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Health at Every Size: A body positive approach to wellness

  • People in larger bodies not only experience pressure for weight loss for health reasons, but they are also subject to social stigma.
  • Finding a more body positive approach might be the right step in your wellness journey.

Messages about how much we should weigh are everywhere – in our conversations, on social media and even in health care. Feeling pressure to lose weight or be a certain size can send you on unending and expensive quests for the perfect diet. If your body doesn’t respond as you want, you can become overwhelmed and frustrated.

Often we blame ourselves when a diet doesn’t work. It must be a lack of will power. However, most of today’s diets don’t work long term. Many people end up regaining the lost weight or gaining even more weight. So, we chose another diet and start over. There is some evidence that weight cycling (frequently losing and gaining weight) can lead to more health problems over time than staying at a stable but higher body weight. 

Chronic dieting can lead to harmful food patterns that interfere with metabolism and leave you feeling worse over time. Ultimately, dieting leads you away from trusting your own body and intuition.

Weight stigma

People in larger bodies not only experience pressure for weight loss for health reasons, but they are also subject to social stigma. We’ve read stories about the pretty bride who happily posted her wedding picture on Facebook only to be blasted by trolls who have decided it is they need to comment negatively on her weight. Or the high school kids who are bullied for being overweight. When these biases are internalized, they can create a toxic low sense of self-worth, eating disorders and other health problems.

These negative thoughts and experiences can be more harmful to health than being at a higher weight alone. Research has shown that experiencing weight stigma and internalized body shame makes it harder to practice healthy habits. It may make you less likely to see your doctor, eat a balanced diet, exercise or go to social events. It can lead to depression, anxiety and make you feel like even small changes aren’t “worth it.”

Culturally, we all need to change this pattern. Thankfully, many are embracing a more body positive approach to health.

Health at Every Size

Health at Every Size (HAES) is a philosophy that aims to break the stigma and shame around weight and embrace a more whole-person definition of health.

Bodies come in all shapes and sizes and all states of health. Even if you’re not at a weight or health state that feels right for you, a HAES approach can help you take steps toward feeling better by focusing on everyday strategies that give your body what it needs to stay in balance. Health is so much more than a number on a scale. It is influenced by stress levels, sleep, early life experiences, nutrition, genetics, economic and social status and more.

HAES encourages people to look for ways to care for their bodies at whatever state of health they are in today, regardless of whether it causes a change in weight, with the greater goal of supporting whole-person well-being. 

HAES studies show that a weight-neutral approach to wellness improves health measures like blood pressure, lipids, mood and self-esteem — even if weight does not change.

Five ways to practice body positivity

Finding a more body positive approach and asking your providers to support you in a weight-neutral way might be the right next approach in your wellness journey. The following five steps can help:

  1. Take inventory of your self-talk. It’s hard to take care of something you hate or berate, especially yourself. Practice saying kind and encouraging words out loud every day to yourself, even when it feels silly. Show compassion and kindness toward the body you are in today to help transform the choices you make. Celebrate what makes you, you!
  2. Practice identifying weight stigma and diet culture for what it is. Ongoing biased messages about weight take a toll. Swap old dieting blogs for body positive ones on your social media. Shift conversations away from food and body judgment. Call out “diet culture” when you see it to help separate the cultural messages from who you are and your own health needs. Honor your inner wisdom about what messages are healing or harmful.
  3. Rebuild body trust. Reconnect with your internal sense of hunger and fullness. Find a variety of foods that nourish you and help you to truly feel satisfied and well. Explore cravings in a curious and deeper way. Build mindfulness skills around mealtimes to help you stay attuned.
  4. Create sustainable habits. Find ways to move your body that bring you joy and not to make up for foods you’ve eaten. Ditch the scale, the calculator and other external measures and identify measures of your health that have nothing to do with weight. Set goals around daily habits that you can realistically achieve today.
  5. Challenge all or nothing thinking. Practice embracing self-acceptance and compassion. It won’t happen overnight. Intuitive eating isn’t another diet, but a path toward listening more closely to your inner needs. Allow room for mistakes, and if you find yourself in old habits, remember step No. 1 and look for the next opportunity to reroute toward self-care.

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