Before I review the book, let me tell you what “Health at Every Size” means to me in the context of my own lifestyle journey. I think this phrase, “Health at Every Size” (HAES) can bring up some very conflicting feelings for people. Some people hear this and think it’s an “excuse to be fat,” since, you know, we’re all looking for one of those since it’s so fun to be fat in our society. This is not what it means. To me it means focusing on health instead of size. It does not mean laying down on the couch and eating Cheetos until you’re 800 pounds. That is not health. But it also means that if you are 800 pounds, there’s more benefit to be found in choosing to focus on living a healthier lifestyle than to focus on weight. Focusing on that lifestyle may very well lead to weight loss for some people, but it will lead to better health even if you are thin or already happy at whatever size you are.
It may seem odd for someone whose claim to fame was losing over 100 pounds to be espousing these ideas, but I found my lifestyle journey did not end when I finished losing weight. I didn’t want to fall into the trap I saw so many other successful weight-losers falling into, the trap of a miserable relationship with food and weight. The book I am about to review spoke to me very deeply at a time where I have recently changed my own outlook on the whole journey by shifting it away from weight. This passage, among many others, spoke to me directly:
“While lifestyle change is valuable, it is rarely maintained when driven by weight loss goals. Tricks to minimize hunger may result in short term success but are ultimately challenged by long term weight regulation mechanisms. And while certain habits may result in weight loss for some individuals, there are no guarantees. Failed attempts at losing weight make people feel like failures and even those who succeed feel a never-ending pressure to retain that success that will always limit their ability to feel comfortable around food and in their bodies. By putting an emphasis on weight, we also limit our ability to support thin people in adopting healthy behaviors.”
I see this so much when I venture onto weight maintenance boards. So much self-dissatisfaction, fear, and anxiety surrounding the possibility of weight regain. I didn’t want to be like that. I want to live my life in a healthy manner, but also feel comfortable with myself and allow myself the flexibility to settle into my own comfort zone. I’m not planning to spend my life at war with my body.
HAES doesn’t mean that everyone is healthy at the weight they are. I wasn’t. I was almost 300 pounds for some very simple lifestyle-choice related reasons. My weight loss journey showed me where I erred. Perhaps I could have approached this from a less weight-driven perspective if I had any inkling such a movement existed. But I did not find out about HAES until long after I had lost 120 pounds. I now believe that much of the reason I gained so much weight over my natural body size was because of my history of dieting. I would like to help others skip this fate of yo-yo dieting your way up heavier and heavier. I think this book can help people understand why maybe dieting isn’t the answer the way we are led to believe it is.
I started out wanting to lose weight. I lost weight. I have since gained back a portion of the weight I lost. I’ve been a lot heavier than I am now and I’ve been a little thinner. I prefer myself as I am today, hips and all. I don’t weigh myself anymore and don’t plan to any time soon. I trust myself that my body will be the “right” size for me as long as I make the choices that are healthy for my life. I may not be the right size for you or society or the BMI chart, but that’s okay, I only aim to satisfy myself.
I’m not sure whether I could consider myself part of the HAES movement or not. I’ve ventured onto some forums and lurked around a little and I’m not sure people would be supportive of me as a person who feels my weight loss journey was valuable and who did have weight-related goals I met and have maintained for the most part. I understand the reason such things are looked upon with derision by the fat-acceptance movement. I’m not sure I belong there. I’m just me, I guess. I have a unique story and viewpoint. And I have my own community, so it’s all good.
Whether you feel like you want to be a part of this movement or not, the book is great and will help you to look at things in a new light. It will challenge your preconceived notions about weight and health.
“The science of weight regulation directly contradicts cultural assumptions as well as those promoted by the ‘experts.’”
Weight and health are not as tied together as we are led to believe, according to Linda Bacon. In Health at Every Size, she makes a compelling case that the “obesity crisis” is a manufactured fear that misplaces our concern for health problems by focusing it solely on body size. She points to several studies and scientific findings that support this claim.
Next, she shows why dieting doesn’t work to reduce and maintain weight in the long run. As we are all aware, the long term success rates for all diet plans are dismal. This doesn’t mean there aren’t people who do successfully lose and maintain the lower weight, it just means they are very rare. A history of dieting is one of the greatest predictors of obesity, ironically. Yet we continue to place our hopes and dreams in the diet basket. Here are some of the concerning effects of dieting:
- Slows the rate at which your body burns calories.
- Increases your body’s efficiency at wringing every possible calorie out of the food you do eat so you digest food faster and get hungrier quicker.
- Causes you to crave high-fat foods.
- Increases your appetite.
- Reduces your energy levels (so even if you could burn more calories through physical activities, you don’t want to.)
- Lowers your body temperature so you’re using less energy (and are always cold.)
- Reduces your ability to feel “hungry” and “full,” making it easier to confuse hunger with emotional needs.
- Reduces your total amount of muscle tissue (and you may know that a pound of muscle burns more calories than a pound of fat.)
- Increases fat-storage enzymes and decreases fat-release enzymes.”
I think most of us who have dieted can relate to several of the items on this list. I know I can.
Next, she talks about some of the outside forces that over-ride our natural hunger and fullness signals and may lead to the accumulation of excess weight:
“By creating a system that maintains a cheap and plentiful supply of corn and soybeans, among other products, government policy has inadvertently favored the production of foods that promote weight gain and damage health.”
“Food companies have a vested interest in getting us to ignore our body signals. Thea more we eat the more product they sell, and the more money they can make. If we stop eating when we are full, it is bad for business!”
“If you think I’m angry that the corporations and government agencies have co-opted the production and distribution of food at the expense and well-being, you’re right. I value the sensation of hunger as a sign of the body’s wisdom, not as a commercial asset to be manipulated for market share. I value food as nourishment, not as a unit of sales. I value our bodies as gifts of life, not as product-consumption devices.”
I love that last bit. I’m angry too! Let’s all get angry and do something about this!
That is what I liked most about this book. It reinforces the conclusions I came to myself through my own experience and points to some research and studies to back them up, always helpful when trying to make a point that goes against what most people believe about health and weight.
“Many people are concerned that if they accept their bodies they may become complacent and remain “stuck” forever with a body they’ve grown to loathe. They believe that hating their body is an essential motivation for change so they resist letting go of that self-hatred.”
That is one of the most difficult barriers to body love, the fear that hate is the only impetus to change. I, and many others, have found that the exact opposite is true. Hate is a very poor motivator in the long run. Love and respect are boundless. Accepting your body doesn’t preclude living a healthy lifestyle; it enhances your chances to stick with it long term.
The concluding message of the book is pretty much exactly what I’ve been saying for years. I think most people could find something of benefit to them in this book, and for some people it could be life changing. This is the last health/eating/weight book I plan to read any time in the near future. I do trust myself. It’s the best feeling in the world.
“Free yourself from the limiting cultural biases around eating and weight and challenge them in others. Let go of the rules, the judgments, the “expert” advice. Trust that you know best how to take care of yourself. Respect your hunger and appetite, and let them guide you to better health and fulfillment. Expand that openness to others and celebrate the diversity that makes us human.”