What marker of health is most important?
Updated: Oct 18, 2019
In our quest to get healthy, we like to see results. And usually, we judge those results via weight loss on our bathroom scale. I’m not saying it’s a useless metric, but weight is largely overemphasized. Weight loss can absolutely be encouraging and motivating if used responsibly and understood in the grand scheme of getting healthier. But if misunderstood, using weight as the main metric of success can be a frustrating, demoralizing enigma that leads to throwing in the towel and ending the health journey early.
So Ian, if we’re not supposed to use weight as a metric of health, what are we supposed to use? We’ve become too focused with things we can see like 6-pac abs, sexy toned bodies or numbers on a scale. Those are easy for us to recognize and are seen as desirable, but are they necessarily markers of health?
I argue, we need to reconnect with our own bodies and listen to what it’s telling us. Energy, mood, focus, vitality, libedo. When was the last time you measured or saw these things? Harder to capture, right? Think back to a time when you felt rested, energetic, focused and motivated to take on the day. That should be the norm, not the exception. These are all things that are positively or negatively impacted by diet and lifestyle. Eat natural foods and a diet that works with your body, you're going to be disease free and energetic day in and day out. Eat a diet that is highly processed, loaded with preservatives and empty calories, your mood, energy and other bodily feelings and processes will suffer. It’s that simple. Isn’t this intuitive? Common sense? It’s these feelings that we need to tune in to and see as markers of health. If you stop feeling fatigued, wake up refreshed in the morning without 3 cups of coffee and have steady energy levels throughout the day, those are victories! Those are signs that your health is improving.
Other markers of health that are more consistent over time are cholesterol, triglycerides and blood sugar. Elevated levels of all three are unhealthy and have been associated with increased risk of metabolic diseases and manifestations of cardiovascular disease. Not only can these numbers easily be lowered with diet and lifestyle, but there are 2 other distinct advantages over using weight. The first is these markers of health have relatively black and white safe and unsafe levels. The advantage is that once you’ve reached the safe level, know you’re much healthier and have a much lower risk of contracting various chronic diseases than you did before. There’s no guessing and in the case of weight, there’s no ‘second guessing’ whether you’ve lost enough. The second reason is you may only get these levels measured once every 3 months or even once per year. With so much time in between measurements, it’s easier to eliminate the ‘noise’ and variability that comes from day to day changes and see a more stable number that shows health improvements over a longer period of time.
The most important health marker, in my opinion, is the confidence that comes from knowing with 100% certainty that you are putting foods in your body that are healthy. No matter what the scale says, no matter what minor fluctuations you feel on a daily basis, you know you are taking the right steps to getting healthier. Take solace in the fact that you are eating a greater proportion of your calories from whole plant foods, and that that is progress. Health is a continuum, not black and white. So the more whole plant foods you eat, the healthier you will be.
If misunderstood, using weight as the main metric of success can be a frustrating, demoralizing enigma that leads to throwing in the towel and ending the health journey early.
If you do choose to use weight as a marker of health and motivation, that’s fine. Just don’t get down on yourself or quit because you are seeing slow progress, no progress or even a few pounds in the other direction. Understand that the more often you weigh yourself, the more susceptible that that number will be to sporadic, unknown fluctuations. One day, you may be down 2 pounds, then another day, you may be up 2 pounds. But you have to understand that that’s not a big deal and you must look at the bigger trend. This is the misunderstanding I speak of at the beginning. My recommendation is to weigh yourself weekly, at most. Choose the same day, same time, every week (my choice is Sunday mornings). Get up, go pee and weigh yourself. Make sure you’re wearing the same clothing too. Most importantly, make sure you’re focusing on the big picture, the long road. You didn’t become unhealthy over night; you didn’t gain that extra weight in a month, so don’t expect to lose it that quickly.
May you live to be 100 years old,