What is HAES and How Should It Be Used?

The HAES approach may sound completely foreign to you, especially if you’re not in the medical field. But I think it’s an interesting topic for everyone to learn about and discuss. So if you’re interested in what HAES is, and the benefits and downsides, keep reading!

What is HAES?

First things first. What is HAES? HAES stands for “Health At Every Size.” It’s a newer approach to assessing someone’s overall health that has become more popular as the rise of “body positivity” and “self love” continues. There are a few main principles that make up the HAES approach. These include sustainable habits for each individual person, intuitive eating, eating for overall well-being, individualized and enjoyable physical activity, and working on behaviors based on abilities, resources, strengths, and vulnerabilities. It is also based around the idea of not measuring a person’s health by their weight or BMI, and the understanding that not everyone has the same standard of health.

While HAES is just now becoming more well known in the medical field, it has already really taken off with the general public. It doesn’t only include clinical aspects, but mental aspects as well. HAES promote confidence, “body acceptance,” and “weight inclusivity.” Here is a more in depth description of HAES if you’re interested, since this is just a brief overview of the basic concepts. 

Benefits of HAES

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HAES has a lot of good premises that I want to point out. Obviously we are all created differently. Some of us are tall, short, curvy, broad, narrow… The list goes on and on. And because of this, “healthy” doesn’t look the same on everyone. Health is obviously multifaceted, and should be assessed as such. Therefore, weight alone is not necessarily an indicator of health. HAES looks at each person as an individual, rather than a number. It’s a holistic approach to medical assessment that personalizes care for each patient, physically and mentally. It encourages medical professionals to get to know their patients’ backgrounds in order to find a plan that works best for them.

There is something called the “metabolically healthy obese” population. This is a group that is in the “obese” category of BMI, yet their metabolism is still functioning at a healthy rate. There is still a lot of research that needs to be done as to why these individuals are the way they are, and they are most definitely the exception, not the rule. But it is certainly a situation in which HAES would be very helpful.

Aside from the medical standpoint, HAES also discourages discrimination based on weight and appearances. No one should ever be disrespected or mistreated because of their weight, and this is something HAES emphasizes. It also encourages people to find a balance of diet and exercise that they enjoy, proving that being healthy doesn’t have to be miserable, as long as you find a rhythm that works for you. 

Possible Downsides of HAES

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I think it’s easy for HAES to be misinterpreted, and I wanted to discuss a few things that have been problematic with it. A lot of people tend to use HAES in the wrong way, and it ends up having the opposite of the desired effect.

Personally, while I do support the idea of “body positivity” in theory, I think it can sometimes cause more harm than good. Yes, we are all made a little differently and of course there is no one standard of “beauty” or “health.” But this does not mean that there is no such thing as an “unhealthy” body. Nowadays, a lot of people seem to think that being body positive simply means accepting your weight as it is, and using it as an excuse to continue unhealthy behaviors, such as eating too much, not eating enough, not exercising, exercising excessively, etc. Rather than simply saying, “Well, I’m just fine the way I am,” we should be trying to improve behaviors that are bringing us down. HAES can result in people feeling the need to settle with their health the way it is. But we have power over our own health and can (and should!) work to change it.

The truth is, most people who are classified as overweight or obese are not in a healthy state. Countless studies have proven that losing weight as someone who is overweight or obese can significantly improve health outcomes. This is simply fact at this point. While the “metabolically healthy obese” do exist, they are few and far between. This being said, it is usually better for people who are overweight and obese to lose weight, rather than accept their current weight as a fact.

Another potential issue is the idea of encouraging intuitive eating. While intuitive eating is definitely something we should all strive towards, not everyone is ready to just jump in and start eating intuitively right away. If you’ve struggled with being overweight or underweight for a long time, then you probably struggle with intuitive eating. Your satiety cues are likely a bit out of whack, making intuitive eating more difficult. Rather than trying to eat “intuitively” and continuing the habits that have led you to your current weight, you need to work hard to figure out what your body needs and re-train yourself to eat that way again. This may mean calorie counting, using portion control, and really working hard to not overeat/undereat. Once you re-adjust to eating in a way that is good for your body, then it’s a good time to try intuitive eating.

HAES also tends to result in a culture that glorifies being overweight. As I said above, being accepting of different body types is important. But this does not mean that, from a medical standpoint, we should look at being overweight or obese as a good thing. As mentioned above, there are many health risks associated with being overweight. We should not just pretend those don’t exist. The HAES approach pretty much ignores the concept of weight. And while there are many valid premises to HAES, I don’t think someone’s weight should be completely ignored. Weight is definitely not the only way to measure health, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be considered at all.

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The HAES approach definitely has some redeeming qualities. It addresses the fact that “health” doesn’t look the same on everyone. It considers the person as a whole when looking at their health and barriers that they face. And it encourages kindness and inclusivity. However, it should be taken with a grain of salt, especially for medical professionals. While weight is not the only factor of health, it is important to consider. So let’s try to incorporate HAES in a way that is beneficial, while also using other methods of health assessment as well. Let’s find a balance that truly measures health in the best way possible.

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