The Myth

Guest Post: The Myth of Thin = Healthy

June 14, 2020

Why This Misconception Sabotages Would-be Athletes (and just about everyone else)

By Katelyn Godin, PhD (Public Health & Health Systems)

“Healthy”. “Thin”. The two terms are frequently conflated, in both overt and subtle ways. Indeed, we are living at a time when people’s foray into a healthier lifestyle is often framed as a quest for the elusive ‘thigh gap’ or the much-desired ‘beach body’. (Side note: here is the *real*, tried-and-true, two-step process for scoring a wicked beach bod.)

However, the “healthy = thin” formula is problematic for a number of reasons:

  1. It is fundamentally flawed. Forgive the frankness, but we need to address this one head on. Research is clear: there are some thin people who are unhealthy and some people with obesity who are healthy. In particular, there is growing attention to the many health concerns associated with being “skinny fat” (i.e., people who look lean, but are carrying unhealthy amounts of fat relative to their muscle mass). Likewise a 2016 study identified that participants who were high muscle/high fat (“fit and fat”) were only narrowly behind those who were high muscle/low fat and miles ahead of those who were low muscle/high fat (“skinny fat”) when it came to having a lower risk of mortality. All this to say, a person’s body size does not neatly correlate to their overall level of health.

  1. It does a disservice to physical activity and healthy eating. By framing healthy lifestyle habits simply as a means to an end (being slim), we ignore the plethora of health (mental and physical) benefits that they carry. Numerous people throw in the towel after starting a new running program or taking up a fun fitness class, simply because they didn’t see a marked change on their bathroom scale and felt demoralized. Conversely, we *all* know people who haven’t broken a proper sweat in years and consider sweets as a food group because they can “get away with it”. These examples demonstrate how our fixation with weight can prevent us from seeing and embracing the many ways physical activity and healthy eating improve our lives.

  1. It perpetuates weight-related stigma. Weight bias and discrimination are very real, and permeate many aspects of daily life. We witness it in the workplace, in public health communications, in the media and even in healthcare settings, where it is perhaps most studied. But in spite of its well-documented associated adverse psychological, social, and health outcomes, weight bias represents an under-acknowledged public health problem. When we valorize thinness above all else, we further exacerbate weight-related stigma and artificially narrow our definition of who we consider an “athlete”.

The Tides are Beginning to Turn

Recent years have shown an increasing interest in “weight-neutral” health promotion programs, such as those that focus on the wide range of benefits of physical activity (e.g., personal enjoyment and fulfilment, better sleep, improved mental health, etc.) and promote body positivity. A recent randomized controlled trial identified that women who take part in weight-neutral programs enjoy the same positive behavioural and physiological results as those enrolled in weight loss-oriented programs, and even fare better across certain outcomes.

Encouragingly, we are beginning to see more diverse representation with respect to body shapes and sizes in activewear advertisements. There has also been a massive uptick in the number of companies who make cute plus-size fitness clothing for women. It seems the industry finally woke up and realized that a massive proportion of their potential customer base don’t have an eight-pack (!).

These changes are heartening. They suggest a shift to the more helpful – and true – narrative that everybody can take steps towards improved health and well-being, and that this goal shouldn’t hinge on one’s BMI or any other weight-related metric.

It’s about time we celebrate our sometimes-beach-bodies (depending on location) by treating them well and embracing our inner athletes.

Katelyn Godin is a participant in Ottawa Online Fitness classes, an Ottawa Triathlon Club member, self-described public health nerd, food enthusiast and aspiring triathlete.