Friday, January 18, 2013

It’s Healthy Weight Awareness Week – Let’s Celebrate Our Bodies in Movement

By Bernice Raveche Garnett, Guest Blogger

ICH welcomes guest blogger, Bernice Raveche Garnett:

It is of no coincidence that the Annual Healthy Weight Awareness Week is smack in the middle of January – following the perennial New Year’s resolutions to lose weight that are usually coupled with fad diets, excessive exercise and self-blame. The mission and goal of Healthy Weight Awareness Week – , as stated by the sponsor, the Healthy Weight Network - is a “time to celebrate healthy diet-free living habits that last a lifetime and prevent eating and weight problems.”

I find this mission statement extremely refreshing – not often do we find the word “celebration” next to “diet-free living.” In our current culture, we often forget to celebrate our bodies! There is mixed evidence for the long-term effectiveness of a variety of different popular diets for sustained weight loss. While interviewing community-nominated leaders of health and physical activity in Cambridge,MA as part of an ICH community-based participatory research project dedicated to understanding persistent racial/ethnic disparities in excess weight among Cambridge youth, many of these “positive deviants” reflected on their personal successes and struggles with creating and maintaining a healthy lifestyle for themselves and their families. One respondent stressed the importance of personal health (as opposed to a focus on weight) as being the most effective and sustainable motivator for healthy weight maintenance and lifestyle change:

“Most people – they [are] doing it for other people - but when you sit down and think ‘I am doing it for me and my health,’ then you are going to keep at it.”

And of course – weight is not the only measure of health. The emphasis on body mass index (BMI) as a barometer of health has diverted much attention from other indicators of health and wellness. There are significant health consequences of excess weight, including increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and stroke. The relationship between BMI and health is complicated (what isn’t!) and often contested. For example, a recent meta-analysis conducted by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the relationship between BMI and all-cause mortality published in this month’s Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has sparked lots of national media attention. The authors reported that being overweight was actually associated with a 6% decrease in mortality among adults; however in an interview with NPR, Harvard’s Walter Willet criticized the author’s methods.

The above mentions of scientific studies that have contributed to our understanding of the relationship between weight, health and diet is not meant to further complicate the discussion – but rather to provide room for a different discourse. Gaining national momentum and advocacy attention is the Healthy at Every Size (HAES) movement, which “acknowledges that good health can best be realized independent from considerations of size. It supports people—of all sizes—in addressing health directly by adopting healthy behaviors.”

With national focus on ending the obesity epidemic, I often worry that we are further marginalizing overweight individuals and increasing weight bias and stigma, which can further paralyze individuals in making healthier choices. Movements like HAES hope to promote size diversity in order to encourage healthy eating and active living through a focus on health – not weight.
Given the tag line of Healthy Weight Awareness Week – let’s do something drastic this week – celebrate our bodies in movement.

“Happiness is a state of activity” ~ Aristotle

Bernice Raveche Garnett has been a consultant at ICH for 4 years, working on various projects including: a Cambridge healthy weight disparities community-based research project, funded by Harvard Catalyst; the Cambridge Healthy Children Task Force; and Shape Up Somerville initiatives and on-going evaluation and planning efforts. Ms. Garnett holds a master’s degree in public health from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, and is currently a doctoral candidate at the Harvard School of Public Health in the department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, graduating in May 2013. Her dissertation focuses on the intersections of multiple forms of discrimination among ethnically diverse adolescents, highlighting the consequences of weight-based discrimination and bullying for the mental and physical health of adolescents.
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