Reflections on Weight vs. Health
I recently saw an interview with James Corden on CBS Mornings, talking in large part about his progress with WW (aka Weight Watchers). And it got me thinking yet again about weight vs. health.
One interesting point is that even though the YouTube video title mentions that Corden lost 28 pounds in the last year, it’s not something he seemed super focused on. Gayle King was the one who pointed it out, while Corden said he was focused on being healthier and having more energy.
It reminded me how our society still equates health with thinness. Even though Weight Watchers rebranded and said their focus is now on wellness, their website continues to be all about weight loss. And while Corden may be enjoying greater energy, it’s clear that his weight loss is the focus for many people.
Seeing the video dovetailed with me reading some old journal entries from 2003, when I was nearing the end of losing weight, and I was reminded of the impact weight loss had on my health – which wasn’t entirely positive.
So, I thought I’d share some of my own experiences, with the understanding that everyone’s journey is different and what happened with me won’t happen with everyone.
What does “health” mean?
According to Merriam-Webster, health is:
1. the condition of being well or free from disease
2. the overall condition of someone’s body or mind
The second definition particularly caught my attention because mental wellbeing never seemed to be a consideration when I went to Weight Watchers, and I’m not sure it’s different now.
Plus, on a general societal level, historically most people haven’t seemed concerned about the mental and emotional distress of those in larger bodies who tried endless diets in an attempt to slim down. The goal was losing weight, no matter the cost.
Even the physical damage people could inflict on themselves in the name of becoming thin was glossed over. For example, when I was young, I don’t recall hearing much about the dangers of anorexia or bulimia.
The one specific health concern I remember hearing about in my family was diabetes, and that was because my mom had seen her grandmother suffer from it. Of course, no one talked about the fact that my dad’s father, who wasn’t heavy, was the one person I knew with Type 2 diabetes. (Later, a family friend also developed Type 2 diabetes, and he, too, wasn’t heavy.)
None of that seemed to matter. Thin still meant being healthy to most people.
Weight loss and unintended consequences
On top of that, I don’t remember anyone ever telling me about the possible negative effects I might experience from weight loss. Admittedly, many people who are trying to lose weight don’t end up losing 135 pounds as I did, so much of what I experienced was probably somewhat unique to my situation.
Still, I found it bitterly ironic that when I lost the final 25 or pounds, I started having a variety of health problems that had never come up when I was heavier:
Chronic poor sleep
Hormone imbalance, which ultimately led to low bone density, even to the point of osteoporosis, from which I’m still recovering (but I am recovering)
Sporadic swollen fingers, which no one could adequately explain or help with
Knee problems, which persist to this day
Admittedly, I probably have some genetic predisposition for knee problems, but it was still so odd to have that come up after losing weight. But as the physical therapist pointed out, when you lose that much weight, you also lose muscle mass, for the simple reason that you’re not carrying as much weight around every day. And losing weight changed how I stood and walked and sat, all of which impacted my knees.
As for the hormone problem, the working theory is that even though I lost weight slowly, it was a shock to my body and scrambled a lot of things. That included elevating my cortisol levels, and managing that was key to helping my bone density.
I should also point out that I did have a lot more energy after losing weight, and I could do physical things much more easily, so I certainly had some positive outcomes. But these other issues were demoralizing since I never expected anything bad to come from weight loss – that’s not how our society spins it.
Is there a “right” weight?
This also makes me wonder if there’s such a thing as a “right” weight, like the ones on BMI charts, or if it depends on the person and their circumstances.
In my case, I’m about 25 pounds heavier than I was at my lowest (now 18 years ago), which puts me in the overweight category according to BMI charts. That gain has come about for a variety of reasons, including the broken ankle bone last summer.
But I have to say, I’m not terribly stressed about it. I’d like to be a little smaller so I can wear certain clothes again, but that’s about it. My blood pressure is fine, I don’t have diabetes, I don’t have any heart issues that I know of, my hormones are okay now, I sleep reasonably well, I have decent energy, and the swollen finger situation cleared up several years ago as mysteriously as it came about. And now that I’ve filled out a bit again, most of my loose skin isn’t loose anymore.
I also think about the fact that this is about what I weighed when I was thirteen, and what I weighed in mid-2002 before my hormones started going haywire. It makes me wonder if in some way this is what my body considers “right” for me.
photo of me from mid-2002
And from a mental health perspective, I don’t worry about food or my size like I used to. I’m not constantly judging myself, feeling good or bad because of food choices, and that’s a huge bonus for overall health.
Weight is far from the only factor
All of this leads me back to the fact that, in my mind, health isn’t about numbers on a scale or BMI charts. It’s about all aspects of your health, physical and mental, and having the energy to do what you want.
And if you want to lose weight to be more healthy, it’s much better to keep the focus on your health. Doing so will help you choose behaviors that will contribute to your health, which means you’re more likely to achieve your goals, whether or not you also lose weight in the process.