that we’re consuming. And also to remember your mind. There’s a great connection between your purpose, your relationships and your spirituality, in terms of how your body responds to that and how beneficial it is for your overall health.
Health is so much more than weight loss
Remember when I talk about health, I’m veering towards what the WHO has defined as health. Social, emotional, and physical wellbeing, not just one. And yes, what we eat can influence how we feel, but it also is part of a bigger approach and we need to look at lots of other pieces in our life. Take the Blue Zones Project as an example. The Blue Zones are countries that have been studied and we look to them to see how have the people lived there for longer with a better quality of life? There was a great project started in a town called Albert Lea in Minnesota in 2019. There they have adopted the guiding principles of the Blue Zones, which means that they have seen significant changes in how those people are interacting with their environment. They had healthy checkouts at the grocery store. They focused on education in school. They were planting, walking to schools, they had healthy snack carts going around. They also increased activities for the adult population. So, they had bike lanes and they had golf and they had more parks. They continued offering free workshops and education to people and they even had adult wellness awards. They were building up the community and that’s what’s really important. When we think about wellbeing we have to remember that the focus is on let’s move more, let’s eat wisely, let’s connect more and let’s have a more realistic outlook and positive outlook on how things should be. We should be focusing on that and not the ideals that marketing and media have created for us over the last number of years. So, if we’re going to take any inspiration from what they’ve achieved in Minnesota it should be to look around us and see where we are putting our expectations and how much expectation are we putting on ourselves? And, if our approach isn’t working, is there something else that we need to think about?
Start engaging, start learning, start listening, start thinking about things from a different perspective. You don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to act on it today, but could you start thinking about things from a different perspective that might ultimately benefit your health?
So it just shows that being healthy is not down to weight or how much you eat, but more about how you feel. This new approach focuses on what really counts, that feeling every day that you have the energy to do what you want or that you are happy or content. And look, it’s not easy. It’s a journey. It’s a change. It’s a process. But when we do focus on these health-promoting lifestyle changes or pillars of health and wellbeing, we can find more health benefits than we ever expected. Just remember – weight loss does not equal health! Stay tuned for my follow up blog, where I will be sharing three health-promoting behaviours that you can start implementing right now.
This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition.