Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Janna Dean, Weight Doesn't Matter

 For several years (and many different scale weights) I've been seeking to heal myself of body image discrepancies. I have found a higher source in my friend and neighbor Janna Dean. Her thoughts are radically different from Yahoo's Front Page news sources on Losing Weight and Being Healthy. But in listening to her ideas I have come a long way. Janna will be writing monthly posts for me this year, we hope to help others who might have the same challenges. Enjoy! -C. Jane

“We have, in effect, an Eleventh Commandment.  We have come to believe thinner is healthier, happier, and more beautiful as though it were handed down on Mount Sinai.  But these are not divine truths—they are prejudices with a complex history.  They have led to a false religion that does not deliver what it promises.”
--Roberta Pollack Seid, Never Too Thin: Why Women Are at War with Their Bodies

This religion has a fervent (and large) community of believers that adheres to strict commandments and a moral code about food, exercise, and weight.   The strict adherence to these beliefs promises success, happiness, acceptance, and peace.  When the code is violated these believers are left with feelings of guilt for transgression, self-judgment, and shame.  Believers spend an enormous amount of time, money, and physical and emotional energy devoted to the code.  And if I express thoughts contrary to this Eleventh Commandment I am seen as a heretic. 

“The belief that thin people live healthier, [happier], and longer lives than heavy people is so deeply rooted in our culture and medical mind set that it is seldom questioned. . . . At the moment, ‘thinner is healthier’ is the popular gospel; anything else is heresy.”
--Glenn A. Gaesser, Big Fat Lies: The Truth About Your Weight and Your Health

Defensiveness, fear, shock and uncomfortable silence often follow my thoughts and beliefs when I speak or write about food, bodies, and weight.  Sometimes, well-intentioned individuals come to my rescue, “It’s not as if you’re saying weight doesn’t matter. . . You’re saying that you are loveable no matter what you weigh.”  Well, yes.  And NO.  I am saying that you are loveable and valuable no matter what you weigh.  I am also saying that WEIGHT DOESN’T MATTER.  There I said it.  Now I’m bracing myself for the onslaught. 

When discussing religion or politics, we can cling to our beliefs with such passion that the bearer of contrary ideas is received as an enemy.  New or contrary information is ignored because it can shake our foundation.  But if we have the courage to scrutinize this religion we will find that it is leading us down a path that is both physically and psychologically destructive.

Low body weight has become a symbol of good health, fitness, and self worth—but in actuality is a poor measurement of all three.  Nevertheless, we have spent many decades chasing after this substitute goal which, unfortunately, continues to be supported by medical doctors, dietitians, scientists, insurance companies, teachers, you name it.  “Thinner is healthier” and “obesity is dangerous” is embraced as common sense.  If we challenge those obvious “truths” we are seen as heretics. 

And while it may seem obvious that thinner is healthier, new (and old) research tells a different story if you are willing to listen.  Are you willing to listen?

Take the often used statistic that obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death (next to smoking) in the United States—responsible for “300,000 deaths annually.”  Since 1995, variations of this statistic have been cited at the Food and Drug Administration hearings, in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, the American Dietetic Association, and Newsweek

So where does that statistic come from exactly?  Most of you have heard it before, and if you haven’t, you’re sure to hear it in the future.  The cited source for the 300,000 deaths statistic comes from a paper published in 1993 entitled, “Actual Causes of Death in the United States” which asserts that the 300,000 deaths per year were related to “diet/activity patterns” (not obesity).   Sometimes, in some people, poor diet and exercise patterns lead to obesity.  It is generally assumed obesity is a direct result of poor diet and exercise.  It is, sometimes.  And sometimes, it’s not.  Studies of adopted versus natural children show that obesity is primarily inherited. 

So, like poor health, obesity can sometimes be the outcome of diet/activity patterns, but weight alone is not a determining factor for health.  Gaesser explains research indicates that men and women who are considered “overweight” or “obese” and exercise regularly are actually “physically fit and have lower all-cause death rates than thin men and women who do not exercise.” 

Did you know that chronic dieting can cause serious health problems?  Research indicates that weight loss does not necessarily improve health or lengthen life.  In fact, dieters, especially yo-yo dieters, have a risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes that is up to twice that of “overweight” people who remain fat. 

And the body mass index?  Do some research, find out where that originated and developed.  Does it make any sense to think that a height and weight calculation can give you an accurate understanding of your health?

Let’s leave the false religion and adopt the true science of dieting.  Weight is not a reliable indicator of health.  Nutrition and regular exercise are.  Thin people do not have a monopoly on health and fitness.  Bodies of all shapes and sizes can be fit and healthy.  The bottom line:  Forget weight loss and work on healthy eating and moderate exercise.  Body type is determined by genes.  But exercise and nutrition are determined by you. 

Suggested Readings:
-                      Big Fat Lies: The Truth About Your Weight and Your Health by Glenn A. Gaesser
-                      Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
-                      The Rules of “Normal” Eating: A Commonsense Approach for Dieters, Overeaters, Undereaters, Emotional Eaters, and Everyone in Between!  by Karen R. Koenig
-                      The Obesity Myth: Why America’s Obsession with Weight is Hazardous to Your Health by Paul Campos
-                      How to Get Your Kids to Eat. . .But Not Too Much—From Birth to Adolescence by Ellyn Satter
-                      Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight by Linda Bacon



Janna Dean LCSW is a practicing therapist specializing in treating eating disorders and other addictions. She is the mother of two four-year-olds, loves camping and making cookies for her neighbors. Her neighbors really appreciate it. Cause they are good cookies.