There’s no shortage of statistics and education about the obesity epidemic. We’ve all seen the headlines: over 70 percent of American adults and one in three children are at the clinical threshold for being overweight or obese.
Obesity is also a known risk factor for heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes because it’s linked to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high triglycerides – all important factors in heart disease.
There’s just one problem: education alone doesn’t seem to be solving the problem. Since 1980, the obesity rate has increased in 113 countries and doubled in 73. Although nearly half of adults report being worried about their weight some or all of the time, this anxiety has not translated into fewer people being overweight or obese.
What it has caused, unfortunately, is bullying, shaming, and drastic attempts to lose weight that can be damaging and demoralizing. More than 40 percent of Americans classified as obese report daily stigma due to their weight. Several surveys have found that the worst occurrences of fat-shaming happen with a family member, and 89 percent of obese adults report bullying and shaming behaviors from their partner.
The truth is that there are many reasons why people struggle to lose weight.
This year, cross off “lose weight” from your New Year’s resolution list. Why? Because diets aren’t effective in the long run, and because weight is only one indicator of heart health. Instead, resolve to work on the other lifestyle factors that contribute to heart health.
Bodies Aren’t Designed to Diet
Let’s start with a physiological issue: your body doesn’t want to lose weight.
For millions of years, losing weight meant that food was scarce and starvation imminent. To combat that, human bodies have evolved to slow down rapid weight loss and even gain it back. For instance, weight loss causes metabolism to slow. Hunger hormones spike, internal temperature dips, and progress can slow or stop entirely – even if you’re still counting calories.
The upshot: diets don’t work for the vast majority of people. Research has consistently shown that between 80 and 98 percent of dieting attempts don’t work in the long run. And two out of three dieters gain back the weight they lose.
We already know the fuel our bodies – and our hearts – need: lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean protein. We also need less alcohol and fewer foods high in sodium, trans fats, sugar, and additives.
However, eating a heart-healthy diet isn’t a switch that can be flipped as soon as you have the information. First, healthy food is not equally accessible to all Americans. Calorie for calorie, healthy food can cost up to eight times more than unhealthy food.
Additionally, numerous mental and behavioral health factors – from chronic stress to depression to childhood trauma – can impact a person’s eating habits.
If you’re considering a change to your eating habits, be realistic about what’s achievable. Rather than severely restricting calories or cutting out entire food groups, strive to make small changes where you can. And if you need ongoing support, don’t hesitate to reach out.
Weight and Heart Health Aren't Synonymous
You can’t tell from the outside whether someone’s heart is healthy. At the population level, people classified as obese are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease than people who aren’t. But an individual is not the same as an entire population.
Research indicates that roughly one in three people classified as obese are metabolically healthy. That number varies depending on how you classify “metabolically healthy,” but in general, these people have blood pressure, insulin resistance, and cholesterol levels within normal limits.
What’s more, up to 45 percent of non-overweight people could be classified as “lean unhealthy” because although they are not overweight, they have poor heart health.
If heart health is at the root of our worries, we should take a more holistic view. Vegetable consumption, exercise frequency, stress levels, smoking, and family history are also important indicators of heart health.
And many of these are easier to tackle – and less stigmatized – than weight. After all, which is a more practical goal: adding one serving of vegetables to each meal, or losing thirty pounds by May?
Resolve to Live a Healthier Lifestyle
The bottom line is that for people who are overweight or obese, losing weight is not a bad thing. However, the way that happens is important. Smoking, crash dieting, or exercising in an unsustainable way will not improve your heart health, even if it leads to temporary weight loss.
For a healthier heart in the new year, skip the weight loss goal. Instead, try one of these:
- Add one serving of fruit or vegetables to each meal.
- Schedule a check-up.
- Practice gratitude or mindfulness every day.
- Find a fun and energizing type of exercise.
- Eat one meat-free dinner each week.
- Get eight hours of sleep every night.
- Begin a smoking cessation program.
- Talk to relatives about your family’s heart health history.
- Find ways to connect safely with friends and family.
- Address mental or behavioral health concerns with help from a professional.