Why Weight Loss Doesn’t Equal Health

  • “Eat more while you lose weight!”
  • “Do you know how many calories are in that Easter candy?!”
  • “Burn fat all day!”

What if don’t want to do any of those things?

There are few things I enjoy more than curling up on my couch with a new magazine. The pages of spring clothes, cute haircuts and adorable shoes instantly transport me. I even love the advertisements. The whole experience is escapism at its best. Increasingly, however, I’m noticing that health has become inextricably linked to weight loss. Health sections of women’s magazines, or even magazines focused on health, encourage readers to eat less, burn more and fight fat.

But what if I don’t want or need to lose weight? What if I’m fine just as I am? What if I just want to live a healthy life, no fat-fighting needed?

The effect of these articles is insidious. The constant emphasis on fewer calories in, more calories out makes me, the reader, feel as if I need to follow this plan, regardless of my own nutritional needs or activity level. I absorb these diet-touting pages just as I soak up the spring trends: I should follow them. Look how cute and happy those ladies look.

As a journalism school graduate – or hell, as a woman today –  I’d like to think I see through these messages. When ranting to my boyfriend about them, I do. But when confronted by the calorie counts on the Panera menu, “less is more” is a hard voice to beat back.

The health = weight loss message contributes to range of problems, from relatively minor zings of guilt to life-threatening eating disorders. Our culture is thin-focused and diet-focused and there is a very real obesity problem in America. I don’t think magazines, and media more broadly, have some sort of magic bullet effect.

But I do think a case can be made for severing the health-as-weight-loss tie.

Articles on “Dining out when you’re dieting” or “Calorie-burning cardio at home” are helpful for those who need them. Those have a place, but wouldn’t it also be helpful if weight loss and diet editorials and advertisements were more often recognized as such, instead of lumped under the umbrella of health coverage?

And let’s broaden the definition of health. Not all of us need a leaner lunch, not all of us need to burn off 500 calories in 45 minutes. Weight loss is not the only issue we care about related to health. What about anxiety, sleep, addiction or depression? And what about physical health beyond weight loss?: Weight training with an emphasis on strength, rather than calorie burn, for instance.

Thinking that health is a one-size-fits-all concept serves no one. It overlooks a significant segment of people who don’t want or need to lose weight, or who shouldn’t. If the goal is to keep everyone healthy–isn’t this counter-intuitive?

I want to be healthy. I don’t want to lose weight. Simple. Health messages should be similarly clear.

Clare Milliken is a Chicago-based writer and editor, with a knack for closet organization and urban hiking. If she ever finds a way to make a career out of hip-hop dancing, Real Simple and talking to strangers, she’ll be certain she’s on the right track. Follow Clare on Twitter.