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HAES® Matters: The Weight Neutral Core of the HAES Approach

From time to time the Health At Every Size® Blog will be sharing HAES Matters “roundtable” posts with our readers. The questions that appear in the HAES Matters posts are based on questions generated by participants at ASDAH’s 2011 Educational Conference.  The participants were asked to list the most common questions they heard with respect to health, weight, dieting, and the Health At Every Size approach to promoting wellness.  We have compiled responses from some of ASDAH’s HAES experts to these commonly asked questions. We hope you will comment below with your own questions, answers, and reflections on these HAES matters.

Q: Doesn’t a HAES® approach just encourage people to be fat?

A: Lindo Bacon
No. A HAES approach is weight-neutral. The HAES model supports people in nourishing their bodies and letting weight fall where it may naturally.

A: Fall Ferguson
A Health At Every Size approach is weight-neutral. We encourage people to accept and care for their bodies, whatever size they are. Most people’s bodies have a weight range that they stay within once they adopt stable, healthy habits; this range is highly individual.

A: Dana Schuster
The focus of a HAES approach is on empowering people to engage in self-nurturing, weight-neutral (i.e. no value is attached to a change in weight) behaviors. Rather than “encourage people to be fat” the HAES paradigm supports people in listening to and trusting their bodies, and giving up weight cycling and its inherent negative health outcomes.

Q: Why avoid soda and “high fat food” if not using weight gain as a deterrent?

A: Deb Burgard
Indeed, why?

Fat people are tired of public health authorities making health arguments on our backs.

Have the courage to make a health argument on the basis of real information about different health outcomes caused by different food. If you are arguing that there is a health reason to not drink soda, then make the argument.

The thin kids and the fat kids all eat at the same cafeteria. Why do the arguments about the quality of the food served there have to be based on the idea of getting rid of the fat kids? Why can’t we just talk about nutrition for everyone?

The HAES model directs each person’s attention to his or her own bodily experience of what different foods contribute – good or ill. If a person finds that a particular food or drink is temporarily tasty but then punishes—with a hyperactive-then-sleepy feeling, or with pain with digestion, or constipation—then each person can decide whether that whole experience is worth it.

Instead, a traditional approach sets up “good” and “bad” foods, a layer of morally freighted ideas that people have to manage that distracts from the body experience. How many of us can relate to the feeling of rebelling when we eat something “bad”?

With the HAES approach, you don’t have to comply or rebel, you are a grown up. You are freer to focus on your experience of the food.

A: Fall Ferguson
High sugar foods and foods containing trans fats are not recommended by nutrition experts for a variety of health-related reasons unrelated to weight gain or loss. However, studies on motivation in health behavior changes demonstrate that motivation for choices such as food selection need to come from within; using a carrots and sticks approach is outdated and ineffective.

I know from personal experience that when I avoid high sugar foods and trans fats, I feel better. If I choose not to eat those foods, it’s because of how they make my body feel, not how they affect my weight. But it’s not all or nothing—like many people with a history of disordered eating (dieting) I can get triggered into a binge whenever a food is placed “off limits.”

So, I don’t advocate for people to “give up” foods they like. Rather, I encourage people to experiment with making choices that make them feel better one hour, one week, or one month later. It’s not that I can’t eat certain foods, but I have learned that I have more energy and more vitality when I don’t eat these foods regularly. That is what mindful eating is all about.

A: Deb Lemire
Well you don’t actually have to avoid soda and high fat foods if you don’t want to. You are in charge of what you eat. The primary reason given for avoiding soda is because of its high sugar content. Sugar is a carbohydrate, which your body needs for energy. We also all need fat in our diet so our bodies can process vitamins that are fat-soluble. All foods have an impact on our bodies. For some of us, we get what we need from consuming them in lower quantities and find these foods/drinks lose their ability to serve our body in a positive way when we exceed what we need. But the bigger question is why would any company or government think it was their job to decide what I eat?

Q: What is healthy eating?

A: Fall Ferguson
From a HAES perspective, healthy eating is eating that is based on appropriate hunger and satiety cues, that answers an individual’s nutritional needs, and that is pleasurable. Reasonable health professionals differ on what foods will address an individual’s nutritional needs, and the HAES perspective does not take a position on that.

A: Deb Lemire
There are a lot of great definitions out there about healthy eating; Dr. Ellyn Satter’s is one of the most widely used. But to me healthy eating means giving your body food that makes it feel good and function well. A wide variety of foods will help you do that. What those specific foods are will be up to you. You know your body better than anyone else. What is a healthy choice for one person may not be for another. For example multi-grain bread might be good for me, but not for my friend who has an intolerance for gluten. But best of all, because we are humans (and not squirrels or fish), we have the capacity to enjoy food and create associations of comfort and pleasure with different foods and smells. Adding that dimension to how you choose what you eat and when, can improve your mental and emotional health as well.

Q: What about health providers who recommend that people use a HAES approach as a way to lose weight?

A: Fall Ferguson
That is not a HAES approach. A HAES approach is weight-neutral.


A: Deb Burgard
People who are linking the HAES term with a weight loss promise do not understand one of the central tenets of the model, and that is weight neutrality. Because the HAES model directs us to the practices that are possible in our day-to-day life, rather than the pursuit of weight loss, it makes no promise about the resulting weight a person will be. Rather, there is an explicit trust that our bodies will translate our set of practices into some body size at this point in time, and that if you are living in what seems to be a healthy way, then this is a better definition of a “healthy weight” for you, than some abstract mathematical formula that was meant to describe populations, not individuals.

There will always be people who are trying to make money selling weight loss. They are not honoring the HAES model if they are co-opting it for this purpose.

A: Deb Lemire
Our current cultural mindset equates weight loss with health. For many, regardless of good intentions, they don’t know how to separate the two. A true Health At Every Size approach, by its very principles is not a “way to lose weight.” If your health provider talks about taking a Health At Every Size approach to weight loss, while I am certainly glad they have some awareness of the Health At Every Size term, you might just need to remind them that your goals, and HAES goals are for good health and not to lose weight. If weight changes occur, so be it.

Q: I have been thin all my life. Most of my family is thin. I assume it is in my genes. Do I need to practice a HAES approach to be healthy?

A: Sandy Andresen
Anyone can practice a HAES approach to health and well being, regardless of their size. Fat people are not the only ones affected adversely by society’s relentless promotion of an “ideal” body size. Most everyone could benefit, emotionally and physically, from an enhanced acceptance and appreciation for their natural bodies and abilities. HAES teaches all of us about respect and appreciation of diversity.

A: Dana Schuster
The enjoyment and benefits of consuming delicious and nutritious foods, and engaging in sustainable and fun physical activities are not practices that only fat people deserve. People across the size spectrum can make choices about foods and activities—like the choice to diet—that do not support their optimal wellness. The Health At Every Size model is just that: an approach that supports maximizing wellness no matter what one’s body size happens to be.

A: Deb Lemire
The best part of the HAES model is that it is for every BODY. Everyone should have access to information that will support their efforts to live healthy lives. A thinner body may be in your genes, but how to benefit from attuned eating, joyful movement and the understanding of the multidimensional aspects of health doesn’t necessarily present in DNA. HAES knowledge is for everyone.

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