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What is HAES anyway?

Health: As officially defined by the World Health Organization, a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

Since coming back on Instagram one thing I’ve noticed more – and it could just be the strength in the voice – is how more people are talking about health at every size. I think this is an important conversation because there are healthy behaviors that we can be doing or improving at every size, however, it doesn’t necessarily mean that every size is healthy.

In March, I wrote a blog post talking about body positivity, diet culture and where health may or may not fit into that conversation. Recently, I’ve seen a few more things pop up in my feed that sparked me to go get more information about the topic.

What is Health at Every Size?

Similar to intuitive eating, the idea or principles behind health at every size (HAES) are getting misunderstood and then miscommunicated.

According to the Association for Size Diversity and Health, the principles for HAES are:

  • Weight inclusivity: Accept and respect the inherent diversity of body shapes and sizes and rejecting the idealizing or pathologizing of specific weights.
  • Health enhancement: Support health policies that improve and equalize access to information and services, and personal practices that improve human well-being, including attention to individual physical, economic, social, spiritual, emotional, and other needs.
  • Respectful Care: Acknowledge our biases, and work to end weight discrimination, weight stigma, and weight bias. Provide information and services from an understanding that socio-economic status, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and other identities impact weight stigma, and support environments that address these inequities.
  • Eating for Well-being: Promote flexible, individualized eating based on hunger, satiety, nutritional needs, and pleasure, rather than any externally regulated eating plan focused on weight control.
  • Life-Enhancing Movement: Support physical activities that allow people of all sizes, abilities, and interests to engage in enjoyable movement, to the degree that they choose.

The HAES Community web site, adds “values body knowledge and lived experiences” as well as “challenges scientific and cultural assumptions”.

And, a post from the National Eating Disorder Association and Dr. Deah Schwartz, acknowledges that there are benefits from HAES principles, and that different practitioners may have disagreements about additional strategies to assist those with body dissatisfaction. Everyone is different. Scwartz wrote that societal factors make eating disorders and body size complex scenarios, but that HAES is a “weight-neutral” approach and allows individuals to be more intuitive with their eating as well as develop a healthier relationship with themselves.

I agree so much with this, except the challenging scientific assumptions part.

I think this needs to be a bit more specific because we do know that overweightness causes stress on joints and that can be damaging to tissues, cartilage and bone. But yes, while obesity is associated with many chronic illnesses it doesn’t mean that you will develop one, it does mean that you may be at a higher risk for developing one. The flipside – being thin or fit doesn’t mean you’re healthy either.

Mental health doesn’t discriminate and we do know that there are other health conditions associated with low body fat percentages like amenorrhea (absent menstrual periods) or osteoporosis or muscle atrophy from malnutrition.

I’ve said before that I think you should like or love yourself at all sizes because size doesn’t equate happiness. This is something that I and other coaches and trainers personally work on – we are not perfect in our self thoughts either. Mental health can and should be explored, worked on, developed – whatever, at all sizes whether with a professional or by reading if it’s something that is still found to be challenging.

In the beginning of my journey I know that wasn’t something I was prioritizing well – at least not actively. I went to therapy and I listened, I took advice, I tried different approaches, but it wasn’t something that I owned. As my journey developed I realized how important my mental health was and how it played a highly active role in my physical health and behaviors.

Over the past few years, as I started coaching this is something I encourage clients to consider at all parts of their journey. We talk about the choices they do have and how their environments lead to their reactions – healthy and unhealthy. We talk about what their physical health goals are and what those actually mean for them and their quality of life. Is it really about the 5 pounds or do you want to get stronger, feel good in your skin and feel confident in your life choices?

Living by HAES doesn’t mean that you don’t want to exercise or you don’t want to change your body, but it acknowledges, just like I do as a health coach – that health means a lot of different things and should be looked at through different lenses for every single person.

Health isn’t just about the foods we are or aren’t consuming.

Health isn’t just about how we move or don’t move our bodies.

Health isn’t just about the thoughts in our heads.

It’s culture, it’s financial, it’s intertwined, it’s messy.

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