You may believe that setting a New Year's resolution to lose weight may help you work toward your goals for a healthy lifestyle. But focusing on the number on the scale might distract you from making changes that will actually improve your health.
"I am a strong advocate of pursuing health-promoting behaviors over bodyweight alone," Candace Pumper, MS, RD, LD, a registered dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Verywell via email. Resolving to lose weight in 2022 isn't inherently good or bad, Pumper said. But it's important to consider your health history and social pressures, such as diet culture or beauty standards, in the process.
"Ultimately, the topic should be approached with tact and care," she added. Small behaviors and habits, such as eating fruits and vegetables in most (if not all) meals or routinely drinking a glass of water before breakfast, can, after talking with your doctor, put you on the path to your healthiest self.
It's important to remember that weight loss doesn't automatically equal health. Dalina Soto, MA, RD, LDN, registered dietitian and body-positive health advocate based in Philadelphia, told Verywell that after the December holidays specifically, many people want to work on themselves. "Most people associate weight-loss with healthy," she said.
But focusing on weight isn't always the most helpful way to strive for a healthy body. "What is it from that 20-pound [weight-loss] goal that you're trying to achieve?" Soto asked. Asking these sorts of questions may help to disentangle weight from feelings toward your body and your actual health.
At the end of the day, Pumper added, working with your body, instead of against it, will help you live the fullest and healthiest life possible.
If you think making changes to your eating and exercise habits would make you feel better in your body, talk to a healthcare provider. A check-up can help you understand basic health markers (such as blood pressure, waist circumference, and cholesterol) that may help you decide whether and/or how to make changes. And incorporating more fruits and vegetables and movement into your day is usually beneficial.
Body weight-to-height ratio is often conflated with health. But for years, people have been unpacking this claim.
For instance, body mass index (BMI) is not without its problems. The weight-to-height ratio has no way of distinguishing muscle from fat, or how fast someone's metabolism is. Because of this, a person with no health issues, who happens to be muscular and has a slow metabolism, could be classified as obese. It also doesn't take into account a person's age, race, or ethnicity.
Additionally, body fat distribution is not as in our control as we might think. This distribution is largely inherited and plays a role in how our bodies are shaped, making it harder or easier to gain or lose weight. For example, someone may be naturally thin, but it doesn't mean they're immune to diet and exercise-related health problems.
"Our bodies do not care what we think we should look like," Pumper said. "[Your weight] will be what is meant to be when you are properly fueling yourself and moving in a way that is appropriate for you."
Issues like high cholesterol can be inherited, too—regardless of diet or exercise. These body and health factors, which are not really in our control, make it all the more important to talk to a healthcare provider and your family about your particular case.
"Genetic traits are unavoidable; there is no changing it, but we can learn to accept it," Pumper said.
However, if setting weight goals is important to you, Pumper advised being thoughtful about what these goals mean for your values, well-being, quality of life, and relationships.
"If you fear every crumb that goes into your mouth, then is it really healthy?" Soto asked. "If you can't enjoy your life to the fullest, if you can't go to a party and just enjoy food because tomorrow you have to work out three hours to burn off the piece of cake—that is not health."
If you're concerned about your eating habits and weight loss, consider talking with a healthcare provider or reaching out to an eating disorders helpline for additional resources.
Shifting the focus from weight to lifestyle changes will be more helpful in the long run.
When clients come to Soto saying they want to lose weight, she asks them questions. For example, besides the number on the scale, do you want to learn how to balance food so you feel more energized? Do you want to know if you're eating healthy for your body's needs or be able to move in different ways?
"We can do all of this, without attaching the number on the scale to it," Soto said.
In this process of focusing on how you feel, Pumper said, weight change may happen naturally. But the point is to get there while practicing healthy behaviors—not harmful ones, such as fasting or excessive exercise, which have been used to achieve a certain weight or look.
"If there is just one piece of advice I can give you, it is this: Do not blindly chase after your outcome goal without regard for the impact of the process on your health and well-being," Pumper said.
Pumper also encourages clients to ask questions, especially focusing on what this change means for future life and values:
"Come into your life and focus on what makes you feel good physically or mentally," Soto added. "Let go of all of these buzzwords that really have nothing to do with health."
Once (and if) you've decided to make lifestyle changes, start small and strategize.
"Instead of making big, drastic leaps, taking small steps can help you build new healthy habits and behaviors (whatever that means to you)," Pumper said.
While changes should be made on a case-by-case basis, things like eating colorful fruits and vegetables in most, if not all, meals; drinking another glass of water; eating a cookie without guilt; or walking more tend to promote health no matter who you are.
"Set the intention and keep persevering," Pumper said. "The only way to make progress is when habits and behaviors are employed with consistency."
A non-exhaustive list of health-promoting behaviors one can adopt that do not focus on body size or shape include:
Still, in Pumper's experience, persevering is easier said than done. So she recommends the method of "habit stacking," where people incorporate a new habit into an existing behavior. For example, what if instead of scrolling on your phone while your coffee brews, you stretch? Or what if you put on music to dance to as you clean up the house?
"Habits are automatic behaviors performed without conscious knowledge employed on a regular basis," she said, so adding a little something to them can function as a "seamless transition" from one behavior to the next. "[It also serves] as an opportunity to add positive behavior change that can bring you closer to your goals," she added.
A few more examples of habit stacking include: