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Can You Be Healthy at Every Size?

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Linda Bacon, Ph.D., who brought the concept to the mainstream, says you can be (with some caveats). I first read about it years ago, and as my work has progressed I have become more and more interested and dedicated to working with this concept.

The premise sounds, well, it sounds completely crazy if you're coming from the world of mainstream dieting and calorie restriction. First of all, the research Dr. Bacon has done mostly suggests that many common beliefs about weight as it relates to health are wrong. For instance, she presents evidence in her new book Body Respect: What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, and Just Plain Fail to Understand about Weight that being overweight or obese does not actually contribute to decreased longevity. She says, "There is by now an enormous amount of peer-reviewed research indicating that people in the 'overweight' category live longer than people in the category deemed to be 'normal' ... and that people who are mildly or moderately 'obese' live at least as long as normal-weight people," and points to this study to back up these assertions.

She also suggests that it's not necessarily body fat that's leading to disease. She gives three examples of other elements that may be responsible, one of which is fitness. She says "across every category of body composition, unfit individuals have a much higher death rate than those who are fit, regardless of what they weigh." In other words, exercise and being fit (note: that does not mean you need to look like a fitness model!) are always good for you, and it doesn't matter if you lose any weight as a result.

One such study compared obese women on a typical diet with another group who were following a HAES program. The HAES program supported women in accepting their bodies and listening to internal cues of hunger, fullness, and appetite, while the diet group, well, dieted. After two years, the HAES group had improved blood pressure, total cholesterol, LDL, and depression, among other health benefits.

The diet group? They showed initial improvements in the same areas, but returned to their starting point within a year. In addition, the HAES group also noted improved self-esteem and feeling much better about themselves by the program's end, while the diet group saw self-esteem plummeting. And one last interesting thing: In the HAES group, 92 percent of the participants stuck with the whole program, while only 41 percent of the dieters stuck with theirs.

There's something about HAES that I think people often get wrong, though. If you think being part of the movement means encouraging people to "give up" or "give in" or "eat anything and everything they want, all day long," you're missing the point. HAES is about letting go of obsessive and restrictive dieting, about respecting the body you have right now and treating it well, and about starting to move more and in a way that works for you.

Here, check out the five main tenets of HAES in order to get a better idea of what it's really all about: The first is to accept your weight, which is not at all to say that you're giving up or never going to be healthier. In fact, the opposite is very likely true. The next is eating mindfully, which involves getting in touch with hunger and fullness signals and resolving emotional eating issues. Number three is to get moving, but do it for the fun of it, not as punishment! Tenet four is to use the mind-body connection for nutrition, which simply means to start tuning in to what foods make your body feel the best. Lastly, build resilience and sleep well, which entails creating a healthy environment for yourself, as health has much more to do with just the number on the scale!

If you want to learn more about integrating some of these ideas into your life, get my free guide The One Thing You Must Do to Stop Feeling Crazy Around Food to start the process.