How Do I Know If I Need To Lose Weight For My Health?

Extra weight doesn't necessarily indicate poor health. Dr. Danielle Martin explains the importance of a balanced diet, staying active and feeling good in your body.

Q: I’m definitely heavier than I’d like to be, but I’ve worked hard to accept my body as it is. How do I know, though, if I need to lose weight for my health?

More than half of Canadian women (about 54 percent) are overweight or obese, and excess weight is a well-recognized risk factor for many chronic conditions.

Weight is, of course, profoundly linked to diet and exercise: The Global Burden of Disease study looks at health data from around the world and makes clear that a diet low in fresh fruit and vegetables, a high body mass index (BMI) and lack of physical activity are among the leading risk factors for poor health. In fact, bad dietary habits are the second leading risk factor for mortality globally, accounting for one in five deaths. So it is important to maintain a healthy body weight.

But this is tricky territory for women because our culture has created a link between homogeneous notions of beauty (i.e. being thin) and health. So when women ask me about losing weight, I often raise an eyebrow, wondering how much of their query is about health and how much of it is about the way they think they look.

To understand where you land on the spectrum of underweight to obese, Harvard Medical School has an online BMI calculator that is simple to use. BMI is not a perfect indicator, especially for diverse women from a variety of ethnocultural backgrounds, not to mention people with a lot of toned muscle mass or who are pregnant, but it can give you a sense of whether you are in the “healthy” zone.

How do you know if you should worry about your weight? Medical or psychological problems are an important sign. If your weight is affecting your ability to be active and keep up with those around you, that’s another. Sometimes weight gain is a symptom of a larger issue, including depression, excessive drinking or a lack of exercise, which is a problem at any weight.

If you do want to lose weight, there are plenty of ways to go about it. The trick is finding a way to make it work in your own life. Keeping a food diary is a good way to take stock of any problem areas you might have, like night-time snacking or drinking too much high-calorie juice or alcohol. Rather than thinking about what to take away, it may be better to focus on the things you can add—delicious healthy food, fun activities, more high-quality sleep —which often result in weight loss and always result in better overall health.

To one woman, being healthy may mean being able to run around the park with her kid. To another, it may mean feeling good because she’s eating well. Those are true definitions of health—not how skinny your legs look.

Published March 2018; Updated May 2019.