What Is Health At Every Size And How Does It Apply To Men?
Let’s look at the concept of Health At Every Size (HAES), and particularly, Health At Every Size for men.
For some reason, the HAES concept seems to get a lot of flak and is deemed controversial as promoting unhealthy lifestyles or encouraging poor health habits.
That is in fact the opposite of what HAES means.
Misconceptions About Health At Every Size
As I mentioned, for some reason HAES seems to trigger people and generate a lot of controversy in some circles.
And it feels like in a lot of those cases it is because the people who react that way don’t actually look at what the concept actually stands for, go get angry with it, and then proceed to share that anger with others who will have the same reaction and probably wouldn’t bother with a 30 second Google search themselves.
One of the most common misconceptions is the notion that everyone is healthy regardless of weight, or that weight has no impact on health. That seems to be the interpretation that triggers most people. And that’s not even a correct interpretation.
Health at every size does not mean health at any size, and it is not a movement that is designed to promote “unhealthy” sizes or lifestyles.
The Truth About Health At Every Size
HAES is not saying someone can be in good health completely regardless of their size – or at least not in my own interpretation anyway.
HAES is an approach to removing the stigma around weight and removing the focus on weight loss as a health goal, and encouraging people of all shapes, sizes, and body types to pursue health and wellness.
It’s not a marker or a comment on your current health status. It is about feeling empowered and not embarrassed to pursue health from whatever size you’re at.
And that is a point so few people understand or seem to want to understand.
We live in a “thinner is better” world so it is hard for a lot of people to really wrap their heads around the idea that there are multiple markers of health – not just weight or body fat percentage.
While weight and body fat can (and do) play a role in overall health and wellbeing, they are one (admittedly important) aspect of a bigger picture.
HAES is also acknowledging that everyone is worthy of respect and everyone can and should feel empowered to pursue health and wellness beyond just a specific weight goal.
Main Principles Of Health At Every Size
There are 5 main principles of the HAES movement, which I have copied and pasted below,
Accept and respect the inherent diversity of body shapes and sizes and reject the idealizing or pathologizing of specific weights.
Support health policies that improve and equalize access to information and services, and personal practices that improve human well-being, including attention to individual physical, economic, social, spiritual, emotional, and other needs.
Acknowledge our biases, and work to end weight discrimination, weight stigma, and weight bias. Provide information and services from an understanding that socio-economic status, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and other identities impact weight stigma and support environments that address these inequities.
Eating For Wellbeing
Promote flexible, individualized eating based on hunger, satiety, nutritional needs, and pleasure, rather than any externally regulated eating plan focused on weight control.
Life Enhancing Movement
Support physical activities that allow people of all sizes, abilities, and interests to engage in enjoyable movement, to the degree that they choose.
Studies On Health At Every Size
When you look at those five key principles together, you can see HAES is not focused on judging people’s weight and labelling them as healthy or unhealthy. It is focused on encouraging people of all sizes and shapes to pursue health and wellness across all health markers.
There have been some studies loosely related to the HAES movement.
A 2014 study in the Journal of Obesity found that taking a weight-neutral approach to managing health markets in patients at high risk of type 2 diabetes yielded better results than taking a weight-focused approach.
This does of course lend credence to the idea that health is derived from more aspects than focusing on just weight.
On the flip side, the 2017 European Congress On Obesity expressed scepticism at the concept of someone being able to be “fat but fit”.
Additionally, a 2021 study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology also expressed scepticism at the idea that someone being able to be “fat but healthy”:
One cannot be “fat but healthy.” This was the first nationwide analysis to show that being regularly active is not likely to eliminate the detrimental health effects of excess body fat. Our findings refute the notion that a physically active lifestyle can completely negate the deleterious effects of overweight and obesity.
The media and people opposed to the HAES concept have jumped on these studies as disproving the notion that someone can be healthy at any size.
And when I saw that I feel like I end up in a loop of pointing out that HAES is not saying that any size is healthy. It is saying that people should not feel stigmatised against adopting healthy behaviours, regardless of their size.
So these studies only really prove a point that the HAES already acknowledges anyway.
My Own Experience With HAES And A Weight-Neutral Approach To Health
My Own Take On HAES
Before I talk about my own experience of weight-neutral approaches to health and fitness, I do want to point out that everyone involved in the studies I mentioned above is much more qualified than me in this area. So are many dietitians, nutritionists, doctors, therapists, psychologists and more – who all offer their skills and expertise in the field of health and wellbeing.
So I want to make sure this has that heavy disclaimer before proceeding – I can only really speak from or for my own experience on this matter.
From my own reading, I feel like HAES is interpreted from a place of extremes – both for and against the idea.
On one side, proponents of HAES really seem to emphasise ignoring weight entirely – which in my view isn’t entirely helpful to the people the HAES is designed to help because weight does have some part to play in health.
On the flip side, opponents seem to take the incorrect view that HAES is saying everyone is healthy regardless of size, which I don’t think it is at all.
The truth is more nuanced and in my view, designed to be more helpful to the people it is trying to help, without making them feel judged or stigmatised for the body they’re living in.
Weight is one important marker for overall health and higher weight can increase your risk of other health conditions including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, certain types of cancer, and more. So it does have a part to play in overall health and some awareness of weight is important.
But again, it is not the only health marker.
And I think if someone was to pursue physical activity and movement they enjoy, focus on nutrition based on listening to their body’s needs and looking after their mental wellbeing, weight would like naturally come into a range that would reduce the risk of other health issues too.
And because people with bigger bodies do often feel intimidated or discouraged from pursuing healthier habits, and because of the stigma around wright, there is an unnecessary mental or psychological barrier in place to pursuing even basic healthy habits.
This is a big, and nuanced topic, and I don’t know if I was particularly great at articulating my thoughts but hopefully, you can gather what I mean anyway.
My Own Experience With Weight And Weight-Neutral Health
In terms of my own experience, I will very openly admit when I first started losing weight, I was weight-obsessed. It was the only target I had and plateauing in weight or even gaining weight felt like a failure.
But when I started I had no clue what I was doing really and having some simple measure to track my progress and figure out what is or isn’t working was really important for me. And weight played its part a whole lot in allowing me to track my progress.
After a while, though it became a more obsessive check and my worth and emotions were tied very closely to my weight loss progress. My perception was skewed, imbalanced, and unhealthy.
I got busy and I got stuck in the 75-80kg weight range for a few years. Slightly higher than I thought I wanted to be but still in a healthy range – my BMI was in the “healthy” weight range throughout.
I was never really happy with my health or fitness during this time but I wasn’t unhappy enough to feel a need to make dramatic changes.
Then a pandemic came along, gyms closed and my routine went out the window.
The silver lining was that it made me adapt everything I was doing and the results were surprising.
I automatically assumed I was going to gain weight without the gym so I stopped weighing myself entirely for a while.
There wasn’t much else to do so I started walking a lot more and ended up consistently hitting 12-15k steps a day, compared to averaging 2-3k a day before that. I also started doing yoga because again, I didn’t have much else to do.
And of course, without access to weights, my training was entirely home-based and I needed to really stretch my ability to come up with a training routine for me to follow.
My diet was good overall – plenty of fruit and vegetables and lots of lean proteins and natural fats. I still had treats and indulgences so I didn’t ban anything.
I was also dealing with binge eating disorder during this period and I have talked about this a lot on here in previous posts.
So some days were skewed high in calories but overall my nutrition was good.
Without realising it, I ended up in a position where I stopped worrying about health surely from the point of view of weight and calories and started looking at a lot more things – spending time outdoors in my walks, mental health and calmness, as well as flexibility, from yoga, moving my body differently with my home training, and listening to what it actually needs for my nutrition.
And the next time I stood on the scales I was actually the lightest I had ever been in my adult life. And I was absolutely shocked.
I guess switching from the narrow focus of weight, calories, and dieting to focusing on all markers of health and trusting the signals my body was giving me, whether deliberately or not, things kind of just fell into place.
Another Example Of HAES Being Important
Another example which can help highlight or demonstrate my view of why HAES is important is in the case of someone who has liposuction. If you imagine someone has this procedure done to bring their weight down, they will have improved that one singular marker of health.
But if they don’t change their lifestyle either pre- or post-operation, their overall health might not improve.
There will be no change to heart health, lung capacity, strength, physical fitness, and maybe even mental health, and the lack of lifestyle change could lead them back in the direction of the weight they chose to get lipo at.
Whereas someone who focuses on health-improving behaviours will improve their lifestyle, set their health and wellbeing on a positive path in the long term and it is likely that weight will come into that “healthy” weight range as well. And in the long run, they are much more likely to be healthy by pretty much any definition you choose to measure it by.
Why Is Health At Every Size Important?
As I emphasised a few times now, HAES means no one of any size should feel stopped or should be stopped from pursuing health and wellbeing.
It ties in with what I mentioned before – if you feel a stigma or feel like you’ll be judged for the body you are living in, you are much less likely to feel comfortable pursuing activities or behaviours that will improve your health, even if you know they would be for your own good.
I had 2 interesting cases when I was an in-person personal trainer.
One of my clients had had a gastric band put in. Until they lost weight with that procedure, they couldn’t regularly have their blood pressure measured because their GP surgery didn’t always have a cuff big enough to wrap around their arm.
Blood pressure is an important health indicator, especially in higher-weight populations, so regular access to that monitor for a more susceptible group of people is important.
Another of my clients had a gastric bypass. After they lost weight from that, their GP was able to discover a hernia in their abdomen.
Now I fully get that with something like a hernia, being able to physically feel for it is part of the diagnosis and body fat will be a barrier to being able to do that in some people.
But in this case, both the GP and to an extent even my own client dismissed any odd feelings or discomfort in the abdomen area as being weight-related rather than even entertaining the thought that there could be something else going on. In this case there was.
Yes, weight is an important health factor, but treating it as a blanket cause for anything isn’t helpful, especially given that people of a higher weight are more susceptible or at risk of other health complications. So it is important to be equipped and able to treat higher-weight people with the appropriate level of quality care.
And the HAES movement seeks to take away the stigma around weight so that people who need it, can get access to this kind of care.
Health At Every Size For Men
Most of the content I put out is tailored at men so I want to talk a bit more about the importance of HAES for men.
I previously spoke about fat shaming in men, and this does tie in with that to some extent as well.
If you feel you’re going to be judged for your shape or size when you go to the gym, you’re probably not going to go.
But as men get older we lose muscle mass, testosterone levels fall and body fat percentages typically increase. So remaining physically fit and active and yes, also some regular strength training, are important for men’s long-term vitality.
Men already have a shorter life expectancy in the UK than women – in 2019 it was 79.9 years for men compared to 83.6 years for women.
Men are also more at risk of certain types of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and more.
So leading a healthy lifestyle and reducing barriers and removing the stigma around healthy behaviours is important.
And it’s not just physical health.
Mental health is health too.
Some of the men’s mental health stats in the UK are shocking.
Men aged 40-49 are at the highest risk of suicide. And for men under 50, suicide is the single largest cause of death.
To I was shocked when I saw that stat was an understatement.
Mental health is health.
Improving your physical health isn’t going to magically make all your mental health issues go away. But they can contribute, and they can help relieve some of the pressure and help equip you with the bandwidth to cope with what is on your mind.
And if you feel blocked in some way from accessing ways to improve your physical health, you may feel the same way about your mental health. And I would hate to see any of you reading or listening to this have to go through that.
And if we can do a little bit to take the stigma away from weight, who knows how many people we can help with their overall health.
Wrapping Up On Health At Every Size
This was a part long-winded and part whistle-stop tour of HAES.
So let’s recap the main points:
- HAES is about encouraging people to pursue healthy habits regardless of their size or weight.
- HAES is not saying everyone is healthy at any size. It is saying health should be accessible at every size.
- Weight is important but not the only health marker and there others too.
- If we can shift from weight to overall health as the main focus, we might see more people naturally come into a weight range that is supportive of their health goals.
- An all-round approach to cover all bases of mental and physical health by listening to the signals the body is giving you can definitely yield results.
People in bigger bodies feel judged constantly, so if you can mind your own business and not make assumptions about them or their health you will be doing them a huge favour.
If I think back to the awkward kid that first got into the gym as a teenager and was never made to feel unwelcome, he benefitted massively in the long run from all the people who didn’t judge him, the people who made him feel welcome, the people that said “good morning” to him.
They didn’t judge or discriminate – they just saw another person doing their thing and were friendly enough to say hi. And it helped me a lot.
So yeah, a little bit of kindness, empathy, and compassion – without judgement or shade or stigmas or whatever you want to call it – might be a tiny part of your day, but it can make a huge difference to someone who is trying to improve their life. And you being able to communicate that you’re not judging them might be the difference between them sticking with it or jumping ship.