A special guest post by Stefani Ruper of Paleo for Women, who wants to remind you that the pressure to achieve the “ideal body” extends to men, too.
In the health and fitness world, we think a lot about health, and we think a lot about weight loss. And it’s not unusual for many (in secret or not) to care more about the weight loss part than the health part. We use words like “health” and “energy” to describe our goals to our friends—but if we are being honest with ourselves, might it be more accurate to say “sex appeal,” “confidence,” or “perfect body?” Being attractive enough to be adored, sought after, loved?
We very often conflate our health and our body image–which is reasonable, given that health begets beauty, but becomes unreasonable when we begin pursuing society’s notion of a perfect body over what is a scientifically and experientially a healthy body.
The Perfect Body
We all have notions of the perfect body, or of what our own bodies would look like if they were perfect. These ideals may vary in size and in shape—people can be short, tall, wide, or slim, and still be lithe, muscled beauties—but in general our ideals are all Adonises. A fit body insinuates that it has a properly functioning metabolism, an ability to absorb and use nutrients, and the athletic and reproductive fitness necessary for survival.
But a body can still have all of these things and not look ideal.A body can still have all of these things and still have fat on it. And bodies in the fairly wide range of “normal” fat percentages share the same health benefits, including freedomfrom disease and longevity.
There are two reasons that the ideal body does not necessarily correlate with health. The first is that a lower body fat percentage is not any more statistically powerful than other health markers, and may in fact be less important for health than things like fitness level and metabolic markers. The second is equally as important: Because stress and neuroticism have such significant effects on health, the notion and pursuit of an ideal body may in fact be directly antagonistic to health.
What follows is a discussion of health indicators that underlie, are more important than, or even directly challenge the presumed health of body image norms. And a reminder that for both men and for women, outward appearance is only an approximation, and the best marker of health is health.
Many studies show that fitness is a better indicator for health than both BMI and body fat percentage. This is true both within and across body fat ranges—indicating that someone who is overweight but athletic might be healthier than someone thin and not athletic.
This study shows that low fitness is one of the strongest predictors of mortality within all BMI categories. And this study shows that, relative to fitness level, both BMI and body fat percentage were not a predictor of mortality for men with diabetes at all.
We often conflate the perfect body with perfect health, but that is a flawed concept. The truth is that a fit body provides merely the assumption that an individual has good physical health. What is her fasting insulin? His C-reactive protein? Her triglycerides? These three markers are perhaps the most important indicators of health, with a wide variety of metabolic indicators, hormones, and micronutrient levels all playing important roles. These are the first things we should think of when we want to evaluate physical health—not appearance.
Metabolic markers such as fasting insulin and triglycerides do, of course, correlate strongly with being within the normal body fat percentage range. But people can be thin without having good health markers. We all know people like this. Some call them lucky. The wise might call them tragic.
On the other hand, people can exist within the wide range of “normal” body fat and have the same blood marker test results. That is because body comp is not the only influence on blood markers. Crucial influences include nutritional status, gut health, personal history, eating patterns, fitness level, sun exposure, alcohol consumption, sleep status, and stress.
The final (and perhaps most important) influence on health is stress. Many studies show that stress, like fitness level, is more important than body fat percentage in promoting health and longevity. For example, some studies show that implementing Healthy At Every Size practices, which means ignoring weight regulation in favor of intuitive eating and living, significantly decreases mortality in overweight adults, and promotes better lab results, health behaviors, and self-esteem than weight loss treatment.
Stress up-regulates adrenal function—and chronically elevated cortisol levels cause a vast array of health problems, including reduced sleep quality, impaired immune function, and a higher risk for metabolic derangement and virtually all diseases of civilization.
Finally, neuroticism, defined by emotional sensitivity and negative emotions which include low self-esteem, is one of the greatest health risks and predictors of mortality of all.
For some, maintaining low body fat is effortless; they are built this way. For others, specifically if they had to lose weight to achieve that body composition, it is a constant struggle. Self-consciousness, obsession, and neuroticism often fall right in line behind one another. They drive us into a pattern of restrictive behaviors, negative self-talk, and sometimes disordered eating patterns; and we very often end up resenting what has actually been for quite some time a beautiful, healthy, normal weight body. This is heart-breaking on an infinite number of levels.
Optimal health does not demand achieving the ideal body. True, holistic, radiant health instead demands nourishment and care. It demands prioritizing the needs over the body over the way that it looks, and it demands dropping any kind of warfare mentality. True health begs of us to work with our bodies, in partnership, and to nourish and nurture them in our health and weight loss journeys rather than try desperately to cram them into shapes they are not designed for.
For those of us who have weight to lose for health reasons, we can achieve that weight loss with programs such as the Whole30, which emphasizes nutrition, healing, and a return to a healthy relationship with food and your body. And for those of us who are normal weight and looking to optimize our health, we may be wise to listen to and embrace our body’s natural needs, and to prioritize it, rather than social norms that have no business stepping between us and our physical selves.
Stefani Ruper holds a BA in biochemistry from Dartmouth College, is an EDPA certified Eating Disorder Counselor, is currently undertaking graduate work in philosophy and psychology at Boston University, and is pursuing certification as a Functional Diagnostic Nutritionist in her spare time. Stefani’s life and work lies in advocating holistic health at her website Paleo for Women, at which she emphasizes healing, the science of female-specific health issues, self-love, and empowerment for women with a Paleo diet. She also produces the inspirational Live. Love. Eat. podcast, interviewing women she has counseled as well as Paleo advocates about their journeys with food, with their bodies, and in their lives.
Find Stefani at Paleo for Women, connect with her on Twitter, or join the Kick Ass Womanhood movement via Facebook. Stefani welcomes all women and men to the Paleo for Women community, and is happily available as an ear, friend, and adviser to anyone struggling with health, with body, or with food.