There was a time when thin was in. It didn’t matter how you got there – crazy diets, dangerous diet pills, speed, smoking, laxatives, just not eating – but the message from the beauty industry was that thin was the only acceptable way to be. But increasingly, we’ve traded “thin” for “healthy weight.” Have you ever seen someone post “healthy is the new thin” on social media? You can’t get more literal than that.

But here’s the problem. The idea of maintaining weight within the boundaries of a so-called “healthy” weight range is replacing talk of being “thin” or achieving a certain clothing size. But have we just swapped one distorted way of thinking for another?

While somewhat different, the idea of “healthy weight” may contribute to an unhealthy relationship with food and body just as much as striving for the thin ideal did.

Certainly, worshiping thinness and subscribing to fatphobia – whether conscious or unconscious, internalized or directed outward – harms body image and contributes to the development of eating disorders.

But “healthy weight” talk still perpetuates body ideals and fatphobia. The emphasis just shifts from a weight goal that may be unobtainable by most people to one that may be unobtainable by many people. What’s worse, while the thin ideal is tied to shifting beauty standards, the “healthy weight” standard adheres to the idea that controlling our weight is socially responsible and is therefore a moral imperative.

Why the “healthy weight” ideal may be even worse

The thin ideal focuses on appearance and is tightly linked with attractiveness. It promotes striving for increased body perfection. Behaviors adopted in the pursuit of the thin ideal are motivated by the promise of rewards, including success, happiness and being desired by potential romantic partners.

The healthy weight ideal focuses not on health, as you might think, but social value and inclusion. Bodies that fail to meet the healthy weight ideal are deemed burdensome to society. Behaviors are motivated by the fear of failing and of being judged unacceptable and unfit as a member of society.

The ideal of a “healthy weight,” while promoted by social and regular media, is also promoted by the healthcare system and public health agencies. Some of the rhetoric around the “ob*sity epidemic” (as conveyed in public health messaging and by practically everyone with an opinion) highlights the supposed economic burden caused by weighing “too much.” This positions achieving an “acceptable” weight as something that benefits not just individuals, but society. This increases fatphobia, because now fatphobic people can claim that if someone weighs too much, they’re not just hurting themselves, they’re hurting everyone.

Body image concerns related to the healthy weight ideal can be stronger than those associated with the thin ideal. “Failing” to meet the healthy weight ideal may trigger feelings of shame as well as alienation from other people and from your own body. You may feel that you are at war with a body that refuses to comply and creates an obstacle to being deemed an acceptable member of society.

What is a “healthy” weight range, anyway?

I can’t even tell you how often I hear, “I don’t care if I’m thin, I just want to be in a healthy weight range – and my current weight can’t possibly be in that range.” (Translation: “I don’t like my body as it is and I want it to be smaller because I want to be HEALTHY.”)

I get it. I’ve been there. I spent years engaging in obsessive macro counting and meticulously planned strength training and cardo routines with the goal of being HEALTHY. But looking back, I can see my own BS. Sure, I wanted to be healthy, but I also wanted to be smaller. I wanted to get compliments and buy cute (and smaller) clothes. I wanted to feel virtuous.

For the concept of a healthy weight range to be valid, we would have to know three things:

  1. What weight range will maintain or improve health for each individual.
  2. That the person could reach and stay in that weight range without restricting food or exercising excessively.
  3. That any health benefits realized from being in that range were from the weight itself, and not because of the healthy-but-not-obsessive behaviors adopted to stay in that range.
“I eat healthy and I exercise…why am I still this size?”

Here’s another problem with the idea of a healthy weight range. Part of the messaging around this idea is that if you eat healthy and stay physically active, you’ll be in that range.

But try telling that to people (especially women) in larger bodies who do eat healthfully, engage in the amounts of physical activity recommended for good health, and are still in bodies that appear “too large.” Unless they are accepting of their body and realize that health is multi-faceted and that size does not equal health, they will likely feel like they’ve failed (“I eat healthy and I exercise…why am I still this size?”). Perhaps even worse, their healthy habits are likely to be doubted.

I’ve had clients who eat a wonderfully nutritious, varied diet and enjoy a variety of forms of movement go to their doctors and be referred to a commercial weight loss program and given a generic exercise prescription. Not only do many (possibly most) doctors NOT ask their larger-bodied patients what their eating and exercise habits are, but if the patient tries to tell them that they eat well and are quite active, they give them the side-eye.

This weight bias – whether we direct it at ourselves or absorb it from other people – can lead to extreme and unhealthy attempts to change our bodies, setting the stage for worsening body image, social isolation (because of shame and not wanting to be seen), disordered eating and possibly even an eating disorder.

What Intuitive Eating says about weight ranges

Despite abundant research showing that our body weight is influenced by many factors that are out of our control – including biological mechanisms that will fight our attempts at control – there’s still widespread buy-in to the idea that weight is controllable. That’s true whether it’s in the pursuit of a thin aesthetic or health.

Internalizing the core messages of the “healthy weight” idea – namely, that we can control our weight through diet and exercise – increases our anti-fat attitudes and weight bias. A 2014 study found that when people in larger bodies are viewed as putting sufficient effort into trying to control their weight, this reduces the amount of external weight stigma they endure (this is the “good fatty” trope). But believing that you need to control your weight and the internalized weight stigma that comes with that are both associated with body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. So you’re still screwed.

The Intuitive Eating model says your natural weight range is the range you can comfortably stay in when eating and living intuitively. This includes letting internal cues of hunger, fullness and satisfaction guide your eating while not forbidding access to any foods.

This weight range may or not be where someone wants to be or thinks they “should” be. It might not sync up with what other people (friends, family, doctors, strangers) think that person should weigh.

Summing up

Whether the goal is a certain body aesthetic or “health,” trying to manipulate your body size or shape by controlling or restricting food or engaging in excessive and/or not-enjoyable exercise means you are dieting. And there is absolutely zero peer-reviewed published scientific research supporting that any form of dieting results in lasting weight loss for at least five years. That, of course, would be the definition of “successful” weight loss.

And lost in discussions of “healthy weight” is the simple fact that there are many things we can do every day to support our health. That’s regardless of whether those things ever result in a drop of weight loss:

  • A balanced, nutritious, pleasurable diet
  • Enjoyable forms of movement
  • Time spent in nature
  • A meditation or other mindfulness practice
  • Social connection
  • Adequate quality sleep
  • Expressing creativity
  • Having a purpose in life
  • Access to preventive healthcare
  • Physical, mental and emotional safety

Not only can these things support long-term health, they also help us feel better every day and live a happier, or at least more contented, life. And that’s pretty damn awesome.

Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

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