I write about weight every single day. Whether it’s a blog post, a patient’s progress note, a journal entry, or a conference proposal, I’m constantly putting pen to paper on the topic of weight.
And without fail, every single time I write the word “overweight” – which let me tell you, is often – I internally cringe. It just doesn’t feel right in my body or my mind. And I think I know why.
It’s not even so much that I think the word is mean or hurtful, though it most certainly can be. It suddenly lumps an individual person into a category of people whom have been stigmatized at every single turn. I think that there are plenty of people who, like myself, use the word clinically to describe a person of a certain size, but do not have any intention of harming someone.
Of course, there is also a large sector of people who use the word with little regard for the person who is tied to the other end of it. They say it with disgust, disdain, or dismissiveness. It’s used as invective and meant to imply something about the individual.
So those things are true. But what I actually don’t like about using the word “overweight” is that it implies that there is a normal weight at which this individual should be. Plenty of physicians might argue with me (and I’d tell them to read Health at Every Size and get back to me next week), but after years of observing people managing eating issues, I can assure you that there is no one right weight.
In the eating disorders field, we often talk about a “healthy weight range,” and many suggest that range to be within maybe pounds. But the truth is that a healthy range is much, much larger than that.
And in fact, research shows that the underweight are at higher risk of premature death than overweight or even obese (the extremely obese are also at higher risk). Scientists believe that a little extra weight can actually be very protective. So if we’re really concerned about the health of this nation, why do we focus on “overweight”?
How often do you hear the term “underweight” thrown around? I’ll tell you. A quick non-scientific review of google search results shows 8,520,000 results for “underweight” and 54,200,000 for “overweight.” That’s almost 6.5 times as many results.
So in all this talk about achieving a healthy weight, the idea of what a healthy weight even means often gets lost. The National Institute of Health defines it through Body Mass Index (BMI). This measurement has inherent flaws, however. For one, BMI makes no distinction between weight from muscle and weight from fat. That means that people like Tom Cruise, George Clooney, and Tom Brady are all in the “overweight” range.
Drs. Yoni Freedhoff and Arya Sharma have a definition of what they call “best weight” that I really like. They say that one’s best weight is, “whatever weight they achieve while living the healthiest lifestyle they can truly enjoy.” Got all that?
What I like about this definition is that it incorporates the most important factor in this entire equation – living a healthy and enjoyable life. If you’re in the “ideal weight range” but sedentary, depressed, and/or have poor health indicators (e.g. blood pressure, cholesterol), what’s so ideal about that?
I also love all of the amazing reader responses to the question of “How do you define a healthy weight?”
As I’ve said at least a hundred times on this blog, language is crucial. Words create our realities, and so throwing around terms like overweight that may not mean, well, anything, seems dangerous.
What do you think of the term “overweight”? If you have been called this, what is it like for you? If you use this term, why?