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Why Focusing on “Looking Healthy” Can Be Counterproductive

Written by Brittany Wehrle

 

I’m a dietitian, and when I was going through school I used to believe that you could tell if someone was healthy or not by looking at them. Spoiler alert: I was very, very wrong (and I’m so glad that I have evolved well beyond that old version of myself!)


In a world where we get a lot of our health and wellness information from thin, conventionally attractive, energetic, and carefully curated influencers, it makes sense why we believe that healthy has a specific “look.” A glow. A particular body size or shape. An energy.


In reality, our appearance has very little to do with our health and what is going on inside of our bodies.


And yet, so many of us still buy into the idea that if we looked a certain way - thinner, more toned, more feminine, fill in the blank with whatever you’d like here - we would be healthier and feel healthier. So we trudge down an all-too-trodden path of juice cleanses, restrictive diets, extreme exercise plans, and lifestyle changes to hopefully get to that arbitrary end point of “healthier.”


It rarely works. And in many cases, it backfires.


Why? Well, when we use what our body looks as the metric for measuring health, it is very possible that our perspective will end up creating behaviors that are actually in direct opposition with being healthy: Restrictive eating, overexercising, and increased stress on our bodies.



THE SLIPPERY SLOPE OF “LOOKING HEALTHY”


Maybe you’ve decided this is the year you “finally get healthy.” You set a goal weight that is close to a number you remember from high school, college, or your pre-kids years. You adopt Whole 30 or swear off of all sugar for good. You sign up at the trendy new gym in town and start showing up for 5:30AM HIIT-style workouts 5 days a week - no excuses. You don’t feel like what you’re doing is actually “working” until you notice your arms looking a little smaller than they used to. And on days where you don’t see those body changes you’re expecting, you feel like you haven’t done enough.


Sound familiar? Trust me, I’ve been there before.


Here’s the thing: In this pursuit of losing weight to get healthier, you’ve probably adopted some behaviors that have the potential to be really good for you! Unfortunately, our hyperfocus on the scale, or our jean size, or whether or not our arms are “toned” enough clouds our judgment.

We may start to think that the lower calorie option is always the better option. We may sacrifice precious sleep during a really stressful work week because we absolutely can’t miss that Monday morning workout. Instead of approaching our health goals in a way that promotes balance, sustainability and nuance, we’ve chosen rigidity. Instead of listening to our bodies and responding accordingly, we became obsessed with the regimen we’ve created. Instead of working with our bodies, we start to work against them.

The thing about bodies? If we ignore them for too long, they’ll figure out a way to get our attention.


And this is when women usually land in my inbox with heartbreaking stories such as:


“I felt great when I did Whole 30 with my sister in January, but now I’m terrified to reintroduce carbs and I can’t eat anything without getting bloated.”

“Running used to make me feel so good and helped me lose the baby weight, but for some reason this year I keep getting injured.”

“I LOVE how I looked last summer, but I haven’t had my period in 8 months and I’m constantly tired.”


Oof. Digestive issues, frequent injuries, missing periods, food anxiety, fatigue. None of these things sound like the experience of someone who is objectively “healthy.” And yet, in our pursuit of a body that “looks healthy” this can be the exact situation we find ourselves in. We end up more obsessed with health, weight or appearance than ever while simultaneously being less healthy than when we began.



SHIFTING YOUR FOCUS TO TRUE HEALTH


So if the size of our waist or the scale can’t help us decide if our health is improving … what should we even be paying attention to if we want to be healthier? Simply put: behaviors.


There is strong evidence that shows that focusing on health-promoting behaviors alone (meaning without even focusing on weight/weight loss!) is connected to positive health outcomes like:

  • Reduced blood pressure readings

  • Improved blood lipid results

  • More positive body image

  • Reduced metabolic syndrome risk factors

  • Less disordered eating behaviors

  • Improved diet composition and variety

  • … and more!


Instead of setting a goal weight for yourself this year .. what if you focused on curating behaviors that actually make a difference in your health and how you feel: without ever pulling out that scale or downloading a macro-tracking app?!


Does this feel so off base with how you normally tackle your health goals? I totally get it! I’ve been there before, too.


If you need some help getting started, here are some things that the women I work with typically benefit from focusing on, instead of weight loss or body changes:


  • Chose types of exercise that you actually enjoy, and take rest days regularly

  • Establish some sort of mindfulness practice. Even 5 minutes a day makes a big difference!

  • Focus on what nutrient-dense foods you can add to your diet instead of what food groups you should take away. For example: Aim to add more fiber-rich foods to your family dinners, or work on making healthy fats at breakfast a habit - instead of throwing out everything in your pantry that has “sugar” in the ingredients list.

  • Work on creating positive sleep habits and don’t regularly sacrifice adequate sleep for things like 5AM workouts (this will only stress your body out more!)

  • Embrace your hunger. Ignoring your body’s hunger cues by running off of coffee until noon, committing to intermittent fasting, or drinking water to stave off hunger will only disconnect you from your body’s needs and lead to undereating - which can bring on a whole host of health problems.


EXPANDING YOUR PERSPECTIVE


If this approach to health feels way off base for you, that’s okay! You’ve likely heard terms like “losing weight for my health,” “ideal weight,” “thin is healthy” and other related ideas constantly throughout your life. Probably from people you trusted and people of authority. You might have even been buying into and saying these things yourself! This means it will take time and work to change your perspective. But if you’re currently consumed by the idea that being healthy has a “look,”or that you won’t truly be healthy until you weigh what you weighed in college or pre-kids … you owe it to yourself to keep expanding your views on health. Your mental and physical health will benefit in the long-run.


Here are a few ways to start expanding your views on health:


  1. Curate what you consume. Unfollow content creators and mute friends who frequently praise weight loss - especially if they do so from the more subversive stance of “it’s for your health!” Follow Health at Every Size-aligned accounts such as Christy Harrison, Dr Colleen Reichmann, and The Body Positive

  2. Create a healthy behaviors list. Make a list of things you can do that you know make you feel healthier, more energized, or more like yourself. Everyone’s list will look different, but mine includes things like: skip the afternoon coffee, get out in the sun for 10-15 minutes, stand for 1 hour during my workday, and stay hydrated. Then, when you are having a day where you think to yourself “if I just lost weight I’d feel better,” revisit this list and commit to 1 behavior you can do that day.

  3. Consider switching healthcare providers. If you experience a lot of anxiety around doctor’s visits or feel your doctor is overly focused on your weight when you see them for non-weight related issues, consider switching to a new provider. This list of HAES-aligned healthcare providers is not perfect or 100% comprehensive, but it may be a good place to start.

 

Brittany Wehrle is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics based in Dallas, TX. Brittany specializes in helping active women and female athletes with amenorrhea - missing menstrual cycles - fuel for optimal health, balance their hormones and transform their relationship with food and body. Brittany loves empowering women by debunking diet culture beliefs, societal body pressures, and health misinformation. Brittany currently runs a 12-week group coaching program, Period Recovery Breakthrough, that helps women with amenorrhea restore their menstrual cycles naturally while overcoming exercise obsession, food fears, and negative body image. You can apply for period recovery coaching here or reach out to Brittany about 1-on-1 coaching (availability varies) here.



Listen to Brittany's episode on the BBP Podcast here!




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