HAES [Health At Every Size] and the Slippery Slope

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I just found out about HAES, Health At Every Size, from a Google+ shared blog by Chris Brogan. The post By Amy Pershing titled “Is The Idea Of Health At Every Size Just Permission To Be Fat?” The implied answer in the title is “no” but I’m having a tough time with overall concept.

In her own words Ms. Pershing says,

According to the BMI chart and the cultural message, I still have about 35 lbs to go. My body, however, seems perfectly healthy and happy right here. I figure she knows better. So “HAES” is NOT about “permission to get fat.” It is about each of us individually listening with body and mind, letting our unique bodies find the way to the weight they are happy to be, and valuing whatever the result.

HAES and obesity in America

While there is a lot of support for HAES, I think it’s a dangerous slippery slope for those who need the most help. One of my concerns is how a HAES mind set manages the line of settling for what its supporters believe is “appropriate, comfort and enjoyable” weight and the human mind’s ability to challenge ourselves to reach goals and stretch beyond the status quo. And I’m not talking about crash diets and unsustainable exercise programs.

I’m also not advocating an idea of physical standards that’s unrealistic for every body type. But when results from the 2007–2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), using measured heights and weights, indicate that an estimated 34.2% of U.S. adults aged 20 years and over are overweight, 33.8% are obese, and 5.7% are extremely obese, it’s easy to see how people who don’t want to confront their health issues can use HAES as a cop out not to take personal responsibility. “I’m big and beautiful.” While that might be true you are not healthy and your quality of life is going to suffer greatly.

Somehow an “average” size person today in America is by any world standards, an overweight, unhealthy individual. I live in one of the most unhealthy places in the country, Tennessee. If I compare myself with the average size person, I would probably gain another 30 lbs and still look average.

HAES advocates believe one should not use exercise to lose weight. Really!? There’s nothing wrong with exercise to maintain a healthy BMI or weight. People have been doing it for centuries. I enjoy running, but sometimes I run a little farther because I know I’m about to eat a big dinner. I run for competition, for fun and for life and that means controlling my cholesterol, my body fat and the quality of life that being lean allows me to have, and yes, it includes fitting in a size 31 jeans at age 47. I used to weigh 40 lbs more than I do today. I was lethargic, had asthma attacks, and battled depression. Since my teenage years my body had “settled’ around that weight. I was overweight, I ate too much and I was sedentary. I finally had enough and decades ago I changed my mind, my habits, my health and body in the process.

Again, I’m not advocating an ideal of beauty, but with the obesity epidemic we face in America, the last thing I want my 14-year old son to hear is that his body has found his ideal weight at  230 lbs and he should be ok with that.

How do you feel about HAES?

  • “Loved at Every Size” should be the banner we carry as Christians.  We are loved regardless of what we look like, how disciplined we are, even when we’re irresponsible with our health.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m a a fitness/healthy lifestyle advocate, especially for my kids.  But when I see someone overating or smoking, rather than jumping to a place of judgement, I should first see another child of God. People are hurting at every size, and I want to be a voice of encouragement to skinny, fat and everything inbetween.  

    • I couldn’t agree more, David. I think we should love them enough to encourage them to become a healthy person in the process. You can love someone without condoning their self-destructive behavior.

      • Lola Utz

        Actually Mauricio, love needs to refrain from judgement in order to be love. It isn’t our job to “condone” others’ choices or behavior when those choices do not directly harm the community. Yes, obesity is a community issue, but it is much more so a symptom of societal imbalance, so the approach needs to stop focusing on blaming the individual for a multitude of projected faliures and pull back to see all the interplay of power, greed, oppression and profit. There is a lot of money to be made from unhappy and unhealthy people.

        That in and of itself is the root of the issue HAES is getting at to shake off the judgment of others (I don’t support the idea one can be healthy at “every” size but I do support each person’s journey however they choose to walk it).

        I appreciate your article–the “condone” comment triggered a need to join the conversation.

        I’ve been overweight for many years. And my issues were not due to overeating as is too easily assumed by the masses. I was underactive but ate well. It was frustrating that I could not lose weight with a healthy menu.

        After a series of health issues related to digestion, I started to listen to my essential self and made major dietary changes. I basically removed foods that in and of themselves were part of the global problem. Grains, which most are grown in monocultural environments that require tons of toxins (or are GMO) and the demand for which has destroyed soil, forests and ecosystems. Same with dairy and fruit from far off lands. Stopped eating potatoes and any foods that made me feel heavy or phlegmy after eating.

        I didn’t just choose organic, I heard my body actually say NO when I ate these things, so I stopped eating them. I added in things that increase flow like flax, chia and coconut oil and I increased my internal fire with spices, cayenne became a daily addition. I became friends with my body, that is the way to true health.

        Without trying, I shed 34 lbs in 6 months. All my aches and pains have gone and my terrible digestion, which doctors could not diagnose, is working optimally. Now, I am challenging my low exercise habit by finding what I enjoy. Not doing it for the sake of losing more weight, but rather to enjoy my body and learn to feel safe moving playfully (history of trauma-another thing too many women have impacting health)

        The principles of HAES are reasonable (I think they need to change the “h” to happy, though), though too often misapplied and misunderstood. I have a friend who is happier as part of the movement but who is, ironically, gaining weight. For her, HAES is enriching community of others she relates to… but it stops there because her being able to listen to her body is made difficult due to the cheering of the fat-positive movement. It needs to be a movement of that is person-positive. Too much fat isn’t anyone’s ally.

        It is unbelievably irresponsible to claim health can be achieved at “every” size. Happiness, yes. And happiness does increase good hormones which can offset some not-so-healthy lifestyle choices. But claiming health at every size is, to me, a cruel marketing pitch and utterly misleading.

        What David said in his comment about love is the most important message to apply to anything we don’t understand about other people. I’ve felt critical of this movement because I’ve seen how my health has improved dramatically from redesigning my lifestyle in favor of health and feeling good sustainably. I see this as a confused movement, trying to pull different notions into one idea. Living a healthful lifestyle is not giving into patriarchy and the objectification of women’s bodies. And this needs to be addressed because I think there are women in the movement willfully choosing gluttony as a FY to “the man.” Our trauma needs to be healed and released, we should not build monuments on top of it.

        The greatest way we can detach from oppressive ideologies, like Miss America or Playboy, is by tuning in to ourselves and increasing our capacity for love: love of self, and others.

        And we need to stop worrying so much about what other people are doing. It’s hard, because we want everyone to be healthy and happy. But, the world is a nutty place and the only way to make a lasting positive impact, is by healing ourselves (mind, body and spirit). Telling people what to do rarely works, it is co-dependent and makes us unhappy in the process.

        I like David’s “love at every size.” I am going to surrender my criticism and spend time in that softening, connecting and understanding place.

        Thanks for your post and inspiring conversation.

    • Lola Utz

      You have touched my heart David. You are a bright light and a beautiful being.

  • Derek Brown

    It’s a stretch to say I “enjoy” this post, because also living in Nashville it pains me to see what “average” looks like (I could also gain 40lbs or so and still appear average).  But, I absolutely share your sentiments and believe that HAES is a very slippery slope, especially for those who are already looking for excuses about their lifestyle and exercise habits.

    • Derek, if you ever go to a Walmart anywhere in TN you know how obesity is an epidemic.

  • HAES is just an excuse to be fat and lazy. It removes the “weight” of responsibility off the individual.  Being overweight simply isn’t healthy. However, I think the H could instead stand for Happy. Since that is an actual state of mind and most overweight people I know are decidedly NOT happy.

    • Great point. You can be happy at whatever size, just not healthy.

  • JH

    I love that I just lost close to 50 pounds. Because I’m tall and well proportioned, most people didn’t notice until I lost over 30. As far as health, it wasn’t until I stopped taking a long term asthma medication I finally started to lose. Walking and dieting had no effect so I got drastic and stopped the medication and ate sensibly. I have 30 more pounds to be at my ideal weight which will still leave me higher than charts, but in this time I’ve never had high sugar, major heart stuff, or dreaded Hugh cholesterol because I rarely eat fried foods or junk food. I did have half my thyroid removed years ago due to a cancer scare. Doctors did say no running due to joints and spinal degeneration from earlier years (when I was fit). Walk in someone’s shoes before you judge. BTW, statistics show more thin, white women die of cancer and heart attacks and strokes than do obese women.

    • Congratulations on your life transformation. Looks like discipline in your lifestyle choices is paying off.

  • Daisy

    I run 4-5 times a week (training for my second half-marathon); bike 3-4 times a week(participating in a triathlon next weekend) strength train 2x a week and am still 30 lbs over what is considered ideal according to the charts.  When I’m home, I stick to a whole grains, veggies, fruit vegetarian diet. When I’m on the road (over 70 nights last year) it’s almost impossible to find good, clean food in restaurants unless hanging out in Subway is your thing. It’s not my thing.  At least not for the 7th meal in a row.  And shall we even get started on the typical portion size of a fast food meal?

    This discussion is a difficult one. My daughter is beautiful, perfectly-porportioned and struggles with anorexia and bulimia because she feels “too fat.” She smokes cigarettes to keep weight (and cravings) down. Her journals from high school featured emaciated, starving women as role models of beauty.  So our media messages are that women need to look a certain way. (How come men don’t seem to be excessively Photoshopped to make their chests bigger or their other attributes more “robust”?!)  There’s a lot of pressure. I heard a cherubic little girl (maybe 5 years old?) chirp to her mom the other day, “I need to go on a diet and get skinny so my clothes look good!” and that is scary.

    Our media messages call for a sexy, thin body and yet 73.7 % (according to the stats, above) of Americans are overweight. Restaurants serve “supersize-me” portions. Where is the “normal?”

    • It must be frustrating to put this much effort into training and not see what people see as “normal” as a result. I applaud your efforts and want to encourage you to keep on training, regardless of your weight. I travel a lot as well and have found ways around restaurants to get healthy options, but it’s always an upstream battle.

    • Lola Darling

      This is the core message, I think, of HAES. I think what is good in the movement is lost by the title.

      I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for you to watch your baby suffer so much.

      These issues of weight are not as simple as critics make them sound. Your daughter’s issue isn’t about a lack of food, this is the symptom. And and obese young woman’s​ issue isn’t due to too much food or a lack of discipline, again, these are symptoms.

      I fear that until and unless we approach our issues as a society in search of healing the underlying trauma (individual and collective) we will continue to have beautiful beings punishing their bodies out of desperation.

      Daisy, I am sorry for what we’re doing to your daughter. I am sorry she struggles to feel worthy of nourishment. And I am sorry you have to go through something so very painful.

      Your voice is a critical one and I hope you keep talking and sharing. I wish I could give you a hug.

  • Jamie

    Thats a well written article.  being that I am and have been in the health and nutrition industry for the better part of the last decade, i have a few issues with this group.  First, the use of BMI as a standard of health is dated.  I am 5’11” 225lbs.  For my height it states i should weigh 175lbs.  Not possible.  So, BMI states i am morbidly obese.  Yay me.  Second, i think that our culture has shifted to settle for mediocre or less and thats where this group comes in.  Listening to your body is great when it comes to food reactions or injury prevention but to almost give up and say im satisfied with my body telling me im good at this weight is like waving the white flag but the white flag has lazy written on it.  I am a huge proponent of being the best you but being the best you takes work and healthy eating.  Unfortunately, science has gotten to a point where it can keep the unhealthy alive longer and it hurts our bottom line as a country.  If you took a random segment of people from our country and measured health against a country of similar “wealth” it would be disasterous for us on the health level.  Groups like this are taken advantage of and they end up enabling our mediocre mindset.  Why not be better?  Im all for being happy but when people look in the mirror, while they dont need the perfect six pack to be happy(some do), they cant look at the belly hanging out of their shirt and smile can they?

    • Thanks for the insight, Jamie. What most people reading this comment might not know is that your 225 lbs is pure muscle and that you have single digits body fat.

  • Christian

    This discussion has nothing to do with how someone views themselves, despite whatever physiological condition they may be in, rather, the argument is this: can you be “healthy” at any size?

    Yes you can, and should, “love” yourself, and be “happy” for being the person God had created you to be (no matter what size the label on your t-shirt/dress/jeans currently reads), however, we should not confuse the mental state of well-being with the physical state of well-being. Yes, it’s good to love yourself for who you are, but honestly, do you really believe that your body will perform as well as it possibly can with the extra 20-ish plus pounds of excess adipose tissue pushing against your belt? My simple answer to the above argument: a big emphatic “heck, NO!”

    Why do so many people jump on the “judgement” wagon whenever someone holds up the mirror of accountability and self responsibility? This misses the point of the discussion completely. This is not so much about “right” and “wrong”, as it is about “looking at the situation we are in, and what can/should we do about it?”

    We live in the era of “instant gratification.” If we are hungry, we drive up to a talking box and eat “fast”. If we are in pain, we pop a pill and “feel better, fast”. What is wrong with being honest with ourselves? Can we see that maybe somewhere along the way, we may have made a few poor choices? Can we allow ourselves the grace to take true inventory of our lifestyle? Are we able to swallow our pride and realize that we may need to start over? If we see the destructive path we are on, can we empower ourselves to at least change course? 

    • One of the big issues with HAES is that while you might feel good enough at your current size–because you don’t know that you can feel better at a smaller size because you have to be smaller before you can judge the difference–it cheats people of the motivation and accountability to take control of their health and their bodies. 

    • Lola Utz

      I agree and feel that the root of all humanity’s issues is unresolved, unreleased trauma. For many, truama is hidden by the psyche and shows up in imbalance of mental, emotional and/or physical health.

      Why people avoid taking inventory is a big question, and subjective from person to person. Plus, we live in societies hell bent on keeping us ill for power and profit.

      Healing is courageous and often a trail-blazing act.

      If we generally decrease judgement and increase compassion, it will go a long way in creating an environment anyone can heal from anything.

  • Scotty

    The facts about health, what a healthy body is, and fitness are just too overwhelming to harbor a nonsensical HAES view. For as long as humans have been on earth, we have put feelings over facts to achieve desires and comfort. This is just one more example. When working as a Personal Trainer and Clinical Counselor, I’ve known many with a HAES attitude until the health risks became realities.

    • That’s an interesting observation. By the time health complications come on the scene, sometimes the damage has been done and then you are managing a disease not building a healthier tomorrow.

  • I had never even heard of HAES before this post. I can only imagine that it would give people an excuse to not do anything about their health. I can’t say that I’m the healthiest person out there. Over the past few years, I’ve put on some weight, been working sedentary jobs and had stopped working out, but I’ve been changing that up the past few months – working out more, running, eating less and healthier. It’s only been 2 months but I’m already noticing a difference in energy and stamina. It’s not a self-image thing, just a health thing.

    • Congratulations on taking control of your health and getting after it.

  • Tllily

    It would serve you and your readers well to read the book. The HAES concept does not advocate exercise to lose weight, because weight loss is not the issue. It appears from your writing that you do not understand eating disorders or body image disorders. It is complicated to provide a post about something on which you do not understand. Martin Luther King said, “Hate will never drive out hate, only love can do that”. That same is true with our bodies. Hating something never changed it, only LOVE does that. HAES is about accepting our bodies and loving what we’ve been given. Acceptance does not mean staying the same.

    I urge you to read the book. It may not be what you think.

    I won’t post about media, technology and branding if you don’t post about eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, body hatred, and a ways to keep women in self contempt.
    thanks!

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