No matter what our age, in today’s culture many of us have been seduced into believing that we must control our weight to live righteously. While there’s nothing wrong with being mindful of what the scale has to say, we’ll derive greater physical and mental benefits from focusing on overall health and well-being than on weight loss per se.
Attention to weight rather than health begins early on when pediatricians caution new parents about their infants being “overweight” and school health professionals admonish children about weighing above the norm. By the time we reach adolescence, the push toward slim and trim is aimed at looking attractive for dating or mating rather than on taking topnotch care of our bodies from the inside out. As we grow older and wiser, one might think that we’d tire of a weight preoccupation, but we don’t. For example, although the obesity paradox tells us that extra pounds may give some people a protective survival advantage, older folks continue their weight-loss pursuits. (Body Respect, Bacon, Linda and Aphramor, Lucy. BenBella Books, Inc, Dallas, TX, 2014, pp. 13-14.)
One of the reasons we fixate on weight is to feel as if we’re gaining a modicum of control over our lives to compensate for all we’re losing—vision, hearing, and memory, along with muscle mass, flexibility, balance, endurance, and strength. Focusing on the scale makes us believe that there’s at least something we can control as so much else slips away. No wonder we look to weight loss as a panacea.
Even if we wish to accept the losses of normal aging, the overarching message in this culture is that if we only try hard enough, we can stem the tide of decline. We’re told repeatedly that by restricting our caloric intake, we’re paving the way for better health and increased longevity. Assuredly, certain lifestyle habits contribute to staying healthier longer, but genes also play a substantial role in how spry and disease-free we remain as we age. I know of higher and lower weight folks, active and sedentary, who have atrial fibrillation, knee problems, Alzheimer’s, cancer, osteoarthritis, and high blood pressure. Weight loss often reduces body inflammation, but not in every case. Shedding pounds sometimes lowers blood pressure, but not always.
It’s difficult to separate deterioration due to lifestyle from what’s dictated by our genes and by plain old aging. According to Joann M. Montepare, director of the RoseMary B. Fuss Center for Research on Aging and Intergenerational Studies at Lasell College in Massachusetts, “researchers may be part of the problem [in] that focusing on how to mediate and mitigate the ravages of growing old can fuel negative self-perceptions among those of us engaged in graying . . . Ultimately, we need to figure out how to make peace with our bodies. I think it’s time we made changing these views the next age battle.” (“On ‘virtuous aging’ and the freedom to fail” by Barbara Peters Smith, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 11/18/14, page 8E).
In this same article, Hanne Laceulle of the University of Humanistics in the Netherlands describes the “false choices” we have when aging: “staying young” or “giving in to the inevitable decline.” Instead of “active, positive or anti-aging,” Laceulle uses the phrase “virtuous aging.” For her, it is neither a triumph over mind and body nor a failure to overcome a natural process. Virtuous aging focuses on what remains valuable about us as time passes—growing wiser, more centered on what’s important, more knowledgeable about who we are and are not, and less pressured to achieve, succeed, and conquer. It means surrendering the notion that our value is derived from a perfect or a thinner, fitter body.
Making peace with our bodies means not fighting the fact that we will age and die no matter what we do to prevent either from happening. Making peace involves aiming for optimum health in spite of genetic limitations and striving for a reasonably high quality of life rather than obsessing about dropping another 10 pounds. It means not expecting a better outcome from dieting—not only losing weight but keeping it off—than we’ve had in the past. As eating disorders therapists tell our clients, chronic food restriction is one of the leading causes of higher weights due to yo-yo dieting and weight cycling (from dieting to binging to weight regain). This is true no matter what age you are and especially if you have a history of food restriction followed by rebound eating.
It may be difficult to shift a lifetime focus from weight to health. You do it by not weighing yourself and by requesting not to be told what the scale says at the doctor’s office. You improve your relationship with food by practicing intuitive and mindful eating, meeting your emotional needs rather than noshing them away, stopping eating when you feel satiated, feeling pride in your body and in your efforts to be healthy, learning effective stress management strategies, and engaging in physical activity that need not involve a gym but simply moving your body.
This weight-to-health shift also involves seeking and finding passions and pleasures other than making a project of fixing your body. It’s too easy to fall into self-absorption with eating and weight if there’s little else to hold your attention. If the highlight of your day is weighing yourself and feeling overjoyed that you lost a half-pound, something is seriously missing in your life. Find that something—or several somethings—and you’ll feel better and perhaps even live longer.