It is easy to think that being a low weight is the same as being healthy, but there are other factors besides weight that affect your health.

Can you eat anything if you are thin?

Do you have a target weight, a weight you think would be a healthy weight? You might need to think one step further, since it is not only your weight that determines if you are healthy. Nor is it correct to assume that you can eat anything, just because you are thin. Whether you are average weight or want to lose weight, your body has the same need for nutritious food and healthy habits. 

BMI doesn’t tell you everything

Being underweight is actually harmful, just as being overweight is. A BMI under 18.5 is connected with a greater risk of disease and even increased mortality, and the older you get, the more important it is to keep within the normal range of a BMI of 18.5-24.9.

It is also important to remember that your weight and your BMI are ways of gauging your health, but they do not provide the whole picture. They give an indication about your general health. If your BMI is 29, we know that you are overweight and this might be impacting on your health negatively, but if your BMI is 21 and your weight is average, it doesn’t automatically mean that you are leading a healthy life.

The right calories and the right nutrition

Generally speaking, if you eat as many calories as your body needs, your weight will remain constant, and if you eat fewer calories than you need, you will lose weight. This is a rule that works well if you want to change your eating habits or maintain a healthy weight. However, it is useful to know that this applies as a general rule, which doesn’t mean that you are eating healthily, just because you are eating the right amount –  or fewer calories than you need.

Calories are just one way of measuring energy in food. They say nothing about what else is contained in the food you eat. 500 calories from caster sugar contain only sugar and no other nutrients. 500 calories from a meal with vegetables, a meat or bean stew and rice contain carbohydrates that fuel your muscles and your brain, protein as building blocks for your body, the right amount of fat for crucial bodily functions, and essential vitamins and fibre.

You may have heard the expression ‘empty calories’. It refers to food and drink that is high in calories or sugar – or both – and low in nutrients. Often it contains a lot of fat, sugar or both. Sweets, cakes, snacks, soft drinks and alcohol are some examples of empty calories. 

Empty calories can cause problems

There are a few problems associated with eating too many empty calories. One is that this type of food often means less space for nutritious food. You might eat a bar of chocolate instead of a nutritious snack, or have too many glasses of wine on a Saturday night and skip breakfast on Sunday. This means that you don’t get enough nutrition.

The other problem with sugar-rich foods and fast calories is that they affect your blood sugar level, sending it up high and then making it drop to a lower level than before, and you struggle with a blood sugar dip. These swings affect your well-being in the short term, since your blood sugar dip causes tiredness, irritability and brain fog. In the long term, there is an increased risk of developing diabetes. If you eat a lot of sweets, your craving for them will most likely increase, which leads to a vicious circle of a high intake of sweets and sweet cravings.

There are also risks associated with a high fat intake, especially the saturated fat found in many foods with empty calories. The fat levels in your blood could become too high, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, such as heart attacks and strokes, even if you are not overweight.

Another risk factor is that food with empty calories is often very calorie-dense, which makes it really easy to eat too many calories. Even if you are happy with your current weight, there is a risk that you will put on weight when you eat too many empty calories. That might happen if your need for energy changes, if you start a more sedentary job, stop breastfeeding, or when you go through the menopause.

The effects of mealtime habits

Apart from your intake of empty calories, your mealtime habits might affect your health, regardless of your weight. If you skip meals, there’s a significant risk of not getting the nutrients you need. If you snack during the day instead of eating at regular times, there is a risk that this will have a negative effect on your blood sugar levels, and your teeth will suffer.

Thoughts about food

Something many of us don’t think about is that even our thoughts about food and the body could affect our health. If you have a lot of negative thoughts about yourself and your body, this will create stress, which isn’t good for the body either. It might help if you break those thought patterns suggesting that you will be happy with yourself if you achieve a certain result, and instead think that you are giving your body love by giving it nutritious food and healthy exercise.

Three tips on healthy eating regardless of weight:

  • Eat nutritious food – you need to be well-nourished, not just thin.
  • Don’t skip meals. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and 2-3 snacks are good habits for everyone.
  • Don’t eat or drink foods containing empty calories more than once or twice a week and limit your intake to 500 calories.

By Malin Randeniye, registered dietitian