By Natalie Leibowitz, Social Work Summer Student
Health at Every Size (or HAES) is a movement that has been growing among health-care professionals and the general community. It is an approach to health-promotion that encourages size-acceptance as an alternative to the use of the traditional weight-centered approach. HAES was born out of research suggesting that measures of body weight do not accurately reflect a person’s health status, and that our cultural obsession with thinness and weight loss is actually doing more harm than good.
The HAES approach aims to shift the focus away from weight and onto health. It encourages nourishing lifestyle habits, including intuitive eating, joyful movement (as opposed to strict exercise), stress management, and building supportive communities. It looks at poor health as a wider social and cultural issue, rather than an individual issue. Thus, it takes away from the blame and shame that often comes with the typical weight-focused approach.
The ideal of thinness leads individuals to believe that being thin will grant them with health, happiness, and acceptance. Likewise, health professionals have been trained to believe that weight loss is the key to prevention and treatment of illness. In reality, there are a variety of factors that play a larger role in the development of chronic illness than weight. Yes, people who are classified as “overweight” are more likely for example to develop diabetes. However, this has very little to do with weight and much more to do with social factors such as poverty and weight-based discrimination.
Making behaviour change has been found to be much more helpful in improving health than weight loss alone. This has been backed by several studies that have found that health markers such as blood pressure are strongly related to lifestyle behaviours (balanced eating, moderate physical activity), regardless of a person’s weight. The weight loss itself only plays a very small role. By focusing attention on behaviour change, the HAES approach eliminates measurements and numbers from the definition of what it means to be healthy. The lesson for family, friends, and health professionals who are supporting an individual’s journey to health, is to focus on the person’s behaviour rather than on their body size.
People who follow the HAES approach find that they have reclaimed the ability to enjoy food again. They are also more accepting of their own and others’ body size, as they understand that health comes in every size.
For more information on HAES, including finding HAES-friendly healthcare professionals in your area, you can visit haescommunity.org or sizediversityandhealth.org.
- The Association for Size Diversity and Health. Sizediversityandhealth.org
- Linda Bacon. Presentation at NEDIC’s 2015 Body Image and Self-Esteem Conference