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The Danger of Conflating Thinness With Health

All too often, when folks discuss fitness and wellness they're making the mistake of actually talking about losing weight or being thin, which is not at all the same thing as being well and healthy.

Photo of man eating a burger while having his stomach measured
Sam Woolfe

Sam Woolfe

I'm a freelance writer who is interested in mindfulness, mental health and the evolving concept of masculinity.

In modern society, being thin is seen as the same as being healthy. In some sense, it’s understandable that we would conflate the two, given that being overweight is associated with a range of health risks. We commonly link ‘being fat’ or having ‘excess fat’ as a sign of poor health and low body fat (leanness) as an indicator of good health. But our modern obsession with thinness does carry some dangers. By conflating thinness with health, we often glamourize excess skinniness, which can lead to all sorts of negative health consequences for people. Indeed, you can have body fat that is too low.

Let’s take a deeper look at why we, as a culture, conflate thinness with health, and the potential harm that can result from this connection. As we shall see, overall physical health and fitness depend on so much more than the appearance of being ‘thin’ or ‘fat’.

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Why We Conflate Thinness With Health

Of course, there is credence to the claim that being lean can be associated with a range of health benefits. For instance, research shows that following a healthy lifestyle (e.g. not smoking, exercising, limiting your alcohol intake, and having a healthy diet) results in a lower risk of early death if you are lean compared to if you have a higher body mass index (BMI) measurement. The BMI for lean individuals in this research is calculated to be 18.5-22.4.

Also, we always hear about the health benefits of losing weight, such as lowering heart disease risk, improved mood, less inflammation, and improved joint health. Since many of us carry around the notion that we need to lose more weight, we will tend to associate those who have lost a lot of weight (or who are thin to begin with) as being healthy.

We may also conflate thinness with health because we often see so many influential people in the media who follow (what we perceive as) healthy lifestyles who are also very thin. This might include actors like Gwyneth Paltrow or the various health and fitness bloggers and influencers out there.

The Danger of This Conflation

The risk of conflating thinness with health is that some people may think the thinner you are, the healthier you are. But this is mistaken. Some body fat is essential. This essential body fat plays a critical role in maintaining your overall health, as it ensures that you have sufficient energy to carry out daily activities and helps you to conserve body heat when you need it the most. Essential body fat also protects your vital organs and joints from injury since it acts as a sort of cushioning. Normal bodily functions will be impacted if this essential fat falls below the recommended minimum of 5% in men and below 15% in women.

Storage fat is non-essential fat and is used for energy reserves. This is the fat you will notice in your body. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that men stick to a body fat percentage (how much of your body is made up of fat) of 10-22%, with the recommendation for women being 20-32%. This is to reduce the health risks of both having too much fat and too little fat.

It can sometimes be extremely dangerous to conflate thinness with health. When you take an obsession with thinness to the extreme, it can play a role in conditions (in both men and women) such as eating disorders (e.g. bulimia – binge eating followed by purging, to avoid gaining weight), anorexia (keeping your body as low a weight as possible), and body dysmorphic disorder (where you can’t stop thinking about perceived flaws in your physical appearance, such as weight).

The True Signs of Being Fit and Healthy

The truth is that you don’t need to be thin to be healthy. In fact, many people who are thin are unhealthy. This is because they may be skinny fat – this is when you appear healthy because you’re skinny, but you have health problems due to poor diet or lack of exercise. People who are skinny fat can still have high blood sugar, low good cholesterol, inflammation, and high blood pressure. On the other hand, someone may look fatter than someone who is skinny fat, yet – because they exercise regularly and generally eat a balanced, nutritious diet – would be more fit and healthy.

Being fit and healthy seems to depend on following a diet high in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, and low in processed foods, refined sugars, refined carbohydrates, and alcohol. Signs of fitness and health also include moderate alcohol intake, regular exercise, avoiding a sedentary lifestyle, low levels of stress, and positive social connections. Adding in leanness (thinness with muscularity), it appears, does offer some added benefits to your overall health and fitness. But it is wrong to assume that aiming for thinness is the most important factor in achieving a long and healthy life.

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