Having never weighed more than 120 pounds, I have gone through life frequently being complimented on my “fit” physique and “healthy” eating habits. Usually coming from people I barely know, people who certainly don’t know my eating or exercise habits, these comments reveal a deep misunderstanding of the relationship between weight and health status.
While it is a well-known fact that excess weight is associated with higher health risks, the two are not synonymous. Unfortunately, however, many Americans have come to consider them one and the same. While the concern about the health status of overweight Americans is entirely legitimate, as it is a public health issue, efforts to “improve” the situations of overweight Americans are extremely problematic.
Currently, losing weight is touted as one of the most effective means of improving health. As a result, incentives for practicing healthy habits, such as well-rounded diets and daily exercise, are shifting away from health itself and towards weight loss. And while this trend may not necessarily be bad, it has severe consequences for much of the population: namely, those for whom the desire to lose weight has become one driven by body image issues.
Unfortunately for us, Stanford seems to be especially prone to this. Our campus is filled with avid runners, who can be seen exercising at all hours and in all temperatures and weather conditions. In dining halls, we have the option of eating everything from salad topped with kale dressing to veggie-filled egg white omelets. And while for some these actions may very well be driven by the desire to improve health, odds are that they are in the minority.
Despite the fact that 95 percent of diets fail to successfully ensure weight loss, 91 percent of college women cite attempting to control their weight through dieting. Even among those who aren’t explicitly attempting to lose weight, fad diets are becoming increasingly popular. Across America, including at Stanford, many have taken to revamping their diets by ridding them of gluten, grains, processed foods, sugar, soy, etc. Unfortunately, however, despite the seemingly harmless nature of adopting healthier eating habits, these action can be very dangerous.
Eating disorder specialists have recently recognized a growth in orthorexia, a term that describes the obsession with or strict maintenance of a “healthy” diet. While orthorexia is not, strictly speaking, an eating disorder, because it alone doesn’t induce clinical health consequences, it poses an extremely high risk factor for developing an eating disorder. Fad diets are a major cause of orthorexia, and their popularity is growing. By promoting misinformation about what constitutes healthy eating, these fads rope people into the slippery slope that is dieting. The fact is that 35 percent of people who diet progress to pathological dieting. Among them, an additional 25 percent develop a full-blown eating disorder. Furthermore, for people who have struggled with eating disorders in the past, hearing about the perceived “healthiness” of food can be very triggering, and given the extremely high rate of relapse, these triggers are not trivial.
Stanford students and administration alike are guilty of conflating health with weight. Despite the fact that Stanford houses one of the most comprehensive eating disorder rehabilitation hospitals in the country, Stanford’s “BeWell” program regularly cites recommendations for weight loss, suggesting that weight loss automatically translates to better health. Although giving tips for avoiding weight gain may not seem problematic at first, it can have serious effects for those with body image or disordered eating.
Much of the confusion between health, eating habits and exercise is a byproduct of our society’s assumption that fatness can be equated to unhealthiness. Many Americans believe that weight is determined simply by the difference between calories consumed and expelled, and thus can be easily controlled. But this assumption is on par with claiming that poor people are poor simply because they don’t work as hard as their rich counterparts. The fact is that many overweight people are primarily overweight because of genetic predispositions. Thus, by accepting the idea that behaviors control weight, which then determines health, we are blaming an entire subsection of our population for something largely out of their control. It is beliefs such as these that contribute to the extreme fat discrimination that occurs in the US. Furthermore, seeing as low-income Americans are one of the populations most susceptible to obesity, fat discrimination is also closely tied to classism.
It is thus crucial that we work to diversify our definition of health. Rather than encouraging good eating and exercise habits for the sole purpose of losing weight, we should encourage those practices in order to improve future health. By doing so we can continue to use these tools to prevent the health consequences associated with obesity without exacerbating fat discrimination and eating disorders.
Contact Elena Marchetti-Bowick at elenamb ‘at’ stanford.edu.