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The Health-At-Every-Size Approach: What is it All About?

Hardly a day goes by without hearing about the growing “obesity crisis” from either the media, government officials, or health professionals. Despite all the attention to mainstream solutions –– restrictive diets, exercise programs, and weight loss  –– obesity levels continue to rise in the U.S. (1).This conundrum prompted scientific and medical minds to re-evaluate these “weight-loss for health recommendations” and their short-term results. Oftentimes, they're left wondering, what if we measured optimal health on healthy behavior changes versus the number on a scale or inches on the belly? These kinds of challenges to the status quo, along with a growing body of supportive research, led to the birth of a non-diet and size acceptance movement known as Health-At-Every-Size (HAES) (2).

Disclaimer: This article does not aim to be a substitute for medical, health or nutrition treatment. Please consult a medical professional and/or a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist that aligns with your values before making any significant changes to your dietary and/or physical activity patterns.

The Break Down on Health-At-Every-Size

Black woman sitting with flower

 

HAES is a holistic and scientifically-studied approach to addressing obesity and other weight related concerns. HAES recognizes that optimal health and mental well-being are multi-dimensional. Therefore, health risks linked with obesity can result from many factors, not just excess pounds –– like an inactive lifestyle, unbalanced nutrition, weight cycling, disordered eating, stress, and other social determinants of health (financial stability, education, healthcare, environment, and social interactions) (3). The three major focuses of HAES are size acceptance and self acceptance, life-enhancing physical activity, and normalized eating behaviors (4).

Let's take a look at all three...

  1. Size Acceptance and Self Acceptance: Take a quick look at the world around you. There is a natural diversity of body weight, shapes, and sizes. Size acceptance centers on respecting this body diversity and appreciating the body you have at any given time (5). Self acceptance dictates that human worth is not based on external factors (like body weight, size, shape) but rather it empowers you to make positive changes in your life.
  2. Life-enhancing Physical Activity: It’s widely known that physical activity is an important element in overall health and mental well-being. HAES supports increasing social and pleasure-based movement to enhance your quality of life. Traditional exercise programs focus on calories burned and weight lost; however, HAES has found when physical activity is rewarding and fits into your life’s circumstances, it can be just as beneficial and longer-lasting (4).
  3. Normalized Eating Behaviors: The key here is to trust your body’s natural instinct towards balanced eating and its amazing ability to settle into a weight, shape, or size that is healthy for you (and only you). HAES promotes re-learning to eat in a way that meets nutritional needs while honoring hunger, fullness, and taste cues (3). By removing external food rules and restrictive methods, you can develop an intuitive and lifelong eating pattern.

3 Common Myths About Health-At-Every-Size

People on the street looking for directions or at a sign

 

Myth 1: Promoting Size Acceptance is Dangerous

Reality: False. There's no harm in supporting positive and healthy behavior changes for people of all body sizes (Bacon, 2010). Respecting and appreciating your body are much greater motivators for optimal health and well-being than judgement and body shame.

Myth 2: HAES Can’t Improve Health

Reality: Incorrect. The HAES approach has been evaluated, researched, and published in many peer-reviewed scientific journals, with more and more studies being conducted year after year (Bacon, 2010). The results find that the HAES is much more effective at improving physical and mental health outcomes than traditional restrictive diet and exercise programs (3,4). Plus, HAES leads to on-going healthy eating and physical activity that can last a lifetime.

Myth 3: HAES is Anti-Weight Loss

Reality: Wrong. The HAES approach is not anti-weight loss; however, it does challenge the assumption that weight defines health and offers a weight-inclusive model of care (6). There may or may not be weight-loss, as people’s bodies move toward more fulfilling lifestyles. The body is wonderfully adaptive and while practicing HAES people’s bodies will settle into a weight that is healthy for them (4).

3 Ways to Start Your Health-At-Every-Size Journey

Table with flowers, bread, olive oil and drink

  1. Knowledge is power! There are resources to get expert guidance about HAES. Health-At-Every-Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, a book by Lindo Bacon, PhD and the Association of Size Diversity and Health are great places to start.
  2. Try New Tasty Recipes! A part of building a more positive relationship with food is being aware of hunger, fullness, and taste preferences. Checkout some of these snack and meal recipes and see what excites your taste buds!
  3. Practice Self Acceptance! In your day-to-day life, these are three small ways to practice self acceptance: take a moment to celebrate accomplishments, be kind to yourself, and challenge the inner critic.

The Takeaway Message

There is more than one road to optimal health and mental well-being. The support for size acceptance and non-restrictive diet movements is growing. Health-At-Every-Size is a holistic and compassionate approach to physical health and weight-related concerns. Encouraging size acceptance, finding joy in movement, reducing harmful eating behaviors, and increasing awareness of body cues can truly impact quality of life.

Like this post? Check out our other posts on Olivaio’s Health & Recipe section.

Written by Carmen Castro

Reviewed by Kelly Powers, MA, RDN, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who takes a holistic approach to nutrition and health. Kelly is a recipe developer with a food blog highlighting whole foods, simple recipes, and her life in San Francisco. She’s the creator of 52 Weeks, a weekly meal plan program that helps users get back in the kitchen and feed themselves well. Kelly is also a co-founder of Olivaio.

Image Credit: upsplash.com/@canweallgo; upsplash.com/@meganmarkham; pexels.com/@antetelusina; pexels.com/@brettsayles

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Is Health-At-Every-Size just another diet and exercise program?
A: No. Traditional diet and exercise programs are about controlling/restricting food intake (calories, grams, fats, carbs etc.) and intense exercise to support weight loss. HAES removes the hyper-focus of body weight, size, or shape. Instead the approach encourages long-lasting behavior changes which results in better health and mental health outcomes.

Q: How do Health-At-Every-Size practitioners measure health, if not by body weight & size?
A: HAES looks at the whole picture of health. Therefore, practitioners take many things into consideration like: blood pressure, blood glucose (sugar) levels, cholesterol, hormone levels, disordered eating behaviors, psychological characteristics (depression, self-esteem, body image etc.), and physical activity levels.

Q: Is the Health-At-Every-Size approach backed up by science?
A: Yes. Non-diet and size acceptance approaches are rising with the scientific evidence to back it up. Two have been cited in the article, but more HAES research is only a Google Scholar search away.

References

Bacon, L. (2010). Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, Inc.