the HAES® files: Exploring Healthy Weight

by Health At Every Size® Blog

by Marsha Hudnall, MS, RD

For the past two decades, anti-weight-loss-diet proponents throughout the U.S. and several other countries have celebrated next week, the third week in January, as Healthy Weight Week. The event was founded to call out the sense of defeat experienced by millions of people who subscribe to the #1 New Year’s resolution to “take care” of themselves, and present a call to action for changing that scenario.

There’s no mystery why the sense of defeat – the definition of self-care at this time of the year centers on weight loss, often at any cost. Recent statistics confirm weight loss remains the #1 resolution for 2014, a rank it has undoubtedly held for many years. The method of choice to achieve weight loss is all too familiar also: dieting, which delivers outcomes ranging from emotional overeating, including binge eating; weight loss usually followed by a regain of even more weight than was lost; decrease in muscle mass; reduced self-esteem – the list goes on. Definitely not anything that anyone interested in true self-care is looking for.

In recognition of this obsession with dieting at the beginning of each new year, Francie Berg, pioneer in the movement away from weight loss diets and ASDAH member, founded Healthy Weight Week (HWW) in 1989 (date edited). Its goal: To help people understand that in trying to take care of themselves, one of the best things they can do is to stop obsessing about their weight. The call to action: Change the focus from weight to health, to be able to more sustainably adopt healthy behaviors that truly define self-care. In other words, embrace a Health At Every Size® philosophy/lifestyle.

Francie comments on the impact that HWW has had:

“Each year more and more people know about Healthy Weight Week and more understand its message. They know the value of size acceptance. They’ve experienced the harmful effects of dieting, idealizing thin models and harassing large children and adults. They’re ready to move on. Based on the calls I’ve received all over the world from people interested in the message of HWW, I think we’ve been a part of that change.”

But What Is a Healthy Weight?

In preparation for the week this year, there has been discussion about the term “healthy weight.” The definition to date, as I explain it, is that a healthy weight is an outcome of living according to HAES® principles. That means it’s not a focus but a result – something that happens naturally and definitely varies according to the individual, given that we are all different. And although it seems contradictory, a healthy weight is weight neutral – weight loss or weight gain may or may not be a part of it for an individual, but that’s not the point.

But what is the implication of focusing on weight at all? Is it a useful term to help bridge the gap between weight obsession and size acceptance? These questions arise from legitimate concern that “healthy weight” may still be interpreted by many as “thin.” And that assessments of health should not be based on a person’s size.

As the new caretaker of HWW and believing that these are important questions for anyone working to move people to size acceptance, I’d appreciate hearing what the HAES community thinks about the term. How do you define healthy weight, or do you intentionally choose not to define weight in the context of health? What do you think about the concept? Are there potential pitfalls in using it, especially with a population that is unaware of HAES principles? Do you have ideas for how to mark the week? Should it even continue as a week?

13 Responses to “the HAES® files: Exploring Healthy Weight”

  1. I’m working on thinking of weight as just another physical characteristic. One that, except for a very small percentage of people, is just as unchangeable as any other physical characteristic without some intervention like surgery, etc.

  2. Dear Marsha Hundall,

    As an RD you know that the phrase “healthy weight” has it’s own definition according to governmental entities like the CDC. I have never heard of HWW before I read this entry and if I hadn’t read the entry, I would have immediately associated it with the most accepted and widely known meaning of the phrase and completely misunderstood that it had anything to do with HAES. As a dietetics intern and a HAES advocate, I believe the idea behind HWW has incredible power and it ought to continue. However, I would rename it because there is a non-HAES definition of what “healthy weight” means that is too pervasive in our culture for it not to be misunderstood. I would also like to see the title of the week have something to with really wellness and truly taking care of yourself instead of putting the focus on weight, even if it IS in a truly healthy way (the HAES way). Like you said in your post, everyone’s new years resolution tends to be to take better care of themselves and they think that means getting in shape or losing weight so maybe this week could be titled after that resolution and in the mission for the week include “redefining your healthy weight” so that people can learn that healthy weights vary and that the CDC’s definition really has nothing to do with this. Thank you.

  3. I, too, think of an individual’s “healthy weight” as the weight that person’s body settles into when living by HAES principles, and I add on …. **given that individual’s history with food, physical activity, stress, illness, etc….** In other words – “healthy” weights are all over the scale :)

    I like HWW as an opportunity to discuss what exactly (or inexactly!) we HAESians mean by “healthy” weight.

  4. Thanks for the opportunity to provide feedback.

    For me, I like to think of weight and health as separate concepts. While I don’t disagree that there is a healthy weight range for every individual, it is unique to each person and may or may not fit into the arbitrary numbers that are used in the medical and weight-loss community to define “health” (such as BMI, traditional height and weight charts, etc.)

    I fear that the term “healthy weight”, even in the context of HAES, may turn turn off the very people you’re trying to reach. Having gone through the diet “failures” and come out the other side at a weight that has been stable and a high level of fitness that have lasted for over 8 years now, as soon as I hear the words healthy and weight used in the same sentence my brain tends to tune out because I don’t fit that narrow standard that so many believe is the only acceptable “healthy weight.”

    As a result, my preference would be to change the name.

  5. Thanks for the open invitation Marsha. I think that the term “healthy weight” is problematic because it reinforces a binary system. In this case if you live your life according to HAES principles then you’re “good” and get assigned a healthy weight. If you don’t live in such a way or if you don’t have the means, money, access, etc. to live in such a way then you don’t get to have a healthy weight. I think it is much more complicated than this and don’t think that associating weight and health is helpful for my clients.
    I also think that “healthy weight” is heard only one way by most folks who won’t stop to read about HAES because they think it means thin. I don’t think HWW speaks to folks not already in the “choir”.

  6. I hope more people take on this sort of mentality because it sickens me that adults think it’s okay to shame children in the name of “health.” We need to understand that health is for EVERYONE, not just those society deems unacceptable. Good work!

  7. Hmm. I think of weight as a characteristic and heath as a state, and conflating the two has caused a peck of trouble. How about Wholeness Week? That’s my goal, anyway, and HAES is one of the principles I observe in the effort to get there.

  8. I think Healthy Weight Week is a special occasion / invitation / opportunity to offer counsel to people with weight management wants / needs / interests and, afterward, for wellness champions to find ways to address those needs within their wellness programs. People want to lose weight. They want help and need help that’s sensible and safe, and that considers the whole person as best it can. Use HWW as an occasion to connect people with good help. Healthy Weight Week is a good hook.

  9. I agree with the posters who have steered you away from the word “weight.” There is no way for that term to be divorced from the culture which has enshrined the beliefs that weight is a health indicator which should therefore be measured frequently, and that a person’s amount of “weight” (actually a euphemism for fat tissue) changes readily in response to habit changes and therefore people who are “overweight” (actually a euphemism for fat) have a personal responsibility to “lose weight.” This is a harmful ideology and your name should make it clear that you reject it, rather than obscuring the difference between you and the entrenched attitudes. How about changing the name of your week to Weight Means Nothing, or No-Weigh Week?

  10. Thank you all for your comments. I will continue to think about this, as I’m sure many of you will. Bottom line: it’s a sticky issue and there is no clear consensus around it. My continuing-to-evolve thoughts take into account people who tend to be desperate about their weight and that has become their primary focus. I wonder how many people will be left out of the conversation if we stop talking about weight?

    As to the government co-opting the term healthy weight, many of us have been using it for 30 years or more. Francie actually started the week in 1989, 25 years ago. (My original post was wrong in that regard; I’ve edited it above.) The question is: Do we want to give the term away to people who will define it differently? It could be compared to conversations about diet programs that claim they are “not a diet.”

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