What are the measures of our success? How do others judge our success? For men, the measures of success have traditionally been money, power and professional rank. For women, beauty and thinness have been traditional success indicators. It should go without saying that all of the above speak more to what lies on the surface than to fundamental happiness and fulfillment.
I've worked for Weight Watchers since the year 2000, and I've been the CEO since early 2007. Weight Watchers has been helping people for over 50 years, and during most of this time, weight has been an issue primarily about achieving thinness and beauty. There is nothing inherently wrong with people wanting to achieve fulfillment and beauty, but an over-focus on thinness has become unrealistic and unproductive. Body image attainment is not the measure of success, health and disease prevention is.
It has been therefore extremely gratifying to see clear signs that the dialogue on weight and obesity is finally shifting from personal beauty to health and balance.
There is far too much at stake for it not to. Obesity, clinically defined, has become one of the most pervasive drivers of illness in this country and abroad. Today, roughly 10% of the American adult population, roughly double the percentage compared to 1970, is diabetic. That's 26 million Americans. More concerning is that the CDC estimates that there are another 78 million Americans who are pre-diabetic. This has led to their forecast that by the year 2050, one out of ever three Americans will be diabetic. By itself, diabetes is costing $250 billion a year worldwide. It does not take a mathematician to understand that tripling this would by itself create a new level of insolvency risk in our healthcare system. This does not even consider the impact that obesity has as a major driver of cardiovascular disease, cancer and other chronic conditions.
While we wring our hands about the obesity epidemic, we also need to change the conversation to fully recognize that thinness is not a virtue and obesity is not a vice. Thinness does not guarantee health, nor does weight guarantee illness. However, proper nutrition and regular exercise do dramatically impact health. On one hand, we need to stop judging books by their covers. Yet, we cannot ignore the fact that obesity is a statistically strong indicator of poor nutrition and sedentary lifestyle, so measures such as BMI and waist circumference, among others, will continue to have their role in helping to identify health risk as well as to measure progress.
While addressing obesity matters, society desperately needs to shed its instinct to judge. The obesity epidemic has been a perfectly predictable response to a food environment run amok combined with an increasingly sedentary society. Our biological systems were evolved over thousands of years for a world of food scarcity, not a world of junk food overabundance. When we over-respond to our food environment, it's not because we are weak or bad, it's because we are doing what is natural. When we increase the amount of available calories in the food supply per person by 30%, most of it in the form of foods with added sugars and fats, we should not be surprised that most of us are eating more.
Recent obesity research is increasingly pointing to neural responses to food, or even the sight of food, that strongly resemble responses to other addictive substances. Simply stated, willpower is a greatly overrated virtue in the obesity debate. The statement, "it's simple, just eat less and move more," does gross disservice to this incredibly complicated condition. This line of thinking ultimately begs judgmental instincts from society that can only make this matter worse. Yes, there is a role for personal responsibility, but it is much more likely to be realized with support and empathy than with a stick.
We also have to fundamentally redefine the measure of success in dealing with a weight issue. Success is not about having a six-pack on the cover of People magazine. Setting us up for unattainable goals will only destroy our confidence and make us all the less successful in achieving the kinds of small changes that actually make the difference in health. Clinicians will tell you that modest and sustained weight loss can have a profound effect on health. A 7% reduction in weight for someone with a BMI greater than 30 will reduce their risk of diabetes by 60%. For a 200 pound, 5'4" woman (a BMI of 32), that's a total weight loss of 14 pounds. This may not qualify for a media stereotype of success, but from a health perspective it's a huge victory.
We can and should measure our healthiness as one of the most crucial metrics of our personal success. Weight can be the measure by which we keep track of our progress on improving nutrition and activity, but we need to dispel our tendency of letting it play into the extremes of media-fueled body image expectations.
14 years ago, I had a BMI north of 30 and total cholesterol of 270 with a doctor threatening to put me on statins. Today, I'm 40 pounds lighter and an at-goal member of Weight Watchers with a BMI of 25.5, normal blood pressure, a low resting heart rate and normal cholesterol levels. It would be completely disingenuous for me to say that I don't like the way I look now, but I am far more self-pleased that I am demonstrably healthier today than I have ever been. This is the kind of success that really matters.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power" which will take place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.
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