Need a healthy new year's resolution? Don't talk about weight, say health officials

·3 min read
The guide suggests modelling the healthy habits to those in your life. For example, incorporating outdoor activities like walking or skiing into your holiday socializing or focussing on strengths and skills in yourself and others.  (shurkin_son/Shutterstock - image credit)
The guide suggests modelling the healthy habits to those in your life. For example, incorporating outdoor activities like walking or skiing into your holiday socializing or focussing on strengths and skills in yourself and others. (shurkin_son/Shutterstock - image credit)

As the new year approaches, public health officials in one eastern Ontario health unit are encouraging people to resolve to change how they talk about weight and healthy habits.

The Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit (LGLDHU) has put together a resource guide for people to celebrate not just the holidays, but also bodies of all shapes and sizes.

The guide includes a list of ways people can respond in a helpful and educational manner if they get a comment about their weight. That's particularly important over the holidays, when many people see friends and family they haven't in awhile, either virtually or in-person.

Danielle Labonté, a public health nutritionist with the health unit and a registered dietitian, says while the responses aren't meant to be harsh, they are meant to challenge a long history of public understanding.

A lot of early health research focused on the importance of weight because it was so easy to measure, Labonté said. Social media, television and movies have also reinforced that messaging, she said.

Danielle Shewfelt, a public health nurse with LGLDHU, says it's all resulted in a phenomenon called "weight bias" which assumes skinny people eat better and exercise more and vice versa.

Shewfelt says that's not always the case: in one instance from her own life, her husband — whom she describes as small — was stressed, not eating well and not sleeping. A blood test also found his cholesterol was very high.

But a doctor assumed he was fine, she said, because he wasn't overweight.

Conversations that don't just focus on the numbers on a scale will give a better impression of someone's health and well-being, the guide says.

Even comments meant to be positive, like "you're so thin" or "you don't need to work out" can have a negative impact, it notes.

"We can kind of turn the conversation back to [how] working out is really just healthy for us, for our mental well-being, for our heart health, for our bones," Labonté said.

Given the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic, comments about weight can lead people to obsess about their appearance, sometimes to the point of disordered eating, Shewfelt said.

Ontario hospitals have seen a drastic increase during the pandemic of youth presenting with eating disorders.

While weight-based comments often come from a place of wanting to encourage someone to make healthy life changes, Shewfelt said it doesn't work that way.

"In reality, they'll be less likely to be active, to eat well, to seek medical attention," she said.

The stigma surrounding weight, Shewfelt added, can stop people from making changes they'd otherwise make in their lives — like working out or seeing a medical professional.

That's why the guide suggests people should, instead of making comments, model healthy habits to those in their lives that they care about.

That can include incorporating outdoor activities like walking or skiing into holiday socializing, it says.

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