WHAT’S A HEALTHY BODY WEIGHT? IT’S NOT WHAT YOU THINK

The notion of a ‘healthy’ number for your body weight is misleading. Let’s break down what it’s comprised of, and how to establish a more sustainable perspective.


BY: RACHEL FINE, MS, RD, CSSD, CDN

“What’s a healthy body weight?”

Google this question and you’ll get countless answers, but odds are high that the keywords “BMI” or “Body Mass Index” are filling your screen. 

BMI represents the ratio of body weight to height.  Medical doctors and clinicians alike often use BMI as a marker for health. In other words, varying ranges define whether a body classifies as “underweight,” “normal weight,” “overweight,” or “obese.” According to this paradigm, using BMI as a tool to measure health follows a J-shaped curve where increased disease risk falls on both ends of the spectrum (underweight and obese).

Though it’s a common tool, BMI as a measure of one’s physical health is misleading and largely inaccurate. This is because BMI doesn’t take into account body composition.

What is body composition?

Body weight, as a measured number, encompasses a spectrum of components including the weights of:

  1. Muscle mass,
  2. Body fat,
  3. Bones,
  4. Organs, and
  5. Water

So when reading that number on the bathroom scale, you’re actually reading a number that represents multiple components (both controllable and uncontrollable) of body composition. And BMI does not factor the physical weights and physiological roles of each of these elements.

Let’s break it down further. Since we have no control over the weight of our bones and organs, we’ll focus on the three (somewhat) controllable constituents of body weight: muscle, fat, and water. Water is the body’s most basic medium needed for all biological reactions and makes up to 60% of the human body. You’ve heard it before, but let me repeat it: hydration is essential to health.

This leaves us to discuss the dynamic duo fueling diet culture: muscle and fat

Diet culture conditions us to believe that building muscle and losing fat are the most prominent goals for achieving health. In our fat-phobic culture, however, we forget about the important roles that fat upholds in the body.  

From hormonal regulation and reproduction to the health of our brain, bones, and even skin, body fat is a key player alongside muscle mass. Lastly, diet culture often ignores the simple fact that muscle weighs more than fat and when you engage in strength training activity (like dancing), your body weight is naturally higher.

Beyond muscle and fat, the biological and psychological costs of an energy deficit (such as that from dieting or over-exercising) are vast. Maintaining a body weight that is lower than your body’s natural set point weight fights basic biology and therefore, is unsustainable. 

Your set point weight is your body’s natural weight, which is controlled biologically and pre-determined genetically.  The theory states that when the body’s fat stores are reduced to a size below one’s individual set point, the body attempts to restore its fat reserves to normal volume. 

In other words, when you follow a restrictive mindset, your body fights back.

Despite all the restrictive habits you see in the dieting world, your body is wired to resist unrealistic and extreme weight loss. This was notably seen in contestants from The Biggest Loser, who proved the inability to maintain extreme weight loss long term.  That’s because despite an overabundant food supply, your body doesn’t know that food is (literally) available 24/7. Instead, you are equipped to survive famine, which is the biggest threat to your survival. 

Without measuring body weight, how can we objectively define health? For starters, focusing on changing body weight is not the answer.

A healthy body weight is one that can be maintained without constant dieting or without restricted food intake. A healthy body weight is a weight that can be accepted by you. After all, you are in charge of your body and therefore, you need to feel good in your body. When we allow cultural norms to define our individual ideal body shape or weight, we risk the weight (pun intended) of body dissatisfaction.

If you’re ready to tune out the years of restricted food intake, over-exercising, and self-imposed “rules”, and find a more inspired way to view food. 

Encourage a Balanced Lifestyle

The mental and emotional aspects of health should be prioritized alongside physical health. Rather than using food as a tool to control body weight, enjoy food as an experience. Remember, the number on the scale is obsolete given the varying weights of body composition. Achieving a specific body weight will not be the answer to the mystical world we so often label as “wellness.” 

Strengthen Body Self-Confidence

Internal validation (self-confidence) helps us access full expression within our art and daily lives. First, set aside body weight and focus on food freedom. Discover the psychological freedom of a non-restrictive lifestyle. Realize that the pros of maintaining a healthy (set point) weight outweigh the consequences of striving for a lower controlled weight.

Small Steps Lead to Big Changes

While we do live in a weight-obsessed culture, movements like HAES® are working to change the industry, which is unfortunately deep-rooted in body aesthetics. Encouraging people of all sizes to follow non-restrictive lifestyles that promote their health, no matter the number, is the goal. 

Most importantly, it’s important to emphasize that good nutrition and movement is a universal language that has room for all shapes, sizes, religions, ethnicities, and ages. Remember, “normal weight” doesn’t exist. 

It’s our job to rewrite the script.

Adapted from the original post.
HEADER IMAGE: SANGA PARK

Rachel Fine, MS, RD, CSSD, CDN is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Specialist in Sports Nutrition. Rachel is the founder of To The Pointe Nutrition, a New York based practice providing virtual services to national and international audiences. Rachel specializes in dancer health and dance nutrition, working with anyone looking to rebuild their relationship with food and body. Rachel is specifically trained in the areas of disordered eating, eating disorders, intuitive eating, and performance. Subscribe to Rachel’s weekly newsletter and check out Rachel’s online nutrition classes and blog to learn more about her work. 

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