Happy and Healthy Doesn’t Have a Weight

About a month ago a good friend got in my car to go to the gym and immediately blurted out “Can I ask you a personal question?” I said “Sure,” being pretty open to people about most things in my life. It turns out that she wanted to know how much I weighed. To her dismay I had to tell her that I really didn’t know.  I haven’t weighed myself since I left my last husband.  I left the scale with him when I moved out, and I’ve been happier ever since! 

All kidding aside, I learned many years ago that the scale would never make me happy. The conditioning in our society is that we are “never enough” and that particular cognitive distortion would sound out whenever I stepped on the scale. It really didn’t matter what the number was. Even if I had lost weight, it wasn’t right for more than a second and then my mind would tell me it needed to be less. When I became aware of the voluntary torture I was putting myself through, I said “enough!” and I got off of the weight merry-go-round.*

Losing weight, despite what you might think, is not the thing that will produce health and wellbeing. In fact, as Sandra Aamodt, Ph.D. so clearly writes in her excellent book Why Diets Make Us Fat, “No research has ever shown that losing weight through lifestyle changes improves health in people over the long run.” Because, as she points out, no one knows how to get more than a few people to maintain weight loss in the long term. Her book describes the energy-balance system that keeps weight within a defended range, particularly when we try to restrict calories or stay away from desired foods. Going on a calorie restricted or food restricted diet in an effort to become thinner strongly predict weight gain, not loss!

Further, despite much of the medical establishment’s focus, it is not a change in weight that produces greater health, but lifestyle changes, like eating more vegetables, less processed foods, and exercising.** In addition, moving the focus from external rules like how many calories to eat to internal signals like hunger and satiety, as well as how food tastes and how the body feels after you eat, results in people preferring healthier foods, less disordered eating, greater body appreciation, less pressure to be thin, and higher self-esteem. Internal signals are made more accessible through mindfulness and intuitive eating practices which guide you to pay attention to your body’s signals about when, what, why, and how much to eat and when to move your body. These practices are much more likely to help you come into a healthier relationship with your body than a diet plan.

Giving up restricted eating (which eventually lead to overeating), learning to eat the food that would satisfy you, and learning to eat when you’re hungry and stopping as soon as you’re full are important practices you can engage in as you learn to make peace with food and your body. Sounds simple, but I know these aren’t as easy as they sound for many people. Mindful eating helps you to give yourself permission to savor whatever food you want without guilt so that you can be fully satisfied after you eat. Through the process you learn that you can always have want you want so you don’t need to have more than you need in any one sitting.

Mindfulness teaches us to be present, in the moment, with full acceptance of “what is.” Training in mindful acceptance has been shown to reduce food cravings and the frequency of thoughts about food. Acceptance of our bodies, just as they are, without striving for some future goal helps us to pay more attention to the messages that we get from eating—both the pleasant and the unpleasant. Over the years of practicing mindful eating I have been amazed at the incredible pleasure I get from eating as well as the sometimes surprising messages the body gives me to literally spit food out that tastes bad. 

The cure for wanting to lose weight is to learn how to be present and happy with yourself right now. I can hear you groaning when you read this, but, hear me out. When you don’t like your body and you’re busy beating yourself up, it is very difficult to concentrate on how to take care of it. Alternatively, when you learn how to appreciate your body for the miracle that it is, right now, just as it is, that is when you will begin to treat it better. I hear various versions of this truth from people at the end of my ten week mindful eating class. One mother said, “I love this body of mine. It has birthed two beautiful children, survived two bouts of cancer, rebounded from hip surgery, and lets me experience my life with family and friends on a daily basis. It isn’t society’s ideal image of what I should look like, but it’s mine and I love it!”

 By the way, my friend who wanted to know my weight was engaged in the proverbial “wanting to lose ten pounds before an event.”  A month later she told me something like “Well, that was silly! Here I am working out more to be healthy and working on a wonderful project that requires I sit a lot during the day. There’s no need to focus on losing weight.”  She was happy again, focused on feeling strong and finding meaning. That, my friends, sounds like the key to happiness.

 If you want to know more about mindful eating, you can read my book The Mindfulness-Based Eating Solution and, for a deeper dive, take my ten-week live, online mindful eating class called Eat for Life. Read more about it here. Registration is open now for classes starting in September. If you eat and have a body you can benefit from mindful eating!

*Note: I do weigh at the doctor’s office (so they can keep their records) but I tell them not to tell me what it is. I probably have something written in my chart like “possible eating disorder” but I really don’t care. It’s my body and it’s my choice. After being traumatized at the doctor’s office when I had gained a lot of weight after stopping smoking, I decided it’s my business how I want to deal with the number on their scale.

**Note: Health is not just reducible to self-care. Please refer to Lucy Aphramor and her brilliant writings on health from a social justice viewpoint. “Health is understood as a function of our circumstances and histories: the dynamic sum of oppression, privilege, trauma, luck, access to clean water, green spaces, community and so on.” For more from Lucy, visit her website.