The Truth About Weight and Health

The messages we hear in our culture very much attribute health problems to weight gain. Conversations about chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease are very weight-focused, with weight loss often being the only “lifestyle recommendation” given by healthcare providers to those looking to avoid medications.

But weight loss recommendations don’t always translate to improved health outcomes, and that’s because weight gain isn’t the root cause of a person’s illness. Sure, weight gain can correlate with the onset of disease, but we need to be careful to not equate correlation (two things happening at the same time) with causation (one thing causing another thing.)

The Common Denominator

The reason that weight gain and health problems are so commonly associated with each other is because many times, the underlying cause behind both of those things is the same. In the picture above, I use stress as an example of this. Here’s why:

When we look at the science, we see time after time that excessive physical, emotional, and mental stress lead to health problems. Stress can cause everything from high blood pressure to heart attacks, missed periods to infertility, and countless other common issues we see today. In addition to outright causing these problems, stress can also serve as a trigger for the onset of conditions for which we may have a genetic predisposition. While stress doesn’t cause diabetes, autoimmunity or PCOS, the hormonal changes that result from extreme stress can trigger symptoms of those conditions.

At the same time, we have decades of scientific evidence demonstrating that excess stress causes metabolic changes that lead to weight gain. The notorious “slow metabolism” doesn’t really exist; a better term would be a “stressed metabolism.” When we are under stress, our internal biochemical pathways become disrupted, often leading to increased fat stores, especially in the abdominal region.

Contrary to popular belief, overt weight loss doesn’t eliminate the health problem because weight gain wasn’t the cause. Sometimes lifestyle behavior changes lead to both weight loss and health improvements, but that doesn’t mean it’s the weight loss that caused the health improvements. Weight loss does not translate to improved health. A person can lose weight without improving their health. Likewise, they could improve their health without losing weight.

More Than Stress

Of course, stress isn’t the only common denominator. Countless other lifestyle interventions can result in both weight loss and improvements in health problems. Again, the benefit isn’t in the weight loss, but in the behavior change.

  • Exercise
  • Eating more vegetables
  • Sleeping more
  • Cultivating meaningful relationships
  • Improving work/life balance
  • Eating more regular, balanced meals
  • Giving up yo-yo dieting
  • Choosing foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids
  • Spending time outdoors
  • …and more

What are some other misconceptions in the weight/health relationship?

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