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Just Lose Weight? Why It's Not That Easy and It Shouldn't Matter

What would happen if we didn't care about how much we weighed?

Young woman stepping onto a scale to weigh herself
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Despite our strides in body positivity, neutrality and inclusion, weight stigma is still prevalent. It's one of the forms of prejudice we continue to tolerate in our society. Fatphobia is the bias toward overweight people and their perceived moral failing. 

We've all heard it before -- "just lose weight." As if there is only one ideal weight to strive for, and if you're not reaching that goal, you're just not doing it right. This mindset puts too much pressure on the scale and teaches people that weight loss is the key to self-worth. Weight-based discrimination is more than just whispers or side glances; there are tangible implications on a person's health and treatment.

Weight is just another fact about a person's body -- like hair color or height. Why do we allow a number to hold so much significance for our well-being? And what would happen if we just didn't?

Why fad diets continue to fail and always will

When people say, "just lose weight," it's condescending and often misinformed. The speaker assumes the person's weight is a shortcoming that is fully under their control and needs to be corrected. 

Many weight loss diets don't work and sometimes result in more weight gain in the long term, especially if someone frequently diets, stops and then starts over again. This happens for several reasons. First, when your body loses fat or muscle, it naturally produces more of the appetite hormone ghrelin, also known as the "hunger hormone." So you'll feel more hungry, making it more difficult to lose weight. Your metabolism also slows when you're on calorie-restriction diets, which means you burn fewer calories.  

I'm not saying that all diets are bad. However, there are many times diets become unrealistic standards that are either unachievable or unsustainable. Dieting will have varied success rates for everyone. Other factors, aside from food, may make it easier for some people to lose weight and harder for others. 

Woman standing in front of a mirror with measuring tape around her waist
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4 things affecting your weight that you can't always control

Many people believe that how much someone weighs is completely within their control. But if that were the case, everyone would click their heels and have their ideal body. Things are going on in your body that can cause weight gain or make weight loss tough.

  • Genetics: According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are approximately 50 genes that have implications for your weight. They can influence your appetite, metabolism and body-fat distribution. Studies suggest that genetics can also predispose someone to be overweight. One popular approach to body weight is set point theory, which states our bodies have a baseline weight range based on our DNA. And our bodies have biological controls that will keep us within this range. People naturally have different set points, which explains the diversity in body shapes and sizes. 
  • Hormonal changes: Throughout a person's life, the body goes through distinct hormonal cycles -- puberty, pregnancy and menopause. Menopause is a period of extreme change. Your body uses energy differently. The shape and composition of your body may change, and you may gain weight more easily. You can't control this; it's a natural cycle your body goes through. 
  • Medical conditions: Sometimes bodily processes can affect your ability to lose weight -- no matter if you're doing everything right. Chronic inflammation, hypothyroidism and polycystic ovary syndrome are just a few of the various medical conditions that can make you gain weight or make it hard to lose. Some medications, like diabetes medicine, can also cause weight gain.
  • Sleep: Lifestyle and work schedules can get in the way of a good night's rest. Inconsistent and interrupted sleep patterns are linked to weight gain. A 2019 study found that participants with a less variable sleep schedule were more likely to lose weight. 
  • Environmental factors: Your social and economic context can also affect how much you weigh, including what type of food you have access to, which resources are available in your community and whether sedentary lifestyles are predominant in your area. 

Why we should shift from a focus on weight to overall health

Historically, larger bodies were preferred and viewed as a symbol of wealth. Then society developed theories based on eugenics and racism that villainized different body types. We need another shift in understanding body weight. 

There has already been progress in dismantling the focus on body mass index, or BMI, which was our main indicator of a healthy weight, despite it not being an accurate measure of body fat and overall health. Being healthy isn't automatically tied to your weight. Your body shape and weight are details about you, not things that define you or should influence the type of care you get. 

Let's talk about what would happen if we stopped valuing the number on the scale so much.

Woman staring out the window while sitting in a doctor's examination room.
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Better health care treatment

Our health policies are based on the assumption that being overweight is bad for your health, that people can lose weight, and that it's the only way to improve their health. Research now suggests that these assumptions aren't empirically supported. Weight stigma in health care is a two-pronged issue: the first is the anti-fat attitude held by some doctors; the second is the avoidance of health care by people who are discriminated against. 

The American Psychological Association says that 40% of US adults have experienced weight stigma, or sizeism. People with larger bodies are often discriminated against in the medical field and pigeonholed by their weight. This ultimately leads to inadequate medical and preventative care. Studies have shown that overweight women are more likely to die of breast and cervical cancer.

Some have said doctors have ignored symptoms and based their diagnosis on their weight instead. Bad experiences in doctor's offices can lead to someone avoiding medical attention in the future. 

Less disordered eating

Many fall victim to the mindset that shaming someone's weight is tough love and what they need to get motivated into losing weight. But it's not. Sizeism can be emotionally damaging and seriously affect someone's mental health. Weight stigma is linked to unhealthy eating behaviors

A 2021 study found that experiencing weight stigma is significantly associated with disordered eating, which can have long-term health consequences that are not remotely related to weight. 

A widespread ideology shift would result in better medical care and fewer instances of disordered eating. People would be healthier and happier because they would have the resources they deserve.

Too long; didn't read?

Fatphobia and sizeism exist -- sometimes in people who are closest to us. Even with the highlighted problems with BMI and how we think about body weight, they're still commonplace. 

Remember, you can be healthy without focusing on weight loss. We all come in different shapes and sizes, and that's OK. Think about your health as a big puzzle -- your weight is only one small piece of you. Focusing on fitting one piece together won't solve the puzzle. 

Be mindful of setting realistic goals that you can achieve and ensure you're approaching your body in a holistic way that benefits your health. Your body deserves nourishment, no matter what anyone says. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.