Thursday, January 3, 2013

Weight is a red herring

[The Venus de Milo
did not worry about
her BMI ]
Folks, it isn't about weight.

The Journal of the American Medical Association has comforted post-holiday dieters with the news that overweight and slightly obese people actually live longer than people of normal weight. You can read the JAMA study here, or you can read, for example, "Our Absurd Fear of Fat," a lively op-ed piece by Paul Campos,  author of The Obesity Myth: Why America’s Obsession With Weight Is Hazardous to Your Health.

Could we inject a note of sanity here? Weight, in and of itself, tells us very little. The fact that Americans are heavier and less healthy than people in other developed nations, however, may be telling us something we'd rather not hear - and it isn't that we should lose weight.

Imagine that all of us Americans ate three hearty meals every day, including a total of at least four or five fruits or vegetables, four servings of food especially rich in protein (meat, fish, dairy, beans, nuts); and four servings of whole grains (oatmeal, shredded wheat, whole-wheat bread, brown rice, whole grain pasta).

Imagine, if you can, that we drank no soft drinks, no more than one glass of fruit juice (it's better to eat the fruit whole), no more than one or two alcoholic drinks a day.

Try to imagine that we limited desserts to one small serving a day (none is better), and that if we allowed ourselves any other refined carbohydrates (bread, pasta, white rice), we balanced it with an equal or greater amount of whole grains.

Suppose that we well-fed Americans all exercised for at least 30 minutes every day, and that we got at least 7 hours of sleep every night, and that we never, ever smoked.

OK, we're talking fantasy here. But if, say, a hundred people did all those good things for two years and then lined up to be weighed and measured, we'd see thin people and sturdy people and stout people and curvy people - yet, barring disease, they'd all be exactly the weight they should be.

The problem is, we're not doing all those good things. In fact, we're doing precious few of them. And to make up for the good stuff we're not eating and drinking, we graze on bad stuff all through the day. Adults buy exercise machines they never use, and schools remove recess from the curriculum. No one gets enough sleep. Nearly one in five adults smokes. So how can we possibly know whether we're the right weight or not?

BMI indicators and weight charts aren't going to tell us. A person with rolls of abdominal fat and scrawny muscles could easily be in poor health, right in the middle of the normal range. A person who eats good food and exercises a great deal might be lean and supposedly underweight - or, if he or she is of a different bodily build, might be solid and supposedly overweight - and yet be in excellent health either way.

Physical beauty isn't going to tell us, either. Two of the most beautiful women of the 20th century, Audrey Hepburn and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, stayed slim throughout their short lives - but both were heavy smokers and both reportedly had eating disorders, and both died of cancer in their early 60s.

The only way to be sure we're the right weight is to treat our bodies the right way, consistently. If we do that, then our weight won't matter.

By the way, Miss Elsie Rebecca Scheel, the "perfect woman" of 1913, was 5'7" tall, weighed 171 pounds, and was proportioned like the Venus de Milo, but with arms. You can check her out here.


Rachel Marie Stone said...

It's so true, LaVonne. Concern about weight (and counting calories) is a total distraction from the things that actually destroy health and wellness. (Including obsessing/worrying about one's weight.)

Terrance Tiessen said...

Excellent wisdom. Thanks. Hopefully, you will inform a great many helpful New Year's resolutions and stop many that are currently on the wrong track.