What is a healthy weight? (Spoiler alert: It’s personal)
What is a healthy weight? It’s a complex question. Research has shown that some people with a ‘healthy’ weight are considered to be metabolically unhealthy. As in they have high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high triglycerides – a type of fat found in the blood.
To really answer the question, we need to look at what being ‘healthy’ means in the first place.
Let’s explore what a healthy weight means for you and get some expert tips on how to feel your best from Dr Jill Gamberg, GP and Shivaun Conn, Accredited Practising Dietitian and Accredited Nutritionist.
What does being healthy mean?
In the traditional medical sense, health is defined as being without illness or disease. The World Health Organization (WHO) goes one step further, defining ‘health’ as "a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity". This has been criticised as an ‘all or nothing‘ approach.
So what is health then?
A far more holistic definition of health is that it exists on a continuum that changes over time, according to every person’s circumstances. In this approach, health is seen as “a resource for everyday life, not the objective of living.” This means that everyone has the right to use or grow their health resources as they wish. Looking at it this way, being healthy means having the physical, mental and social resources to live life the way you want to.
Weight does not define your health
Excess weight has been identified as a risk factor for certain health conditions, but it hasn’t been confirmed as the direct cause of these conditions. Just because two things might be closely related, it doesn’t mean that one causes the other.
Nevertheless, there does appear to be associations between excess weight (when categorised using the Body Mass Index [BMI] – more on this later) and increased waist circumference and developing chronic health conditions.
However, this has led to a widespread focus, both at a societal level and in healthcare settings, on targeting weight loss as the sole road to better health. But, when only weight and weight loss is in the spotlight, it can actually be a negative.
People who don’t comply with what society commonly dictates as an ‘acceptable’ body weight and shape can be discriminated against, stereotyped and excluded. Weight stigma can negatively impact a person’s employment, education and overall health status.
Our society tells us that weight is a symbol of personal virtue. The story goes like this: We are all in control of our weight (ignore any genetic impacts, environmental factors or underlying health conditions); therefore, what you weigh is a reflection of being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. How does this story end? With deep, internalised shame having negative impacts on mental wellbeing.
This negative impact can lead to poor mental wellbeing which, in turn, can lead to higher levels of stress and mental unwellness, which can cause inflammation. Studies also suggest that weight stigma can cause some people to develop unhealthy eating behaviours to cope. Others may avoid exercising or doctor’s appointments because of weight stigma. This can produce less than favourable health outcomes.
A person’s weight does not define their health. That’s not to say that weight should be ignored entirely or that it has no relevance to health. What it does mean is that you shouldn’t use weight to define your worth. Weight is just one of the many threads woven into our health tapestry.
But what about BMI (body mass index) and health?
BMI is a ratio of height to weight that researchers often use to track obesity rates across broad population groups because it’s quick, easy and cheap to calculate. For these reasons, it's popular with many health professionals too.
However, BMI is not considered by many to be an accurate way to determine your specific health status because it fails to account for:
- biological sex
- race and ethnicity
- body fat percentage
- muscle mass
- bone density
- fat distribution
For example, if you’re 185cm tall and weigh 118kg (like Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson), your BMI would put you in the ‘obese’ category. Using BMI, ‘The Rock’ would need to weigh between 64-85 kilograms to be considered a ‘healthy’ weight for his height.
Clearly, there are some flaws in applying BMI as a proxy for overall health status. However, it can be a useful tool when combined with other measures.
Is there a healthier approach to weight?
Many of us want to be our healthiest selves as we age, keep fit and maintain a healthy weight for life. Is there a way we can do this that cultivates all aspects of our health, including our self-worth and mental wellbeing?
Shivaun explains that instead of focusing on motivating yourself to lose weight, you could try a more holistic approach – such as engaging with healthy behaviours and improving self-care.
“I have a lot of people come to me wanting to lose weight,” Shivaun says, “But after we sit down, have a conversation and build trust, people will say what they really want is a contented and fulfilled life.”
So rather than looking for a healthy way to lose weight or calculating the best healthy weight loss goals per week, try to think more about healthy habits. “Instead of concentrating on weight, it’s about looking at the bigger picture and developing healthy habits like eating for your wellbeing and being more active, nurturing a positive mindset and developing sustainable habits for your long-term wellbeing and happiness,” Shivaun says.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Dr Jill who says “Setting smaller more achievable goals initially is a better way to generate healthy habits over time and ultimately produce long term behaviour change.”
Tips on eating for your wellbeing
You may have been tempted to click on the ads promoting ‘healthy’ balanced diets to ‘lose weight fast!’
So, what’s the best diet for you?
“A healthy, balanced diet looks different for everyone,” says Shivaun, “Instead of focusing on a healthy calorie intake to lose weight or doing a detox, look at your behaviour patterns around food and how different foods can make your body feel, as opposed to having specific targets.”
Shivaun adds that being aware of our hunger cues and food craving triggers can help to improve our food choices.
“When we’re tired, stressed and hungry, we’ll default to grabbing less healthy options like foods high in added sugar if they’re available. Be aware of the times when your blood sugar might be low, or you’re stressed, and you’re looking for a reward to help you cope. Know your cues and triggers and have healthy options easily available for these times.”
Choosing life-enhancing movement
“You’re much more likely to be active if you do something fun and enjoyable,” Dr Jill says. “If you don't feel good running, you don’t have to be a runner. Maybe you love to dance, so whether it’s an online class, going to Zumba or even just dancing around the living room with your kids, choose something that makes you feel good.”
Remember to be mindful and to listen to how much rest your body needs. It’s not about punishing your body but finding ways to move that make you feel good while still getting in at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week.
Your healthy weight
Being healthy is having the physical, mental and social resources to live life the way you want. It’s when you feel the most vibrant. When you personalise health in this way, “Your healthy weight is the best weight for you,” says Dr Jill.
Try some of the health-enhancing tips above, but if you’re not feeling your best or your healthiest, book in to see your healthcare provider for more advice.
If you suspect you may be struggling with an eating disorder, speak to your GP or talk to someone from the Butterfly Organisation on 1800 334 673.
Shivaun Conn is an Accredited Practising Dietitian, Accredited Nutritionist and Certified Health Coach with particular interests in nutrition, lifestyle, executive health and health behaviour change.
Dr Jill Gamberg is a General Practitioner and one of the first Australian Lifestyle Medicine Physicians whose goal is to help prevent disease and maintain wellness with evidence-based practice, and to passionately improve health literacy.
Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board June 2021