“My body would be perfect if I could just lose these last few kilos…”
“I wish my arms were just a little less flabby…”
“My legs could do with some toning…”
If you’ve uttered or thought these things at any time in your life, welcome to the club of millions of women who struggle with body image. Every. Single. Day.
But what if maybe, just maybe, your body is simply not meant to lose those last five kilos? What if your body is happier being five kilograms heavier? What if it was built into your DNA?
The diets aren’t alright
Your genetics play a big role in your body mass index, explains South African nutritionist, Annelie Smith. In fact, “It is fascinating to know that 50 to 80 per cent of weight problems can be due to genetics and actually just a small percentage about environment. So expecting everyone to be the same BMI is not accurate or even plausible.”
In fact, to take it a step further, the science (and irony) of genetics means that you could be in peak health even if you feel you’re chubby or overweight. Muscle weighs much more than fat and other tissue like bones, and connective tissue also weigh more.
This is one of the basic tenets of the Healthy At Every Size movement, which preaches acceptance of diversity in body size and shapes. “People think they can tell who is fit and who’s not simply by looking at them,” writes author, Linda Bacon in Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth about Your Weight.
“But in fact, it’s trickier than that. Lots of people are fat and fit; many dancers, runners, lifters, and sports team members are big to start with and stay that way. They tend to be far healthier than thin people who don’t move around much or don’t eat a nutritious mix of foods. Saying that everybody needs to be the same weight is like saying all people should be the same height.”
Scientists and researchers call it “set-point” weight. The theory goes that weight, just like your height, skin colour and body type is already predetermined by genetics. Your weight is controlled by the part of the brain called the hypothalamus. Think of this as a control unit which regulates when you feel hungry and full. It also has the very important job of keeping you as close to your set-point weight as possible.
Now this is where it gets interesting. Your last diet? Your hypothalamus immediately went on red alert. As soon as the kilos started coming off, this little control unit registered a problem, and tried to do whatever it could to get you back to set-point weight. In her book, Bacon explains the process. “The hypothalamus will release hormones to increase your appetite. It will slow down your metabolism, so you don’t lose weight quickly. It will even make you lethargic, or sluggish, and less likely to exercise. Dieting can backfire by resetting your set-point weight at a higher level, to protect your body against the sudden changes of future diets. No-one who diets is fit. Because dieting hurts your metabolism, and your metabolism determines how your body uses energy.”
Which bring us to where we are now. The diets simply do not work. Consistent on and off dieters, says a study by the universities of Exeter and Bristol, gain more weight in the long run because the brain interprets the diets as periods of famine and simply urges the body to hoard more fat for potential future shortages. Even more frightening: a 2016 study presented to the American Heart Association showed the link between yo-yo dieting and how this upped the risk for coronary heart disease and sudden cardiac disease in post-menopausal women.
Fit and fat
Fat has been demonised, writes cardiologist Dr Carl Lavie in The Obesity Paradox. “Our research shows that fat is not always the devil. You can be heavy and amazingly healthy. Fitness is a lot more important than fatness.”
Enter the Healthy at Every Size (HAES) movement. The official site has over 10,000 signed pledges on Haescommunity.com as women profess to uphold the principles of the movement; respect (celebrating body diversity and honouring differences in size); critical awareness (challenges scientific and cultural assumptions and values body knowledge and people’s lived experiences); and compassionate self-care (finding the joy in moving one’s body and being physically active).
One of the literal living embodiments of the movement is Jessamyn Stanley, an American yoga teacher who teaches body positivity. Her Instagram page has over 200,000 followers who appreciate what she stands for: body inclusivity. Jessamyn is not skinny. She is not your typical yoga devotee, all long and lean lines. Her body is all curves and softness, but that doesn’t stop her from flexing with the best of them. “When I was [first] photographing myself, I would look at the pictures and think, oh, my belly is there and it’s fat,” she says. “But over time, I realized that I’m really strong to be able to hold these poses. My belly is there, and I’m still strong. There’s a major disconnect in our society between what people can do and what we show people that they can do.”
Jessamyn Stanley is a US-based yoga teacher who promotes fitness and body positivity.
Against this backdrop of body positivity, more inspirations are coming to the fore. Last year model Ashley Graham, all size 16 of her, featured as the cover model on Sports Illustrated. In an interview on The Ellen Show, she commented. “We’re telling women that they’re plus-size. Instead we should encourage women to be healthy at every size, as long as they’re getting off the couch and moving their body.”
For that matter, forget the BMI babble. According to the World Health Organization, a BMI of between 18.5 and 24.9 is the ideal score. Anything beyond that is overweight – and further down the line – obese. But fitness and medical experts agree that this is just not realistic. BMI cannot be observed in isolation, says South African dietician, Lee-Anne McHarry. “Centimetres, fat percentage and weight-for-age, height-for-age and weight-for-height in children need to be considered too.”
Take a rugby player for instance. As McHarry says, “People don’t have ‘heavy’ bones but may be taller or bigger built, but if they are fit, they have very little fat mass compared to true muscle mass.”
The person who should really be credited for the movement on the fat/fit topic, however, is epidemiologist, Katherine Flegal from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With her research team, Flegal delved into hundreds of mortality studies that included data on BMI.
Model Ashley Graham says we should stop calling women plus-size and instead encourage them to be healthy at every size through nutrition and active lifestyles.
What they found time and again was that the lowest mortality rates amongst people were those in the overweight to mildly obese categories.
Where your fat is located is also an indicator of your risk for disease, points out Dr Lavie. Abdominal fat raises the risk for disease, but fat carried on hips, thighs, and upper arms doesn’t carry the same risks and may actually fight cardiovascular disease. Hearteningly, researchers at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana have now created an index that takes body shape into account when assessing a person’s health. The Body Roundness Calculator uses hip and waist measurements as well as weight and height. “Body shape may be a better way of judging health,” agrees Smith. “Remember that muscle weighs much more than fat!”
What everyone unanimously agrees on is that a healthy lifestyle is the best tool in the fight against disease and illness. As a professor of exercise science, Steven Blair from the University of South Carolina is one the leading experts on the benefits of exercise amongst the overweight. One of their recent studies tracked over 2,500 people aged 60 and older over a 12-year period and found that fit overweight people outlive unfit normal-weight people. “Fitness is achievable and may do more to improve health than simply losing weight,” says Dr Blair. But, as Dr Lavie points out, it is also possible to do too much exercise – he explains that blood tests on people who’ve just run a marathon reveal substances correlated with heart failure. “The point is that fat is not always bad, and exercise is not always good. You want to find the sweet spot for both.”
Photos by istock/shutterstock