Can you gauge the health status of a person just by looking at, weighing, or measuring him or her? Based on a growing body of scientific evidence, the answer is no.
Do you think it’s possible to be thin and unhealthy? How about fat and fit? According to accumulating research, the answer to both of these questions is yes.
Pause a moment and think back to the last time you were in a crowded area—perhaps it was at a shopping mall, a ball game, or a concert—and picture the people you saw there. They didn’t all look like George Clooney or Angelina Jolie. In the human population, there exists a wonderfully wide array of body shapes, sizes and weights: Some people are naturally thinner, some are naturally heavier, and others fall somewhere in between. If you could review their medical records, you would find that some are healthy and some are unhealthy—in all weight and fatness categories. Weight status does not necessarily correspond to health status.
Here’s what the science says:
- Obesity is linked to increased risk for many diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, but scientists don’t know if obesity causes this increased risk. Other factors such as fitness, activity and nutrient intake may be the disease-drivers.
- Neither body mass index (BMI) nor amount of body fat predicts susceptibility to death. Most population-based studies show that people who are overweight or moderately obese live as long as those with “normal” BMIs—or even longer.
- Contrary to popular belief, a person’s weight does not determine their health. Even so, weight loss and weighing less is usually seen as desirable and “healthy” in our society. However, a focus on weight and weight loss can cause harm:
- Most studies show that when obese people lose weight, their risk of death increases, even when weight loss is intentional.
A focus on body weight contributes to a negative body image, food preoccupation, weight cycling (which can lead to health problems such as increased cholesterol, blood pressure and inflammation), reduced self-esteem, eating disorders, depression, and weight stigmatization and discrimination.
The bottom line: Weight is not predictive of health, except at statistical extremes. In terms of health, body weight should not be the focus. Wellbeing and fitness—improvements in health behaviors—is what’s important, regardless of weight.
So, if weight loss and weighing less is not the answer, what is? Studies show that improving health behaviors such as diet quality (enjoying a variety of nutrient-rich foods; eating fewer processed foods) and engaging in regular physical activity, can significantly improve health by increasing insulin sensitivity and decreasing blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, and stress—for people of all sizes.
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