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Your Normal Weight (and How to Get There)

We just observed Memorial Day in the U.S., and that means summer with its skimpy clothing is just around the corner. This triggers fat panic in many people, but don’t start thinking about dieting again. Diets don’t work, and there’s another way that does.

We’ll start with the goal: How much should you weigh?

What Is Your Normal Weight?

What is your normal weight, and how do you know when you’re there? It’s easy to get the wrong idea about this. You can’t go by your BMI because people differ so much in bone size and musculature. You can see this clearly by looking at photos of people at different BMIs (from Kate Harding’s BMI Project). Many people who are technically "overweight" by the charts don’t look overweight in the least. This is not a one-weight-fits-all world.

Nor can you go by what you see in magazines since these photographs are significantly altered. This has been reported in many places, but most recently in an excellent New York Times article titled "Smile and Say ‘No Photoshop’". Magazines not only remove blemishes, they stretch figures to slim them and smooth out lumps.

To make matters more confusing, people who have been overweight for a long time may tend to retain extra weight even after they start eating normally. This doesn’t mean your normal weight is "fat". The difficulty is due to "setpoints", which are partly genetic but not entirely, and can be lowered to an extent. I talk about the setpoint problem in my book in the chapter on "How to Lose Weight":

The body tries hard to maintain its weight since both gaining and losing are physically stressful. Though it resists gaining as well as losing, it especially resists losing. This is an evolutionary adaptation to prevent us from starving too easily since our ancestors often went hungry. When your calorie intake drops significantly, your body helpfully slows your metabolism so you can conserve energy and maintain your weight. That’s why highly restrictive diets can backfire.

The Weight Loss Strategy that Works

In his book Break Through Your Setpoint, Dr. George Blackburn of Harvard Medical School describes the basic strategy for lowering your setpoint. You can lose up to 10% of your body weight at a time without triggering the setpoint mechanism. So lose just 10%, and then maintain it for six months. Then if you still need to lose more, do it again – lose 10% and maintain it for six months. Repeat as needed! Research confirms that this works.

So how do you lose that 10% of your body weight? You don’t go on a diet! The best way is to listen very carefully to your body wisdom and let that be your guide. (Please note that this comes in Stage 4 of Normal Eating®, after you have resolved your emotional eating issues!) From the chapter in my book on "How to Lose Weight":

To lose weight, you need to eat just barely what your body needs, no more and no less. If you eat less, your metabolism will slow. If you eat more, your body will maintain its weight or gain. You can’t rely on outside rules to tell you how much this is. Only body wisdom can tell you.

Basically, the idea is to undereat just a tiny bit (I define this more specifically in the book). Only your body wisdom can tell you exactly how much this is. Don’t try to lose too fast or too much at once or setpoint biology will make you gain it all back. Have patience. Lose 10% of your body weight, maintain the loss for six months, then repeat as needed. If this sounds too time consuming, then consider the alternative: starving yourself, then gaining back everything you lost. There really is no other way but the slow way to lower your setpoint and permanently lose the weight.

I gain weight very easily. If I don’t eat enough raw vegetables or if I eat dessert a little too often, my weight will creep up (especially now that I’m over 50). So now and then I lose weight the Normal Eating® way – by carefully monitoring my hunger and eating just enough. My experience is consistent with Blackburn’s advice. I’ve never been able to lose more than 10 to 15 pounds at one time. I plateau. But if I maintain the new weight for a while, I can lose more if I need to.

Your Genes and Your Weight

Not everyone gains weight easily. People differ significantly in their tendency to retain fat. Numerous twin studies, both experimental and longitudinal, have demonstrated a strong genetic component. The weight of twins raised apart is more similar to their biological parents than the parents who raised them. In overfeeding studies, identical twins gain very similar amounts of weight whereas unrelated people gain highly variable amounts of weight. The author of the first twin study, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, talked about his findings in an interview.

Researchers estimate that genetic characteristics account for 70% of weight. People differ in their number of fat cells, tendency to store white or brown fat, tendency to burn fat or carbs for fuel, and dozens or even hundreds of other factors that affect the tendency to gain weight. I’m not saying that people are born obese and what they eat plays no role. I’m saying that genetics load the gun, and overeating pulls the trigger – especially overeating processed foods that bypass body wisdom.

That fact that our weight is not completely – or even mostly – under our control is important to recognize because of fat prejudice. The pressure to look a certain way is intense – insanely intense. Not everybody is biologically able to look like Ms. California (or whatever the male equivalent is) without starving. But we all are told that we must, or we’re not okay. This sets people up for emotional eating (of junk food, usually) or worse, full-blown eating disorders. And then what would have been a small amount of natural extra fat becomes a large amount of unnatural extra fat. Once you’ve gained the extra weight, it’s very hard to lose because of setpoints – especially if you’re genetically inclined to retain fat.

But it’s not hopeless. No matter what your genetic inheritance, you can reach your normal weight if you’re patient and understand setpoints (after you’ve dealt with the emotional piece, of course, in Stages 1 through 3).

You’ll know when you’ve reached your normal weight when you can’t maintain a lower weight without undereating (going hungry). Don’t be disappointed if your normal weight is a little higher than what the weight charts say it should be, or what you originally set as your goal weight. The number doesn’t matter. The weight that’s normal for you is your healthiest weight, and your most attractive weight.

Something to Try…

You can’t tell by looking at someone exactly what she does or doesn’t eat, but almost everyone makes these assumptions.

People assume that everyone with extra fat is an overeater, maybe even a binge eater. And they assume that everyone at a normal weight eats normally. But a person with extra fat might just look that way genetically, or may have been eating normally for years but have a recalcitrant setpoint. A normal weight person could be maintaining her weight through bulimia.

Along with the eating assumptions go a whole host of other assumptions about the person’s character and personality. This is fat prejudice, and I mention it because people tend to judge others as they judge themselves. Inevitably, the traits you despise most in others are those you view as your own faults.

If you look at someone who is fat and apply all the fat-prejudice labels (lazy, weak, etc.), you probably say even worse things to yourself. So try to catch yourself in this and not do it. And of course, try to catch your judgments of yourself, as well.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them.

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14 comments to Your Normal Weight (and How to Get There)

  • Sundara Sundara

    Sheryl, this just makes such good common sense…undereating just a tiny bit.

    Looking back, I can see that that’s exactly how I’ve lost weight that stayed off…very, very gradually, keeping my mind clear with pausing skills, and simply not eating food I didn’t feel a strong need for.

    When the stress level rose enough to override my pausing skills, I felt more emotional need, was no longer able to just let go of that little bit of extra food, and some weight returned.

    So simple and so practical. I also appreciate your words elsewhere about raw veg. and fruits on the one side and rich desserts…all true for me, too.

    THANKS…it’s all fascinating. best, Sun

  • Becca Becca

    This article is tough for me to swallow, to be honest. It helps me see why I’m not yet losing weight–I’m still not willing to give up my “right” to eat what I want or to stop over-eating or to give up desserts. NE is still too new/novel for me to make the choice for under-eating (even the slightest bit). However, when I *don’t* think about it, I *do* under-eat! When I’m not thinking about how I “should eat normally” I’ll eat when hungry, stop before full.

    It concerns me that my setpoint might be where I am now for quite a while but, in that same vein, I guess I’m trading self-hate and using-food-to-define-morality for a normal relationship with food and letting my body sort out the rest on it’s own.

    I read an interesting article this week about giving up goals. The premise is when the quest for the goal supersedes the reason for having the goal (i.e when you’re trying to lose weight to have a better life but end up making yourself miserable in the process, hating yourself for being a “failure”, etc). I see that there is some truth to this, for me. Like my tendency to over-examine and put too much emphasis on eating normally (using NE as a guise to eat perfectly!) I miss the process of enjoying food, saving nutrition and all of the benefits that go along with being a normal eater.

    The article on forgetting goal setting: http://www.illuminatedmind.net/2008/11/28/kill-your-goals-expectations-and-stop-caring-for-a-better-life/

  • It’s also worth remembering that weight loss is not required. The health risks of extra fat are greatly exaggerated, and are mostly related to lack of exercise rather than excess fat. You have to be extremely fat for there to be health consequences. Many studies show, in fact, that someone with extra fat (as long as it’s not extreme) actually has a LONGER life expectancy than someone who is “normal” weight or underweight.

    There is no health reason to lose weight if you’re just a little overweight (so-called overweight). It’s strictly aethetics. It’s entirely up to you whether being a little thinner is worth giving up desserts. It’s fine to choose desserts!

  • Just one more clarification… This entire discussion assumes that you are in Stage 4 of Normal Eating and emotional eating/compulsive eating is no longer an issue for you. If your eating still feels out of control, you can’t make the kinds of choices I’m talking about here. It’s only after you have freed yourself from the compulsion that you can choose.

    If you are eating normally and not losing weight, it may be a genetic tendency to be heavier combined with an elevated setpoint. You can choose to lower your setpoint as I describe, or you can forget about it and be happy! :)

  • Emily Emily

    thanks for linking that article, becca! great way to reframe goals (especially in regards to being “happy” and all the requirements we can tie into what that means) into something that works instead of a sort of self-inflicted punishment! :)

    i definitely see a lot of my patterns in that author’s descriptions.

    also, great stage 4 article, sheryl! i feel like my mentality surrounding health vs weight gets stronger every day in this community. this blog entry is a great reminder of a healthier outlook re: choices and weight. very helpful! :D

  • Lisa (Xanadu) Lisa (Xanadu)

    It’s been a great relief for me to discover that my normal weight can fluctuate a bit– I don’t have to be tied to a number. Winter is different than summer; hard emotional times are different than calm and peaceful times. I may never be “perfect” in NE, and my body tends to reflect this, varying around a range of 5-7 pounds depending on what’s going on in my life. It’s better for me not to worry about slight weight gain per se, but rather to focus on what is causing it and how to take better care of my SPIRIT. I can only do this if I take the fluctuations in stride.

  • Alise (octopus) Alise (octopus)

    This is amazing, and really makes me think that I don’t need to work on losing weight. I need to work on losing my preconceptions and negative feelings about my weight. My eating has pretty much normalized, but my feelings about my aesthetics fluctuate. I think the key, for me, is learning to let go of the self-hatred that goes along with being overweight, the feelings of inadequacy, and the social stigma.

    As an aside, I am concerned I need to find a new doctor. I went to a doctor about 6 months ago and he was very, very concerned about my weight, emphasizing that I need to lose weight NOW, not when I’m 40 (because, he said, it will be too hard). It was all I could do not to cry, so I didn’t explain that I’m a compulsive eater who is doing my best to deal with it. I finally accepted his words as healthy, honest concern and not criticism, but now I’m wondering if maybe he’s not just a little too concerned with perceived health effects of being “overweight.” Hmmm…

    Thanks for the great post.

  • Alise – Yale University has a video on “Weight Bias in Health Care”. It’s aimed at health practitioners, but it’s worth watching for everyone.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZLzHFgE0AQ

  • Alise (octopus) Alise (octopus)

    Wow! Thanks, Sheryl. I think I’m going to change doctors or talk to mine about weight discrimination.

  • Maybe give him a link to the video. Yale is very active in trying to educate health professionals about this. Doctors are victims of the cultural myths, just like the rest of us. It’s like a contagious disease: it’s in the air!

  • Annie~ Annie~

    That is a very powerful video on Weight Bias, it has made me think about my practice, I work in a community primary health clinic as well as my own naturopathic clinic and it has made me reflect on how I work with people. I am going to post the link to my colleague whom manages the community clinic, this is really important.

    Annie~

  • Alise (octopus) Alise (octopus)

    You are SO right, Sheryl. I think I often assume doctors should be near-perfect beings with no biases, misinformation, or personal problems. Maybe he just doesn’t know any better!

    Thanks again.

  • Lynne Lynne

    Sheryl, When you say “undereat a tiny bit,” do you mean stopping at 5, or 4? Thanks, Lynne

  • I mean eating to a 5 (to where you are no longer hungry, but not one bite more – cannot feel the food in your stomach). Just as important in my experience is waiting for a 2 before you eat: Waiting until you are very hungry (”must eat right now” stage), and then eating just enough to satisfy the hunger. That’s not a 1 – don’t wait until you’re so hungry you’ll eat a house. But wait until you’re seriously hungry, and then eat just enough to satisfy the hunger. That results in weight loss.

    People with speedier metabolisms than mine may be able to lose weight on more food than this, but this is what it takes for me to lose weight. If I eat at 3 (hungry, but could wait longer) and stop at 6 (comfortably full, feel food in stomach) I will maintain, not lose.

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