When I was a dieter I always had a goal weight that I thought would change my life. I’d get on the scale (if I was brave enough) and would hold my breath as I watched the needle move, calculating in my mind how many pounds away I was from happiness.
In retrospect I don’t know what I expected to happen at that magic number. If I had been less delusional I might have acknowledged that the few times I did manage to reach my goal, I instantly adjusted it a few pounds downward, the flicker of joy suppressed by the sudden realization that an even smaller pair of jeans may be in my future.
Ugh. Dieting is the worst.
So what if you’re done with the dieting neurosis but still want to lose weight for health reasons? Is there a target or ideal weight you should shoot for?
I get asked this question a lot, and unfortunately there is no easy answer. There are, however, several frameworks and benchmarks you can use to help guide your efforts.
Science Can’t Tell You
The first thing you need to understand is that science can’t tell you what you should weigh.
Generalizations about height and body weight as are used in the Body Mass Index (BMI) calculation are meant only to inform scientists of population health trends, and are not supposed to advise an individual person about his or her health status.
For example, at my height (5’5″) a “healthy” BMI could be considered anywhere from 111 to 150 pounds. Not only does BMI not care that I am a women and that I have a small frame, but it is inconceivable that my weight could fluctuate up to 30 percent and not have a dramatic negative impact on my health, as the BMI suggests.
Your BMI tells you almost nothing about your nutritional status, body fat percentage, or strength, and therefore tells you almost nothing about how healthy you are (or aren’t). It doesn’t even come close to giving you a sense of what proportion of your weight is visceral fat (dangerous), subcutaneous fat (only problematic at higher levels) and brown fat (metabolically advantageous).
BMI is particularly unhelpful if you are near any extreme on the height or size scales, for instance if you are very tall, very small, or very muscular.
Most of the critiques I’ve seen of BMI suggest that the measurement tends to give people a false sense of security about their health level. In other words, your BMI is likely to indicate that you are healthier than you really are, as opposed to the other way around. But again, this tells you nothing about your personal health status.
The Scale Doesn’t Know
Taking this argument one step further, your body weight alone is also a very poor measure of your health. In fact, it tells you even less about your health status than BMI, which at least also accounts for height.
This means that the question, “What is my ideal weight?” is fundamentally flawed. Because the answer is, “It depends.” And it depends on a lot.
Health is a vague term, since it can be applied to so many different aspects of your physical well-being. For the sake of this article, I’m going to assume that for most of you “good health” means feeling energetic, physically able to do everyday tasks with ease, clear minded, and devoid of any physical illness or disease. I’ll also assume that your idea of good health means maintaining this status for as long as possible into old age.
Obviously you may have different, more specific goals. Athletes typically have performance goals, or if you have a chronic disability, your goals should be adjusted to account for limitations outside of your control.
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You may also have vanity goals, which is perfectly fine in my book so long as they aren’t tied up in your sense of self-worth. If your life is easier at work or in the dating scene when you look a certain way, don’t let anyone tell you that isn’t a valid reason to keep tweaking your healthstyle until you’re happy. Life should be awesome, and you should do what you can to make it that way.
But none of these goals can be defined by the number on the scale, so focusing there is not the right way to start.
Here’s What Really Matters
No matter what you weigh, if you aren’t getting the majority of your calories from real food, exercising vigorously three to five days per week, avoiding prolonged periods of sitting, getting seven to nine hours of sleep, and maintaining strong social relationships, then you could be healthier.
Don’t use a number on the scale as an excuse to drink soda or avoid strength training. That isn’t how it works.
If you’re doing all these things, you’ll probably find that you feel healthy. You will have steady, strong energy throughout the day. You’ll have fewer cravings for sugar and not mind parking farther away or taking the stairs. You can zero in a bit more by having your doctor test your nutrients and blood lipids, but that’s about as good as you can do.
If that sounds like you, congratulations. Get on a scale, you’re now at your ideal weight. I define “ideal weight” as the weight you’re at when you’re doing everything you can to promote good health. It’s where you settle at naturally from incorporating these behaviors into your life.
For me this process took nearly three years as I learned to cook, built muscle, quit diet soda, and taught myself to eat mindfully. The bulk of my weight loss happened in the first 12 months, but there was a slow drop (four pounds total) over the next two years as I refined my habits.
The sweetest irony of all is that I ultimately landed seven pounds under my arbitrary “goal” weight. Take that, diets!
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For every person there’s a range of weights that are near ideal, probably within five to 10 pounds (I’m speaking only from experience; science doesn’t know this for certain). Within that range you can start to consider secondary goals if you wish, like getting down one more size or bulking a bit at the gym. These things have little to do with health, but “ideal weight” means different things to different people.
No one can tell you your ideal weight, so for now you’re going to have to figure it out for yourself. The bathroom scale is a very useful tool, but the data it gives you is meaningless without context.
This post originally appeared on Summer Tomato. Darya Rose, Ph.D., is the author of Foodist and creator of Summer Tomato, one of TIME’s 50 Best Websites. She eats amazing things daily and hasn’t even considered going a diet since 2007. For a free starter kit to help you get healthy, sign up for the Summer Tomato weekly newsletter.