Asheville professionals are part of a growing movement to promote acceptance of a greater diversity in body size and shape.
Simone Seitz, executive director of T.H.E. Center for Disordered Eating in Asheville, says her organization offers support and information for those who want to get off the roller-coaster of weight loss and gain by learning to understand and respond to their bodies’ needs.
Some call it “fat acceptance,” while others refer to it as “healthy at any size,” she says, but her organization stresses that we are each unique, with body types as diverse as differences in height, skin color, hair color and personality types.
“There are a lot of people who are classed as overweight or obese who are fit and very healthy,” she notes. “But they’re shamed into trying to change their bodies, and that leads to even more disordered eating. We just want to add more real information to the conversation. If we could just bring more acceptance and ease, I can’t even imagine what it would bring to the conversation.”
One example of misinformation about weight and health, Seitz says, is body mass index, a weight-to-height ratio that doesn’t take into account muscle mass. A world-class athlete might have a BMI that falls into the overweight or obese category, despite being fitter and healthier than most people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “BMI can be used as a screening tool for body fatness but is not diagnostic.”
Americans spend $66 billion a year in a quest to inhabit the perfect body, but research shows it’s pretty much wasted money, as most people who lose weight on diets eventually gain it all back — and then put on a little more. National Institutes of Health scientist Kevin Hall studied people who had been on the television reality show “The Biggest Loser” and published his results. Nearly every contestant had gained back all the weight they lost, and some had gained even more.
These people often feel ashamed for not being able to maintain what’s viewed as a “healthy” weight, even if they really are healthy, Seitz says. Regaining previously lost weight can make them feel like failures.
Americans tend to want to define health by numbers, she adds, and while such numbers as blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose levels are important, weight isn’t necessarily a measure of health, and the number of calories a person should consume is unique to each person.
“Our culture tends to teach us everything is concrete, exact — and it’s really not,” says local nutritionist and dietitian Traci Malone. “When you rely on numbers, you tend to lose touch with your body. We’re born with the ability to do that, but we lose it when we ignore hunger or limit ourselves to the numbers.”
And while Malone recommends eating a variety of nutritionally dense foods, she also recommends allowing treats — foods that may not be considered healthy — from time to time.
“It’s OK to indulge in foods you love now and then, because if you deny yourself, that leads to binge eating and hiding consumption because people are ashamed of failing,” Malone says.
Author and filmmaker Lindsey Averill wrote about the health of people who are classed as overweight or obese for her doctoral thesis. After completing that degree, she made “Fattitude,” a documentary that raises awareness of our society’s bias against fat.
“I would argue that all human beings should look after their numbers and what food they put in their bodies, regardless of their size,” Averill said in an interview after Asheville’s Grail Moviehouse screened her film on March 1.
People who are poor are more likely to be fat, Averill says, partly because they tend to live in food deserts — places where nutritionally dense foods are less available.
In the film, she describes a neighborhood where the closest grocery store is several miles away and closes at 6 p.m. But within a one-mile radius of the center of the neighborhood, nine fast-food outlets sell high-calorie, low-nutrition foods.
People living in food deserts are often overweight, partly because of the food that’s readily available to them. Other people live in large bodies because they’re meant to, Averill says.
“There’s a million different reasons for being fat, but we lump every fat person into the category of glutton,” she says. “All the diseases we categorize as fat-people diseases happen to thin people, too. But doctors too often blame every ailment on a person’s weight when it may have nothing to do with weight.” Such attitudes, she says, are discriminatory. “If a physician were being racist in their practice, we’d be all over it.”
BMI, she says, was never intended to evaluate body weight. “It was invented by a mathematician in the 19th century to gather data about human sizing. It had nothing to do with health.”
The problem with dieting
“Birthday cake is wonderful on your birthday, but you don’t eat it every day,” says Asheville body-image counselor and therapist Jamie Earnhardt. “Of course you should have it. … Eating restrictively takes its toll, and people rarely succeed in losing weight and keeping it off that way.”
Our culture tends to think people can change their natural body weight, but human bodies are diverse, Earnhardt says, and permanently changing our girth is not much more possible than changing our height.
But we obsess about weight and BMI and punish ourselves for not fitting into the “norms,” she adds.
Studies, including the one by Hall, are finding that people who diet usually gain back the lost weight. Even worse, they tend to put on a few more pounds because the body’s metabolism becomes more efficient when calories are restricted. Human biology, Malone says, is designed to hoard nutrients to prepare for the next “famine.”
“We evolved to cope with lean times in this way,” she says.
Averill says she stopped dieting several years ago and is healthier and happier.
But, says Earnhardt, we live in a deeply fat-phobic culture.
“A majority of people surveyed said they’d rather lose a limb than be fat,” she says. “More than half of 10-year-old girls have dieted already.”
Earnhardt says no food is inherently bad, although some foods, eaten to excess, can cause health issues.
“There’s nothing wrong with a burger and fries,” she adds.
“The diet industry is so giant because people believe they have to lose weight,” Earnhardt continues. “But increased activity will help you reach goals of better cardiovascular and metabolic health, even if you don’t lose weight. … If people understood that we’re all meant to have different bodies, if people learned to pay attention to their bodies, the diet industry would go bankrupt in no time.”
Seitz helps people take a more sensible approach to weight management, one she says involves getting to know your body’s needs and allowing your body to be what it’s meant to be.
“There’s so much shame and stigma to having excess weight,” she says. “It can start in elementary school when the nurse calls out each child’s weight and BMI.”
That’s ironic, she says, since throughout history, extra weight meant a person was well-fed and healthy.
“We need to bring some common sense to the conversation,” Seitz says. “We need to talk about how we feel. Do we have energy? Are we comfortable? Your body is brilliant. Listen to it.”