The Other Side: Being Underweight in a Weight-Obsessed World

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It’s well-known that obesity is a growing concern in many developed countries. We hear about the negative health effects of being overweight all the time. By contrast, we see television shows, movies, magazines, and advertisements full of ultra-thin women and buff men–images that often evoke a negative attitude toward our own bodies.

There are of course many health benefits to reaching and maintaining a healthy weight. However, the contrast between the sizes and shapes of real people and those of models and actors has led to the belief that you can never be too thin.

In truth, being underweight carries its own list of health risks, depending on the cause:

  • osteoperosis
  • anemia
  • weakened immune system (due to poor/improper nutrition)
  • amenorrhea/infertility in women
  • pain/discomfort due to lack of padding

I am currently about 10lbs. underweight. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this post, but for clarity’s sake I will say that it has nothing to do with eating a vegan diet. (Far too many people assume that vegan and thinness are synonymous!) It’s also not for lack of trying. I eat quite a bit of food and try to keep my diet full of varied fresh, plant-based dishes and nutrient-packed snacks.

When I first began talking to doctors about my weight, I was startled by the repeated question, “Have you tried exercising less?” I was exercising maybe 20-30 minutes a day, five days a week–not an excessive amount. It still strikes me as astonishing that multiple medical professionals would suggest cutting out exercise as a tool for weight gain rather than eating more food. This shows how deeply ingrained the idea of extra food being a bad thing is in our society.

The other thing that disturbs me about being underweight is the envy it can elicit from other women. I can’t count how many times I’ve been in a conversation about food or health and heard the remark, “Well, you don’t have anything to worry about!” In public, I’ve been on the receiving end of dirty looks from complete strangers. And sometimes when I mention how much weight I lost, I get a response like, “Good for you!” Rarely, if ever, have I gotten a concerned reaction from people outside my family.

I try to make it a point to tell people that being underweight is no fun.  Can I pull off outfits I never would have considered wearing when I was 20lbs. heavier?  Sure.  But I also can’t enjoy walking around barefoot because my feet are so thin it’s painful to walk without shoes on.  Pants of all sizes fall off me.  In a bathing suit, I look like a walking skeleton.  I have no hips on which to balance things like heavy laundry baskets or big bags.  In the grand scheme of things, looking good in one outfit or another is hardly a positive trade-off.

With all the focus on weight loss and hype over diet products, it can be very hard to find useful information on how to gain weight in a way that’s healthy. Essentially, underweight people are dealing with a problem that very few others believe is a problem. In my experience, the best thing to do is take charge of your own health. Read what you can find, ask questions of people you know are knowledgeable, and seek out the truth rather than sensationalism.


About the Author:

Sam has been eating a plant-based diet since summer of 2009 and has spent the subsequent years experimenting with all manner of plant-based food. She holds a Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies and is a graduate of the Bauman College Nutrition Consultant Program. She is a former member of Toastmasters International and was awarded a Competent Communicator designation for public speaking. When she's not blogging or cooking, Sam likes to read and study the Bible, play silly card games and knit socks.
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