Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Is a weight loss goal incompatible with HAES?

Karen asks, in a comment on my last post:
As I have not read the book and don't know everything about HAES, is it true that it's against weight loss? Because I am all for people losing weight if that's what they want!
As far as I can tell from the book I read and some of the HAES blogs I have browsed, yes, a weight loss goal is incompatible with a Health at Every Size outlook.  I am not well-versed in the movement as a whole, so perhaps others with more knowledge will chime in.

The first half of Linda Bacon's book is an explanation of why she believes purposeful, sustained weight loss is not only impossible, but unnecessary.  She takes apart scientific studies that suggest that being outside a certain BMI range means health risks, and she also discusses the biological reasons that weight loss is so difficult.  There is also a discussion of why there is no "ideal" size range and why body diversity is so important.

HAES is a philosophy that treats "sizism" like other types of discrimination like racism, sexism, and heterosexism. The last one is probably the closest analogy, because a central argument of the gay rights movement is that sexual orientation is a trait that is set at birth. Few reputable social scientists would suggest anymore, as they used to in the past, that a person could just escape discrimination by trying to live as a straight person. Linda Bacon seems to be making a similar argument for weight, that once someone gains weight, the body resists losing it and, therefore, few of us can make voluntary changes to our weight.

I think she effectively proves (along with all the real-life evidence I have seen, and lived) that permanent weight loss is extremely difficult. She doesn't say it is impossible but suggests that this should not be the goal. The goal should be, as the title suggests, living healthfully at whatever size you are. This means eating a healthy diet, following your body's natural hunger signals, and learning to enjoy activity. The second half of the book lays out this plan.

You may notice, as I did, that the techniques discussed in this second half might very well result in weight loss. It didn't, in Bacon's HAES study, but that was not her goal. She does suggest that (as she herself did) these women would lose weight gradually over time as their bodies adjusted to the new habits. However, again, this is not the goal of the program.

The differences here between HAES and, say, Geneen Roth's programs are really just a matter of the long-term goal.  Roth also preaches self-acceptance and self-care but does say that this should result in weight loss. Bacon does not make weight loss part of the discussion because she is making a diversity argument.

I do agree that we should value people no matter what their size. I think where I disagree with the HAES movement is that I think there is a healthy body size range, one that is wider than the current media ideal (which seems to range between size 0 and size 4) but that does have an upper limit somewhere, though I will avoid setting some arbitrary number.  I do believethat it is better to be fit and fat than to be thin and inactive.  I don't know where this places me on the whole HAES spectrum.

This is probably just intellectual to many people but it does matter to me what my intention is, and I feel I would be dishonest if I tried to follow the HAES philosophy, because I would still, at my core, want to lose weight.  Does this make sense?


  1. It makes sense to me. As one who has tried and tried and tried and TRIED to get back to a "healthy" weight, I have learned to accept that some people, and I'm one of them, can be fit and healthy at a higher-than-the-insurance-companies-like body weight. That has not, however, kept me from continuing my quest.

    I've found lately that I'm listening more to hunger signals, something I never used to do. If I wanted it, out of either emotional hunger, physical hunger, boredom or whatever, I ate it. I'm not doing that as much. I think the biggest change I've made is to tell myself it's okay to be hungry. I'm not going to die if my stomach growls. I am therefore not armed with snacks in my car/purse/desk "just in case." I didn't grow up eating every two hours, and was, as I look at childhood pictures, pretty normal looking.

  2. I don't think the 2 are incompatible. We all need to love ourselves and do what feels right for us. If you want to lose weight, that's your choice. It doesn't mean you discriminate against other people who weigh the same or more than you.

    You can be accepting of others and still strive to change, if that's what you want.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts!

    My weight history looks like this (I start in 2004 which is when I consider that I really started making an effort...I may have weighed more previously):
    2004: 225 lb.
    2006: 168 lb. (for like five minutes)
    2009: 195 lb.
    Today: 180 lb (? ... not sure as I don't weigh myself, but based on the clothes I am wearing I think this is pretty accurate)

    It was between 2009 and now that I embraced what I guess you could call intuitive eating or HAES (although I'd never heard of it) or Geneen Roth's philosophy (except that Women, Food & God wasn't out yet). Basically I wanted to give up the counting/tracking/dieting mentality and shoot for self-acceptance, wanting to believe that if I worked on that, my body would come to a healthy weight.

    So weight loss was important to me, but it wasn't the end all and be all. I'm glad that I was able to lose weight by practicing self-acceptance and by delving into my stuff...knowing who I am and why.

    As I said in a previous post, I am the healthiest I've ever been and I certainly want to maintain that. And speaking of maintaining, my weight has held pretty steady for about 18 months now. If I happened to lose weight, I wouldn't be unhappy about it, but I am not striving for it. I am striving for fitness and health.

  4. The Health At Every Size(R) model emphasizes health outcomes rather than weight outcomes. A great discussion on this can be found at www.healthateverysizeblog.com. The blog site for the Asssocition for Size Diversity and Health.

  5. This is the first time I've heard of HEAS, and it sounds really interesting. I personally think that there are real health problems with being overweight, but that they are exagerated a bit and don't justify the high level of discrimination. I like the idea of pursueing a healthy lifestyle first and weight loss second. The USDA at their mypyramid.gov site happily suggested a diet to "move gradually towards a healthy weight" that I calculated would take 5 years or more to achieve. We love the idea of faster weight loss, but what is wrong with a 5 or 10 year approach. I am 30 right now and many obesity related diseases (such as diabetes which runs in my family) don't typically kick in until 40 anyway.

  6. Anonymous1:57 PM

    Enjoying this discussion, but did you mean to say "homosexism" rather than "heterosexism"?
    Other than that, like Debbi, I work on being as healthy as I can; my weight stays in a certain range although I would like it to go down.


"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07