Working with clients as an eating disorder therapist in the UK and Ireland, I am often faced with the statement, “but I need to lose weight for my health!” – it’s understandable that people might feel this way, as we live in a society that places a great deal of emphasis on weight and appearance. However, it’s important to challenge our perceptions of health and recognise that it is not solely determined by our weight. In this blog post, I will explore the concept of Health at Every Size (HAES) and discuss ways in which people in larger bodies can focus on their health without the sole purpose being weight loss.
First, let’s examine the definition of health from the perspective of a HAES advocate. According to the HAES approach, health is a state of physical, mental, and social well-being, not just the absence of disease. This means that true health encompasses much more than just our body size or weight. It includes factors such as emotional well-being, stress management, quality of sleep, and the strength of our relationships. By focusing solely on weight, we may be missing out on many other important aspects of health.
Adopting a health-centric approach
It’s important to acknowledge the difficulty in adopting this mindset due to weight stigma, especially within the medical field. Many healthcare professionals have been trained to view weight as a primary indicator of health. This can lead to biased treatment and inadequate care for those in larger bodies. This weight-centric approach can result in feelings of shame and guilt for individuals who are struggling with their weight, further exacerbating any existing physical or mental health issues.
I have lost count of how many times a client has gone to their GP on a completely unrelated medical issue and their weight be raised as a topic of conversation.
Given the stigma that exists, it’s completely understandable that those with larger bodies desire to lose weight. Having a fairly average body size myself, I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult it can be to be the target of incorrect assumptions or judgements based on size. Similarly, body acceptance movements may feel like they’re only for those whose weight and size are within a certain range.
Most of my clients with larger bodies find fostering a loving relationship with their bodies alien. They often prefer instead, to feel neutral towards their bodies and cultivate respect for them, regardless of their desire to lose weight.
So, how can we shift our focus from weight to overall health? Here are five ways in which people in larger bodies can prioritise their well-being without concentrating solely on weight loss:
1. Engage in joyful movement
Instead of focusing on exercise as a means to lose weight, find activities that you genuinely enjoy and that make you feel good. This could be anything from dancing, swimming, or hiking to practicing yoga or playing a sport. The goal is to move your body in ways that feel good and help you connect with yourself.
2. Prioritise mental health
Our emotional well-being plays a significant role in our overall health. Seek out therapy, engage in mindfulness practices, or join support groups to help manage stress, anxiety, or depression. Building a strong support system and fostering healthy relationships can also contribute to improved mental health.
An aspect of this is in increasing our awareness of our own internal critic. I often refer to this as ‘stinking thinking’ with my clients and explain how negative critical thoughts create intense emotions which can often lead to unhelpful behaviours like binge eating. If we can learn to catch, challenge and reframe our ‘stinking’ thoughts, it can support our overall wellbeing.
3. Focus on nourishment
Instead of adhering to restrictive diets, focus on providing your body with the nutrients it needs to thrive. Aim for a balanced diet that includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Remember that all foods can fit into a healthy eating pattern. It’s essential to enjoy the foods you love without guilt. Clients find the shift away from what they need to cut out of their diet, to what would be beneficial to ‘add-in’ has a positive change in their attitude towards food.
4. Prioritize sleep
Getting enough quality sleep is crucial for our overall health. Establish a consistent sleep schedule, create a relaxing bedtime routine, and ensure your sleep environment is comfortable and conducive to rest.
5. Manage stress
Chronic stress can have a significant impact on our physical and mental health. Incorporate stress-reduction techniques such as deep breathing exercises, meditation, or journaling into your daily routine. It’s also essential to set boundaries and prioritise self-care to prevent burnout.
It is important to understand the relationship that exists between weight and health. By focusing on these health-promoting behaviours, we can begin to shift our perspective from weight-centric to health-centric. This approach allows us to honour our bodies and prioritise our well-being, regardless of size. As a HAES advocate, I encourage everyone to challenge societal norms around weight and health and embrace a more holistic understanding of what it means to be truly healthy.
If you are looking for eating disorder help in the UK or Ireland, please get in touch to see how we can start your journey towards food freedom.