Body beautiful

How to find your healthy body size

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Every year around this time, a large number of Canadians embark on a quest to get healthy.

For some, this will involve changes to lifestyle - a healthier way of eating or becoming more active. That can be a good thing. We all benefit from making healthy lifestyle changes.

In doing so, however, it's important not to get drawn into some common misunderstandings about what is a healthy body size.

Too often, people become convinced that they would be healthier if only if they were only a certain size or shape. The problem is compounded by the belief that these goals could best be achieved simply by following one kind of weight-loss diet or another. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, there is no single "right" weight for good health. Healthy people come in all shapes and sizes. Even if everyone in Winnipeg were active and eating reasonably well, there would still be large people, small people and every size in between.

A recent Canadian study underscores the point. It looked at the data of more than 11,000 Canadian adults over a period of 12 years. The study's authors found that those who were somewhat heavy (called obesity class 1) were at no greater risk of death than those who were within the normal body mass index (BMI). In fact, being slightly overweight (BMI 25-29) was associated with a significantly decreased risk of death.

The real issue is how to be healthy in the body you currently have. On that score, the first thing to remember is that weight loss diets are not the answer. Not only do they not work, they can actually be harmful to your health and well-being.

True, dieting may lead to short-term weight loss. But many studies indicate that most people will regain the weight. And people who lose and regain weight several times tend to have higher blood pressure, higher weights, higher cholesterol, lower self-esteem and are less physically active.

People who diet tend to think of food in terms of whether it's "on the diet" or not - food becomes a moral issue seen as good or bad, right or wrong. This restrictive eating can lead to feelings of deprivation, which in turn leads to less-healthy food choices. Food is not good or bad, it's just food. Dieting is also one of the strongest risk factors for an eating disorder.

So if dieting is the wrong approach, what is the right one?

Oddly enough, the answer to that question is really quite simple. If a person eats reasonably well (which means eating a variety of foods including treats and desserts), and includes some enjoyable regular physical activity, then his or her weight will settle at a place that is right for that person.

This approach has been shown to work. A recent study looked at two groups of mid-life women. Both were encouraged to eat healthily and be physically active. In one group, weight loss was the focus. The other used an approach called Health at Every Size (HAES), which focused on accepting their current body, not trying to lose weight and getting in touch with inner signals of hunger and fullness.

At the two-year follow-up, the women in the dieting group were not eating better, were not more physically active and felt that they had failed (because they had lost and then regained weight).

In contrast, the Health at Every Size group had a stable weight, were eating better, were more physically active and felt better about themselves. By feeling positive about their bodies and who they are, people are motivated to maintain or increase healthy behaviours.

Another review of many studies suggests that by choosing healthier foods and incorporating physical activity, we can have a positive effect on our blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol, plus reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease, without losing weight.

The bottom line: being healthy includes having energy, being active, mental wellness and having balance in our lives. Healthy, beautiful bodies come in all shapes and sizes. This year, resolve to take the focus off of weight and put it into taking care of you, right now. Focus on being a healthier person in all ways - body, mind and spirit.

Ann McConkey is a registered dietitian with the Winnipeg Health Region.

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