Health and Happiness At Any Size

In the diet culture that we live in, we’ve internalized the message that to be thin is to be ideal. Thinness has not only become associated with beauty but also with health and fitness. We are continually told that thinness will bring us happiness, heath, and love.

Health at Every Size ®(HAES) is set of principles and beliefs, backed by scientific research, which challenge the notion that health equals thinness. Instead, HAES changes the focus from weight loss to well being. HAES teaches us that weight regulation is much more complicated than what we’ve learned through diet culture (ie: we can’t sustainably lose weight by tracking calories in and calories out).  Diet culture tells us that we can change our weight and body shape through discipline (ie: disordered eating) and yet scientific research shows that intentional weight loss is not sustainable. Our bodies all have a natural healthy weight (a set point range) that it will try to maintain and which is out of our control.

Instead of pursuing weight loss or trying to change the size or shape of our bodies, HAES focuses on compassionate self care and the pursuit of health and well-being for all bodies.

In addition to challenging the notion that we are in complete control of the size of our bodies, HAES also sheds light on the fact that fitness does not equal thinness and that fatness and fitness can co-exist. Both fit and unfit bodies come in a variety of shapes and sizes and we cannot determine someone’s fitness level or health status based on the appearance of their bodies (despite what diet culture tells us!). Additionally weight-loss is not mandatory to care for our bodies and everyone can experience health benefits through healthy sustainable behaviors such as intuitive eating, movement, and other lifestyle changes, regardless of whether or not they lose weight.

HAES also challenges the weight bias and stigma that people in larger bodies experience in our culture. HAES argues that the “war on obesity” and our cultural obsession with weight loss has resulted in weight stigma which is just as pervasive as other types of oppression such as racism and sexism and that stress from the experience of stigma manifests in our bodies physiologically. In fact, scientific research shows that diseases which are often blamed on weight are more closely associated with stress from weight cycling (due to dieting) and weight stigma than the weight itself. Additionally having a lower weight does not necessarily ensure better health outcomes. Research show that people who are “overweight” or “moderately obese” live as long or longer than those who are “normal weight”. Fitness is a more important indicator of mortality than weight. You can be “overweight” and healthy and you can also be thin and unhealthy. Additionally, the pursuit of happiness, love, and purpose in life is achievable at any size.

As a side note, the largest study on longevity, conducted by Harvard University, shows that the biggest predictor of longevity is social relationships, not weight, nutrition, or fitness.

For many of us HAES is a difficult concept to wrap our minds around. It’s counter cultural and goes against many of the beliefs that we’ve internalized through diet culture. It is a normal reaction to feel outraged, angry or disappointed when we first learn about HAES. We want to believe that we have control over our bodies, that if only we worked harder or controlled our eating more we can have the body that we want and that this will bring us the life that we want (ie: health and happiness). To be told otherwise can stir up a lot of emotions. Depending on where you are in our journey with reclaiming your relationship with food and your body, you may not be ready yet to take in this information yet.  That’s okay. This may be a sign that you need to do more personal work.

But, for those further along in their journey, learning about HAES can feel incredibly freeing. After spending many years trying to change your body or lose weight, it can be liberating to know that there is another way out. To know that you are not a failure and you don’t lack self discipline can be freeing. To know that there is scientific research to show that intentional weight loss fails 95% of time within 2-5 years and to know it’s not your fault that you cannot control your weight can be freeing. To know that restrictive rules and weight loss is not the answer to the life that you want can be freeing. And finally, to know that thinness is not a prerequisite for health and that you can pursue health in any body size can be freeing. Pursuing a life path based on compassionate self care rather than disordered eating might feel scary. This makes sense. It’s likely a fundamentally different way of living your life. However, the freedom that this type of life offers can truly lead to an existence full of more happiness and joy. If you need help to find your way along this path, I encourage you to reach out for counselling.

I’m a registered clinical counsellor in Vancouver, BC and I offer eating disorder counselling and intuitive eating coaching to help people reclaim their relationship with food and their body.

Lorilee Keller