Weighing In on Body Image

It's women's Healthy Weight Week, so celebrate your body

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Too fat. Too skinny. Apple-shaped. Pear-shaped. Women come in all shapes and sizes, and it's a subjective guessing game as to which standard of beauty will appeal to whom.

Less subjective is a healthy target weight for women based on height and other factors.

This week we're celebrating Healthy Weight Week and focusing attention on positive body image in women. That means accepting and appreciating your body while working to achieve a healthier weight if needed. Recent research provides insight into better weight-loss advancements for overweight and obese women, and improved mental-health support strategies for those with eating disorders.

While America teeters on an epidemic 30 percent obesity rate, a number of healthy-weight young girls yearn to be thinner, and many claim to "hate" their bodies at increasingly earlier ages. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, nearly half of third- to sixth-grade girls want to lose weight, and half of teenage girls develop a significant eating disturbance or disorder during adolescence.

Healthy Weight Week wants to combat these negative body images and address lasting ways to achieve healthy weights at natural sizes for diverse body types. The University of North Dakota's Healthy Weight Network has awarded several nationwide, healthy-weight initiatives in honor of the week, in which women are encouraged to take a realistic, less idealistic, view of their bodies, and adopt active lifestyles and eating habits while avoiding fad diets and risky weight-loss aids.

Francie M. Berg, a licensed nutritionist and adjunct professor at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine -- which kicked off Healthy Weight Week 18 years ago -- said health experts are just now beginning to recognize risks women and men take to "diet down" to so-called ideal body weights.

"The body resists powerfully," Berg said, and shuts down into "an unnatural, stressed state."

Only about half of the estimated 10 percent of women who suffer eating disorders ever fully recover, and as many as 10 percent of those with anorexia nervosa die from related causes. Patients with this eating disorder inaccurately believe they are fat and use food restriction and exercise to maintain dangerously low body weights.

While traditional treatments, including psychotherapy, medical treatment and nutritional counseling, aim to restore healthy weight and eating habits in patients with anorexia nervosa, new research from Stanford University suggests family-based therapy is twice as effective in aiding recovery as individual psychotherapy. In this family-centric approach, parents of anorexic teens are enlisted for help in interrupting their children's behaviors. The study involved 121 male and female anorexic patients aged 12 to 18.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, obesity rates continue to skyrocket throughout the country, causing not only bodily dissatisfaction and decreased self-esteem, but serious disease and cardio-metabolic implications, including increased risk of heart disease, certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and stroke, among others.

Obesity is defined as a body mass index (an individual's body weight divided by the square of his or her height) of 30 or more.

Recent research from a consortium of more than 400 scientists at 280 institutions worldwide has identified 18 new gene sites associated with overall obesity, suggesting why some individuals are predisposed to the disease while others remain unaffected. The finding could lead to more effective treatments and preventive therapies.

Meanwhile researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis suggest even moderate weight loss in obese people improves cardiovascular health.

The results from a two-year study show that weight loss of a maximum 22 pounds led to improvement in four key measures of heart and vascular health: decreased thickness of heart muscle, improved pumping and relaxation functions of the heart, and decreased thickness of the carotid artery walls.

Obesity is fast approaching smoking as the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S. so celebrate your body this week -- whether it to be too fat or too thin or somewhere in-between -- by resolving to achieve a healthier weight, starting today. Make 2011 your Healthy Weight Year.

Review Date: 
January 20, 2011