I’ve been ruminating on what to write regarding food and weight as we move forward into this very restful season. It’s tough because food can be a thorny topic for a lot of people, and with good reason. There’s been warfare waged against self-love and self-care in relation to food for decades. Food is an emotionally charged topic, and can even be a spiritually charged topic in some circles. And you might think that as an herbalist, I would be dogmatic about food. You might think I’m a vegan or vegetarian or all about strictly organic. I’m none of those things. My take on food? Fed is best. Fed is best. Always.
I thought I might get into some of my own experiences with food in this post, but I realized that’s not what I want to do today. What I want to do today is address the near constant predatory messages and misinformation about weight and health, which will increase this season as it does every year. My hope is that you’ll keep this information in mind as you enjoy your holidays and beyond, and that if you’re someone especially prone to the propaganda and stigmatization around weight, you’ll feel both edified and encouraged by this post.
BMI is Bullshit
First let’s talk about BMI. The body mass index (BMI) is not a valuable measuring stick for health. In your lifetime, you may possibly lose a few points on your BMI (which is almost impossible to do) if you lose weight, but the BMI scale is arbitrary so it’s really not worth considering at all. It doesn’t have a bearing on health.
The studies around BMI that support this index only measure correlation, not causation, when it comes to health issues. These studies aren’t controlled for cardiovascular health, smoking, insulin resistance, or weight cycling. If BMI were truly the cause of a greater mortality rate, then the only way to reduce risk would be by losing weight. But studies show dieting, and losing weight alone do not have a positive impact on health.
The concept of BMI is also emotionally damaging to many people. A person may feel good in their body and show healthfulness in their blood tests, yet be told they are obese, and therefore unhealthy, because they don’t hit the right BMI number. This is damaging on multiple levels. One, it can lead to a person into dieting (which is unhealthy), and it can leads to an increase in body image and self-esteem issues (also unhealthy).
BMI studies With Cofounding Factors
However, in studies that are controlled for the aforementioned issues, in folks who on the BMI scale are considered “overweight” or “obese,” half were actually metabolically fit. That means no insulin resistance. No cardiac issues or respiratory issues. Good HDL and triglyceride levels. For half of the participants. That’s significant. The main factor ]in determining their metabolic fitness was moderate physical activity. Those who are moderately physically active are healthier even if the BMI would call them overweight or obese.
And this is actually true regardless of weight or where you fall on the BMI scale. Those who are thin but live sedentary lifestyles are also at a higher risk of cardiovascular issues and insulin resistance, and tend to be less healthy than those who are moderately active. Getting moving for the sake of moving, rather than for weight loss, will do the most for your health. Metabolic fitness, no matter your size, is what has been shown to determine a lower all-cause mortality rate.
If you need further proof of the arbitrariness of the BMI index, in June of 1998, what was considered overweight on the BMI changed overnight. 30 million people went to bed at the “optimal weight” and woke overweight.
Weight Cycling Effects on Metabolism and Overall Health
Weight cycling is a very common phenomenon in our culture. It’s when a person goes on a diet, restricting their calories, and exercises more. They may lose a lot of weight quickly, but because calorie restriction like this is unsustainable, they gain their weight back over time. The thing is, when you restrict your calories like this, you are essentially telling your body that there is a famine. Famine is trauma, and it damages the metabolism by forcing the body to adapt.
Folks who engage in weight cycling usually end up with a greater net gain of weight, an aggravated appetite (constant gnawing hunger), lower long-term basal metabolic rate (that means they burn less calories at rest than someone who doesn’t have metabolic trauma), and a whole host of mental and emotional damage like low self-esteem and guilt. Not only that, but weight cycling increases cardiovascular risk and overall mortality rate.
It’s one of the most damaging things we can do to ourselves. There’s nothing healthy about dieting. Ancel Keys (who is responsible for the BMI) conducted the Minnesota Starvation Study on behalf of the government to find out how long soldiers can go without food. They restricted the soldiers’ diets to 1570 calories a day for over three months. All the soldiers lost weight, and they also became depressed, irritable, constantly hungry, obsessed about food, had lower sex drive, fatigue. After the study ended, participants were still experiencing greater hunger, and obsession with food.
While this study gave many insights into eating disorders and treating them, it also hopefully sheds some light on how unethical it is for anyone to encourage you to eat a calorie restricted diet. People today are being encouraged by “fitness coaches” to adhere to diets restricted to even less calories per day than soldiers were on in the starvation test.
Now Let’s Talk about Physical Fitness
I admit it, I’m an absolute sucker for Jane Austen era jaunts around the room or a walk through the garden. I hate running. I don’t like to feel like I’m “pushing myself.” I like to be tricked into fitness with fun games and imagination. So I was delighted to learn that science backs up moderate exercise for healthfulness. A 30 minute walk a day is enough. Break that up into 10-15 minute sessions and it’s even better. Let me grab my parasol and pretend I’m Emma, matchmaking the squirrels in the yard. I can do that.
And you may have other goals. Maybe you want to get some cardio in while also working lots of muscle groups for strength and flexibility (I have a pilates video for this. It’s 20 minutes of resistant stretching where I’m tricking myself into getting cardio while also working many muscle groups in a pretty slow pace). But overdoing any exercise can lead to exercise burnout be damaging to your body. There’s no benefit to over-exercising.
If you go from being sedentary to moderately active, you will likely see a small decrease in appetite and therefore less caloric intake. But if you’re moderately active and increase your exercise, you’re going to be hungrier. The reason you’re going to be hungrier is because your body needs more calories in proportion to what you’ve burned off. You’re hungrier because your body needs the fuel for energy. This is normal.
Prioritize Your Health by Loving Yourself
There will always be messages encouraging you to lose weight because that is the culture we live in. There is almost always some form of judgment or shaming around food and physique to contend with, whether from within our own minds, the media we engage with, or the people around us. There are folks who will encourage you to enter into the unhealthful practice of calorie restriction. There will be folks who tell you you shouldn’t eat this, or you shouldn’t eat that. There will be folks who are just plain mean because of their own biases and prejudices regarding weight.
So I ask you to be aware of what you’re feeding your mind and your heart this season, because it matters. Endeavor to love yourself and your body right now, and to give yourself and others compassion and kindness. Food is love. It’s one way we love our bodies, and it can be a great source of joy to our spirits as well. Step away from people who make you feel badly about yourself. Mute the TV commercials. Listen instead to your body and recognize it for the marvel it is. This body is your real home, and it is constantly doing its best to take care of you. Consider your real motivations when it comes to how you approach food and fitness when you feel tempted to buy into the hype.
Measure your health by how you feel and how you function, not by a scale or societal pressure. Your triglycerides, HDL, blood glucose level, and blood pressure are some of the markers of how your body is doing and where you made need support. How you feel is a marker of how you’re doing (example: if you’re in pain, or constantly fatigued, or conversely if you’re energized and pain free). Check in with your emotions, the quality of your relationships, as well, and if you’re doing things that bring you joy.
There are many contributing factors to health. Don’t buy into the hype that you need to be a particular weight or a particular size in order to be healthy or beautiful. You’re always beautiful. Healthiness is not one size, and size does not equal healthiness.
Jessica Jascha is a Clinical Herbalist, Intuitive Consultant and writer in Minnesota.
The information provided in this digital content is not medical advice, nor should it be taken or applied as a replacement for medical advice. Jessica Jascha, the Jascha Botanicals, and their employees, guests, and affiliates assume no liability for the application of the information discussed.