Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
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SALT LAKE CITY — No one wants to be in that messy on-again, off-again relationship that lacks respect and happy endings. A relationship that oscillates between cloud nine and valleys filled with distrust and disgust.
But this is exactly the relationship many find themselves in with food and body image.
If you’ve tried more diets than you can count on one hand, if you’ve felt disgust and shame about your body, or if you feel out of control, are scared to eat certain kinds of food, or don’t trust yourself to intuitively know what and how much to eat, and you are fed up and tired of the struggle … this article series is for you.
I get it, because I’ve been there.
I used to be really restrictive and micromanaging of my diet and exercise. I used to be highly critical of my appearance. Ironically, I went to school and studied nutrition, became a registered dietitian, kept studying nutrition, got a master’s degree in it, and now eat more liberally than I ever have in my life.
I had whole grain toast for breakfast with a side of fun-size peanut M&M’s and I don’t feel one bit bad about it. You can have your cake and eat it too, literally and figuratively.
I’ve had two babies and my body isn’t airbrushed perfection, but that doesn’t bother me. You can reach a healthy, happy weight by eating intuitively and honoring your hunger and fullness by not being overly restrictive or obsessive, but by filling your diet with real whole foods and exercising in rewarding ways, all while occasionally enjoying treats and feeling great about your body and food. I can teach you how.
Step 1: Get perspective and a paradigm shift if needed
What is a healthy weight?
Is it a pant size, a “normal” BMI, or a certain body fat percentage? BMI (body mass index) is a start, but it’s limited. It is a quick tool that let’s you know your ratio of pounds per inches of height. Results of epidemiological research tell us that people with a “normal” BMI have the lowest mortality rates, or relative risk of death, from all causes of death.
Those with a low BMI have high risk of mortality. Those with an overweight BMI are at slightly greater risk than normal weight, and as BMI ratios increase into obesity, risk increases significantly. BMI doesn’t tell us about body composition though. A person can be overweight on the BMI chart, but have a lot of lean muscle mass and very little adiposity, and they may be considered healthy regardless of their BMI.
If a person with an overweight BMI does not have other health risk factors like high blood pressure, diabetes, insulin resistance or pre-diabetes or elevated blood lipid levels, then they probably don’t need to lose weight for health reasons.
While we (in medicine and science) know that lower body fat percentages can be harmful, especially for women who stop menstruating at low enough percentages affecting both fertility and increasing incidence of osteoporosis, we don’t have a “healthy” range clearly defined. Fitness industries may have definitions determined by aesthetics, but not necessarily health.
If you are at a normal weight and maybe even overweight BMI, exercising several hours a day and restricting multiple food groups to lose weight, it’s probably not a healthy endeavor. That’s stressful to your body, psyche and relationships with people.
So what is a healthy weight? A weight you naturally reach when you’re eating (but not overeating) whole fresh foods that provide enough vitamins and minerals, you’re hydrated, you’re rested, you’re physically active and gaining muscular strength, agility, and cardiovascular fitness, and you’re happy.
What’s happiness got to do with it?
Setting goals and striving to become your best is rewarding, fulfilling and an important part of life. However, what motivates you to achieve and the achievability of your goals is equally important.
Are you training for a marathon or avoiding carbohydrates because you feel shame or disgust for your appearance? Best-selling author, therapist and researcher Brene Brown often expounds on the isolating effects of shame. She reminds us that when we feel shame we distance ourselves from others and disconnect, ultimately leading to unhappiness, feelings of unworthiness and lack of meaning in our life.
Physical activity and healthy eating should be incredibly rewarding physically and mentally, not a punishment. By changing your paradigm to engage in realistic expectations and healthy behaviors that bring you joy, you’ll find you don’t resent yourself, your slow and steady progress, or eating healthy and exercising.
In the next article in this series, I’ll address how to prioritize, plan and persist to reach a healthy, happy weight for life.
*Disclaimer: The advice in this article is not meant to replace counsel from a physician and is not individualized to meet your personal needs. If you are thinking about becoming more physically active or making dietary changes, please consult with your primary care provider for clearance. If you’re concerned about harmful behaviors or thoughts in yourself or others, please seek professional help.