Alt-Health: Healthy at Every Size?

overweightmodelHealthy at Every Size is a movement with a message that is changing the way we see ourselves: Women don’t have to have to starve themselves to squeeze into the ‘fit body’ image anymore. If you are overweight and athletic, you can still have a rockin’ bod. This attitude has even reached into the aesthetics of fashion. While runways of the past have featured cadaverous mannequins, this year, labels such as Givenchy, Saint Laurent, Stella McCartney and Louis Vuitton have unveiled a charter that proposes to ban super skinny models from catwalks and catalogs worldwide.

Admittedly, this is a far healthier attitude for women to take than the quest for zero body fat. Anorexia is actually classified as a form of mental illness and has the highest death rate of any psychiatric disorder. The long-term consequences of unnatural rail thinness can range from heart damage and osteoporosis to infertility. But the current crossover to total body size acceptance may turn into a pendulum that swings back and knocks us in the teeth. Ten extra pounds is no big deal; 110 extra pounds is downright dangerous.

Let’s look at the facts. The obesity rate has more than doubled since 1980 and is now over 5% in children and 12% in adults. There has been a leveling off of obesity in high-income countries, but the prevalence has increased in all other populations. In our own country, obese people are now living healthier and staying alive longer – but this has turned out to be a small silver lining that comes with a massive cloud. The more years spent with obesity, the more time there is for coexisting illnesses to develop. The rise in obesity mirrors similar trends in type 2 diabetes. More children are developing early onset type 2 diabetes than ever before, which substantially increases the prevalence of hypertension and chronic kidney disease later in life. A 2015 British study also found that obese women have a 40% higher risk for cancer than thinner women. The risk is linked to fat cells’ production of hormones, especially estrogen, which is believed to fuel cancer development.

At core, weight isn’t a feminist or a fashion issue and it isn’t just about how you look. No matter how much you exercise or do yoga, if you are overweight, your heart has to work harder, your gut does double shifts, and you have a greater number of free radicals circulating in your blood stream, just waiting to gum up the works. Exercise alone will not protect you from the consequences. Fashion may have accepted the size 20 plus woman, but that woman’s doctor does not concur.

So what is the happy medium? There really has to be an option between skeletal and obese, but we are not achieving it in this country. The average citizen is 23 pounds overweight. The average American woman now weighs 166 pounds. Fully one third of Americans can be considered obese. Why is it so hard to keep our weight down? Our forefathers were a relatively lithe group compared to the solid citizens of today.

One of the reasons may be that our forefathers didn’t have junk or fast food, which is high in calories and low in real nutrition. If you eat 2,000 calories worth of french fries and gummy bears, you are still going to feel hungry; your body can’t generate new cells or repair tissues with crap like that. Another factor is that most of us have a relatively sedentary lifestyle, with enough stress to generate an outpouring of cortisol guaranteed to make us thick around the middle. But the news is not all bad. We may have a lot of factors working against us, but we also have something that works in our favor: the freedom to make better choices. We live in a country where a wide range of options are available to anyone who puts the time and effort into improving their lifestyle. Unfortunately, rather than focusing on important issues such as health, we drive ourselves nuts trying to fit a body type that doesn’t even exist in real life. Models are retouched and manipulated in photoshop to cover flaws; and those body doubles whose butts and boobs you see on the silver screen? They torture themselves into impossibly tight skin for those moments on camera, but the minute they begin to live like normal people, they too lapse into puffier versions of themselves.

Here’s the truth: We are all variations on a collection of body types. We are not all long and lean. Some of us are stocky, rounded, squat or wide, and that’s fine too. We really need to accept ourselves as we are. However, we also need to respect these finely tuned machines we live in. Food is the body’s fuel, not a recreational activity or a deprivational device. If we use it for the right purposes, it will take us far.

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