A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control found that being a little overweight (not obese) seems to be associated with about a six percent lower risk of premature death. Predictably, there are doctors who agree with these findings and doctors who vehemently oppose them.
What’s significant to me about this study is that it supports what I’ve suspected for a long time – there’s no single body type that’s ideal for all people! Apparently, if the study is correct, there seem to be at least some people who do well when they carry a little extra weight. Yes, being significantly overweight or underweight can certainly be dangerous. But what might be five or ten pounds too heavy or light for you might be perfect for me.
The key to achieving a healthy body weight, in my mind, is not calculating the perfect body mass index and killing ourselves to achieve it. It’s looking at the underlying issues that cause some of us to truly have an unhealthy body weight and addressing those. For years, I counted every calorie I put into my body and, as you might suspect, I was pretty thin.What helped me to finally move away from obsessive calorie counting and to achieve my body’s unique healthy weight wasn’t discovering that I was significantly below my supposedly ideal body mass index. It was finally understanding the emotional issues that caused me to want to count calories in the first place. For me, it was about perfectionism and a fear of uncertainty.
Once I addressed those issues (which wasn’t easy!), I was able to achieve a largely happy relationship with food. And I gained some weight – that is, my body found its unique healthy weight. I love to jog and I eat mostly healthy, whole foods in reasonable amounts. I have no idea what my body mass index is but I’m confident that my weight is where it needs to be. I might be a little heavier or lighter than some who live similar lifestyles, but given my unique genetics, metabolic capacity, etc., this is where my body wants to be. I believe that each body has a unique ideal weight, regardless of a person’s supposed ideal BMI. If we work on the emotional issues preventing us from maintaining a healthy relationship with food so that we can ultimately get to the point where we can sustain healthy lifestyles, I believe the body will find its healthy weight. That has been my experience, anyway.
Of course, there are exceptions. Someone with a hormonal imbalance, for example, may eat a wonderfully healthy diet and workout regularly but still experience difficulty in achieving his or her body’s ideal weight. It seems to me, though, that this is the exception. For the most part, I believe that, when we have a healthy emotional relationship with food, eat high-quality foods and maintain a reasonably active lifestyle, the body will find its ideal weight. And that weight will be slightly different for each individual.
What encourages me about the CDC study is that it challenges the notion that a particular, slender body type is appropriate for everyone. The idea that we could use the equation BMI = Weight (kg)/Height Squared (m squared) to calculate how much body fat a person should have is, in my opinion, a little too simplistic. Even when we take into account a person’s supposedly healthy BMI range, rather than just a single figure, I’m still not convinced that the equation will actually help many people achieve a healthy weight. There are many biological factors that determine how much body fat a person is likely to carry and reducing it to a very narrow equation is a little misleading.
Even the new Body Adiposity Index, whose equation is Hip Circumference / (Height X √Height) – 18, tells us that the way to achieve a healthy weight is by crunching the numbers and applying generic, one-size-fits-all standards. What’s really important, though, is recognizing that each body is different and addressing any underlying emotional or physical issues that may be preventing us from achieving our body’s unique, healthy weight.
We’re a very neurotic culture when it comes to weight. I think what will help us most is understanding that numbers – calories, BMI, weight, whatever – are not what we should be paying attention to if we want to be healthy. We should be paying attention to our relationship with food, the quality of our food and whether we’re emotionally and physically prepared to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Some people might be healthy at a slightly higher weight, some at a slightly lower weight. And that’s ok! What’s important, in my view, is the way we live our lives every day.