We’ve Been Hearing These Numbers Forever When It Comes to Our Health — But Are They Actually BS?

by Natalie Kiser

We are a world obsessed with numbers when it comes to health and wellness.

“Drink eight glasses of water per day; women should weigh 120 pounds; eat 1,200 calories if you want to lose weight.” But how accurate are these numbers and are they even healthy for you and your body? The short answer: probably not.

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“Health behaviors, overall well-being, and the way an individual feels is much more important than a number on the scale,” Jenn Baswick, the Intuitive Nutritionist, RD, MHSc, tells SheKnows. “There have been many research studies done on Health at Every Size (HAES) that conclude that individuals can be healthy in different sizes of bodies. A person in a smaller body can be both ill or healthy, just as a person in a larger body can be both ill or healthy. Just because someone is living in a smaller body, it does not automatically mean that they are in good health.”

Additionally, Baswick says there are many layers to health that are not just weight, such as nutrition, movement, relationship with food, stress levels, amount of sleep, body composition, lab values, family history, mental health status, socioeconomic status, genetics, and much more. “Some of these factors are things that individuals may not be able to control, so it would be fair to say that being in ‘good health’ is actually a privilege. A number does not, and cannot, represent an individual’s overall health and well-being.”

Why the 1,200 calories is false  

Before you begin counting and cutting calories to get within that ‘desired’ 1,200 calorie range, it’s important to consider where that number came from.

“The 1200 calorie diet first reared its head around the end of World War I when it was considered patriotic to eat only 1200 calories a day as there were food shortages and rations,” certified sports nutritionist Allison Sizemore tells SheKnow. “Then, after the war ended, corsets and curves went out of vogue. The flapper look became stylish and the ideal figure for women was slim, boyish and straight.” It also didn’t help that in 1918, Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters published her book  Dieting and Health: With Key to the Calories, which  suggested a diet of 1200 calories a day for women. Since then, it’s become the calorie number de rigeur for women. However, according to Sizemore, 1,200 calories is more appropriate for a toddler than a grown woman.

“it is important to understand that the body’s number one goal is survival.  When food is scarce, your body will adapt by burning fewer calories to prevent you from starving to death. So while embarking on a 1200 calorie diet will likely get you some short-term weight loss, your body will soon adapt to that calorie level.” Once your body has adapted to surviving on 1200 calories,  Sizemore says you won’t experience the weight loss that you once did.

“You may still be 15, 20, 30, or more pounds from your goal weight, but no longer able to lose weight, even on those drastically low calories. The only way to get out of this terrible rut is to intentionally increase calories over time to bring metabolic capacity back up to a healthy level. We have trained countless women and those who have the most difficult time losing weight are those who have embarked on restrictive diets, like eating 1,200 calories per day.”

To further drive the point home about how low 1200 calories actually is, Sizemore points to a study where patients in a coma who require a feeding tube were fed, at a minimum, their Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). The BMR for most grown women is over 1200 calories per day.

“If that doesn’t convince you that 1200 calories is too low, I don’t know what will,” she says.

Why drinking eight glasses of water isn’t accurate

We’ve all heard how we should drink eight glasses of water per day but is that true for all of us? Dr. Erica Steele DNM ND CFMP BCND says no.

“People weighing more or less than double that would need to shift the amount of water they consume otherwise they will either be drinking too much or too little,” she says. “Generalized numbers provide a guideline but are not definitive. It takes evaluating your personal data, measuring that data, and then shifting based on your findings to determine what is truly right for you.”

Consumption of water also means factoring in how much exercise you perform per day. For individualized results it’s alway best to consult with your medical professional.

Why your goal weight of 120 pounds isn’t realistic

“When I ask them about their goals, the first thing they tell me is that they want to reach 120-130 lbs,” Brenda Peralta, Registered Dietician, tells SheKnows. “When I ask why do you want to be that weight. What does it represent? The answer is very similar. I want to be beach body ready, I want to feel confident, or it is good for my mental health when I see that number.

According to Peralta, clients often focus on this number due to BMI (body mass index). “This relationship establishes how ‘healthy] you are according to your height and weight. On average, women have a height of 5.4”. Thus, having a weight of 120-130 lbs means that you are at a ‘healthy’ weight. However, BMI doesn’t consider how much muscle mass you have, how much fat mass you have, or what other symptoms you have.”

Another common myth linked to the ideal 120 pounds is the common myth that if you are thin you are healthy. “Which is not true, and the idea that being waif-thin is the ideal to which we are moving away from in our society,” says Dr. Steele. “Women come in all shapes and sizes. I have treated many people that are either underweight when body composition assessed or whose metabolic health is not balanced when I assess their lab work. Many people base their health on their weight and assume because they lose weight they are healthier or if they gain weight they are not as healthy. Health is not determined by weight gain or loss. Health is a state that is worked on and measured by multiple factors.”

Why measuring your BMI isn’t enough

Many of us consider measuring our Body Mass Index (BMI) when it comes to weight loss. However, according to Baswick, it’s not the best indicator of good health. “The BMI has quite a few flaws and fails to account for many factors such as someone’s nutrition, movement, relationship with food, stress levels, amount of sleep, body composition, lab values, family history, mental health status, socioeconomic status, genetics, and much more,” she says. “Height and weight plugged into a formula leaves out some very important determinants of health, so the BMI scale shouldn’t be considered the gold standard of health status.”

Dr. Steele points out that it’s essential to understand people from different cultures, different backgrounds, and different social backgrounds have different BMIs. “For instance, minorities tend to feel more comfortable being larger than non-minorities, and the growth charts do not take into consideration ethnic or minority backgrounds. When assessing body composition on minorities they (we) tend to be more muscular with higher lean muscle mass. Lean muscle mass weighs more than fat, therefore the scale weight may be higher to account for the density of the muscle.”

Additionally, says Baswick, the concept of trying to hit an “ideal weight” in itself is also very nuanced. “An ‘ideal weight’ for one individual of a certain height, may be very different for another individual of the same height. All humans are unique and individual, therefore they should have individualized wellness goals instead of arbitrary numbers that may be really unrealistic for them to follow.”

What to know and do instead

Sizemore advocates to focus on getting stronger and not skinnier. “Body composition is far more important than the number on the scale,” she says. “The best way to improve body composition is to focus on building muscle and getting strong.  This will do wonders for your metabolism and help you get the lean physique so many people desire.  Additionally, preserving and building muscle has many other health benefits such as regulating glucose, helping prevent insulin resistance and diabetes, and maintaining bone health and staving off osteoporosis”

Sizemore recommends focusing on building the small daily habits that will ensure a healthy metabolism, like eating adequate calories and sufficient protein, resistance training, and being active. “One of the healthiest and ‘hottest’ things you can do for your body is to have a rocking metabolism.  The way you get a rocking metabolism is to eat a sufficient amount of food and do resistance training.”

Peralta likes to consider measurements of progress during my consultations that aren’t weight-based. “How are your energy levels? Do you have any other gastric symptoms? How are your clothes fitting? How is your relationship with food? Do you have negative thoughts after eating? All of these are a better form of progress than weight.”

Additionally, Peralta likes to promote thinking of those small victories during the day. “From drinking an extra glass of water, walking 100 steps more, or even adding one extra veggie during lunchtime. We take for granted those small steps or victories that are very essential for our goals.”

Ultimately, says Dr. Steele, health and wellness comes down to how someone feels about themselves. “Numbers do not determine a person’s self-esteem or self-worth. These are deeply personal experiences. The relationship that a person has with themselves both mentally as well as emotionally. The things that the person tells themselves, and what self-care items they do for themselves. Self-care is a form of self-love. Saying no, setting healthy boundaries, and being in a fulfilled work environment is just as important if not more important than weight. Often these external factors play into success with weight loss, especially when considering stress levels, time management and balancing work as well as life.”

Before you go, check our favorite quotes to inspire positive attitudes about food and bodies: 

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