Study Shows Lesbian, Bi Women Aim To Be Healthier, Not Thinner

We’re trying a new approach with our news coverage starting this week! Instead of posting two link roundups per week, as we’ve been doing, we will instead post at least two stand-alone stories throughout the week, with one longer link roundup at the end of each week. Thank you for reading!


Numerous studies have found the LGBT community are at a higher risk for poor mental and physical health than straight people. We’re more likely to drink more, smoke more and report more physical and mental health issues and if you’re bisexual and/or trans, you’re at an even higher risk than the rest of the queer community. Recently, the National Health Interview Survey included questions about sexual orientation in their 2013 and 2014 surveys and found LGB participants “were more likely to report impaired physical and mental health, heavy alcohol consumption, and heavy cigarette use, potentially due to the stressors that (they) experience as a result of interpersonal and structural discrimination,” researchers wrote. Furthermore, it’s more difficult for LGBT folks to access healthcare due to poverty and discrimination within the system.

One team of researchers is trying to help figure out solutions to help queer women live a healthier life. Dr. Jane McElroy, a professor of family and community medicine at the University of Missouri, and her team led a first of its kind study to prevent obesity in lesbian and bisexual communities. In 2011, the Institute of Medicine reported that lesbian and bisexual women “may be at a greater risk of obesity” than straight women. This study prompted the Office on Women’s Health, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to launch its Healthy Weight in Lesbian and Bisexual Women (HWLB) program in 2012.

McElroy’s team tested the HWLB program to further develop health programs aimed at lesbian and bisexual communities. Over 250 cis women ages 40 and older across 10 cities participated in this landmark study. They had a pretty amazing success rate with 95 percent of the women achieving one of the program’s goals and 58 percent meeting three or more goals. What was the key to the women’s success? The study didn’t focus on weight-loss — instead it focused on the improvement of the woman’s overall health.

Previous studies have found lesbian and bisexual women have different attitudes towards body image and are more satisfied with their body than straight women, which could also be a factor as to why queer women are more “overweight” than straight women.“There’s a culture within the community that has acceptance of a larger body size,” Dr. McElroy told the Daily Beast. “And this seems to also occur with better body image and self-esteem.”

These “unique concerns” were crucial to study’s different approach. Previous research shows that lesbian and bisexual women want a “sense of community,” a “safe environment” to talk about their partners without fear of discrimination and want to focus on their health instead of losing weight.

The HWLB program was designed to help each woman reach her own cardiovascular and metabolic goals rather than focusing on reaching a certain BMI. For example, goals in the program included increasing minutes of physical activity, increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables and consuming less sugar-sweetened and alcoholic beverages. The women were successful in adopting healthier habits — with nearly 60 percent of the participants spending 20 more minutes per week being physically active. Forty percent of the women cut their intake of sugary drinks and alcohol in half. Twenty-nine percent of the women decreased their waist-to-height ratios by five percent.

All of the pilot programs across the 10 different cities in California, Missouri, Maryland and New York, were run in partnership with LGBT organizations, which helped the women feel more comfortable and safe while participating. They were involved in weekly group meetings, nutrition education and physical activity.

McElroy believes the result from the study “can motivate other communities to develop tailored interventions to support lesbian and bisexual women in achieving the active healthy lives they desire.”

Yvonne S. Marquez is a lesbian journalist and Autostraddle senior editor living in Dallas, TX. She writes about social justice, politics, activism and other things dear to her heart like Selena and tacos. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism and has since written and edited lots of gay stuff for the internet. Yvonne calls the borderlands home, strongly identifies with her Scorpio moon sign, and really hopes to crush the patriarchy soon. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.

Yvonne S. has written 202 articles for us.

31 Comments

  1. YAY! This is what my girlfriend and I are doing together. We stopped drinking soda, and have been walking and going on bike rides together. We both love our bodies; we just want to be healthier, and I really wish more people focused on that than losing weight.

  2. I feel this hard: my ankles and feet have started to swell worryingly at work, where I can be standing for 12 hours a day, and strengthening my muscles and losing a little weight feels like something my livelihood and welfare is going to depend on in the mid-term. I put them up and all that, but it’s just not cutting it anymore; and this is complicated since I injured my feet at work a couple of years ago.

    So far it’s really helping my circulation and i’m struck how groups of muscles I used all the time at the gym, back in my 20s, feel small and weak (and ache like I’ve had them in a cast, after a workout). Exercise sessions feel surprisingly good in general, however: I find I just want to keep going, because it feels so noticeably beneficial now. Just gotta stay smart with the pacing and remember the Rock’s (linked by a friend) advice that the main thing is to build the habit of actually going regularly; don’t feel like exercising? Go to the gym, sit on a cycle and read a paper; maybe you end up doing some gentle pedalling for an hour, that’s fine.

    My ultimate goal: to be able to squat and pick things up without groaning and wobbling! xD

  3. I wanted to add some links for anyone interested in pursuing this issue further:

    ASDAH is an international professional organization composed of members committed to the Health At Every Size® (HAES®) Principles: Our mission is to promote education, research, and the provision of services which enhance health and well-being, and which are free from weight-based assumptions and weight discrimination.
    https://www.sizediversityandhealth.org/

    They have a “Health At Every Size” blog and free electronic newsletter, which you can subscribe to at:
    https://healthateverysizeblog.org/

    Here’s a link to an article about the travesty of BMI as a measure of supposed health:
    https://healthateverysizeblog.org/2016/04/14/the-haes-files-body-mass-index-is-not-a-good-measure-of-your-health/

    There are others (organizations, books, non-brainwashed health experts, etc), but those are the ones I have at hand this moment.

  4. This was super interesting! Thanks for the article! I’m excited to see new content. I like the link round-ups but I’ve been feeling lately that Autostraddle is becoming a lot more listicles rather than articles. I hope this new format helps bring more interesting reporting to the site!

  5. I can relate to this. I’m trying to get back on the workout wagon myself. Yes, I’m a squishy lardbutt at present, but that isn’t really why I’m unsatisfied with my body and it’s not my motivation. I don’t feel bad that I weigh between 215 and 220 these days. I feel bad that I can’t bench even 150 lbs. raw anymore or get through a set of deadlifts without the grip in one or both hands failing. Would I like to weigh a little less? Yeah, sure. But what I’d love even more is to not have to cut a session of throw-and-catch short because my back slipped out after I jumped for that high ball. What I’d love most is to deadlift 300 lbs. or crush an obstacle course. Or even just get through an activity that I like and want to do without feeling dizzy and sick.

    Now, granted, not everyone here is a sporty sister. Not everyone takes pride in being a badass and feels less-than when you come up short. But I think a lot of us know what that feels like. Exercise and lifestyle programs that focus on being capable and feeling better in your own skin are way more appealing than those that emphasize weight loss.

    In other news, my gym, which has been temporarily closed, opens back up in a new location tomorrow. I’m stoked to go back, but there’s that voice in my head that’s definitely like, “You’re going to fail and hurt yourself and you’ll never be what you were, if you ever even were that at all.” Shut up, voice. I’m not listening to you. I’ma crank up this Disturbed song instead.

  6. I really relate to this. I’ve been walking or running every day of the week (until I got sick recently, but yeah). I’m also on metformin now, which is at least preventing more weight gain. My problem is that I can’t seem to figure the diet part out. I don’t care much about losing weight (although it would be nice to face less discrimination because of my size!), but I have brutal fatigue and IBS-D and would really like to get things under control. I tried doing keto but it was really discouraging, because all anyone cares about in the online communities is losing weight. And I didn’t exactly thrive on keto, even though I did lose some weight. I’d rather be able to function and not run to the toilet every hour. But there’s no community AFAIK for people doing any diet for health reasons.

    All I really know is that I seem to do best with high fiber and low grains. I don’t seem to do any better on <50g carbs than I do on a normal amount of carbs. =/

    Anyway, I find that I'm more likely to exercise when it's fun. That's why I like Zombies, Run! It's free or cheap, super gay (and lesbian, and bi), and extremely fun.

    • Ugh, the diet community thing is so difficult. I often find it hard to get specialized recipes online (say, low-glycemic-index recipes for me and my fatigue issues, or gluten free stuff to cook for my friends with celiac) without encountering weight loss jargon. And everyone in these online communities seems so concerned with logging their calories, which I can’t do because it’s an ED trigger for me. So I really feel you on that. If you ever want to talk about food without talking about weight, feel free to @ me on an open thread 🙂

      • Thanks! I love your name, btw! (Did you know there are British Girl Scouts kicking butt in the zombie apocalypse in Zombies, Run? Sorry, it’s just so underappreciated and extremely gay and explicitly talks about biphobia from the lesbian community, and I can’t believe it doesn’t have more fans here! It’s amazing.)

        I’ve tried glycemic index, glycemic load, keto, general low carb, gluten free, wheat free/soy free/dairy free, vegan, vegetarian… I know there were more, but that’s just off the top of my head. I’ve had some amazing energy days while eating close to keto but not quite. Like when I was doing keto but eating fruit bowls or high fiber oatmeal, I would have these miraculous, almost manic high energy days where I could walk 6 miles and then come home and scrub the house and wash my sheets and write a term paper. But I could never figure out the common denominator, so the next day I would do strict keto (or whatever) and go back to being a sloth. Actually, it was like I’d use my “spoons” for the next two weeks on those high energy days. 🙁

        It’s just such a mystery to me. I did have a really mindblowingly good semester back in 2009, when I was gluten free. But I still had terrible problems with IBS-D. Still, I can handle running to the toilet a lot better when I’m not facing utterly debilitating fatigue, too. Recently I’ve just been eating whatever’s cheap and easy, because I’ve been too sick to work or cook. But I’m feeling bad enough I think I’m motivated to start trying again.

        • Yeah, I know that feeling of “Oh now I’ve cracked the code” but then the next day just isn’t right. One thing I think I lose track of is that food isn’t medicine, and one part of being chronically ill is that sometimes I just happen to have a bad day. I’m sorry you’ve been so sick lately – hopefully you can find some things that work for you <3

          • @girlscoutmotto I know this is probably super uninteresting to anyone but me, so I’m sorry for tagging you, but I just wanted to thank you again for your support and let you know that my stomach problems seem to be cured!!! I read up on celiac disease, realized that I had 100% of the symptoms, took the blood test, and cut out every bit of gluten. Within 24 hours, my constant diarrhea and stomach pains had completely stopped for the first time in close to ten years!!! The only difference between this time and my previous attempts at gluten free is that this time I’m being extremely careful to avoid even trace amounts and cross contamination. I don’t have the results of my blood and genetic tests yet, but I’m treating it like celiac disease and getting massive results. Previously I didn’t worry about CC because I didn’t think I had any right to without a celiac dx (no one has ever in my entire life even run the blood tests, grrh).

            I don’t think it’s the placebo effect because, like I posted in this thread, I wasn’t expecting to have any results in that area with just gluten free. But even if it is the placebo effect, I’m fine with that! I’ve been able to work the past week or two, I feel less fuzzy-headed all the time, and I have motivation (if not always quite enough energy) to take care of things that have fallen BADLY behind—dishes, flossing, cleaning, etc. Best of all, my severe writer’s block is suddenly lifted! Whether I have CD or not, it’s clear that wheat or gluten was really messing up my other autoimmune disease and I need to cut it out for life.

        • So if this is tiresome and just another thing that hasn’t worked, I apologize, but- one of my good friends was having seriously bad flare-ups with IBS, practically after every meal, and what turned out to clear things up amazingly well was FODMAP, which is a diet that restricts foods containing certain types of sugar that can increase water retention in the intestines, causing a lot of IBS issues. It was tough and restrictive at first, but you add foods back in and basically test your body’s limits for things like onions (big offenders), or chickpeas (usually moderate portions are fine) which contain certain amounts of FODMAP sugars.

          A lot of gluten free stuff is FODMAP friendly, but gluten isn’t the issue for people whose IBS is triggered by these sugars- it’s a different molecule in gluten-containing foods.

          Anyways, I hope this isn’t just another frustrating “but have you tried this?” because this somewhat-crazy-at-first diet was a huge help!

          • Thanks for reminding me. I did try avoiding FODMAPs for a week or two, but it was way more restrictive than I had energy for. Honestly, most days I run to the toilet at least 3 times within my first hour of waking up, I have accidents a few times a year, and all of this STILL is not enough to make low FODMAP worth it for me. =/ high fiber seems to fix the problem, so maybe I’ll have some relief as soon as I figure out exactly how/when to incorporate that into my daily routine. (Only certain types of fiber work, and I’m still not sure which types.)

            @girlscoutmotto I don’t necessarily think of food as medicine, but I am guilty of thinking of it as a magic bullet sometimes. I know I have a completely effed endocrine system, with PCOS and hypothyroid and rare genetic disorders, and that’s probably the cause of me feeling so tired all the time. But I keep thinking that maybe I’m allergic to something, and if I just figure out what to cut out of my diet, I’ll suddenly feel even, like, 50% better! 50% would mean I could work a few hours a day! That probably isn’t the case. But I can’t get on disability for PCOS even though I’m completely disabled by my fatigue, so I’m desperate for anything that will get me even barely functional enough to survive.

    • The Nerdfitness challenges might be a good place to make health goals without a focus on weightloss. Each person sets their own goals, and the ones I’ve seen tend to be more about doing certain things than losing a specific amount of weight. They also encourage including life/mental health goals. I even get the impression based on some of their recommended goals they’d suggest not setting a weight loss amount which makes sense because it is easier to track and control whether or not you cut your sodas to twice a week than whether or not you lose five pounds. There are different sub-communities for people doing the challenges that are focused on people who want to build endurance, relax and increase flexibility, gain muscle, focus on martial arts, etc. These comments are specific to the challenge groups, can’t say what the discussion tends towards in other parts of the forums.

      http://rebellion.nerdfitness.com/index.php?/topic/76052-challenge-rules-and-guidelines-updated-112016/

      • Not really what I’m looking for right now, but thanks! Hopefully it will help someone. I do pretty well meeting my fitness goals (and goals in general, I think). I just want to be part of a community where people are eating like I am but NOT constantly posting before/after pictures or talking about how awful it is to be fat or accusing people with physical disabilities of having “fat logic” if they claim they can’t do certain workouts. I don’t know if that elucidates my situation any.

        I’m definitely going to try going back to gluten free. It’s by far the easiest diet out of all the ones I’ve tried, and the community is almost entirely about health rather than weight loss. And when I did it before, I remember being tired but somehow being able to get a lot accomplished, including cooking daily and getting 7+ hours of cardio every week, which is pretty noteworthy for me since I first started feeling crummy in 2006. Plus I was looking up symptoms of celiac, and while I’ve never been able to even afford the blood test, I have 100% of the symptoms. There’s no real harm in trying, especially since it’s easy and affordable. *shrug* I’m just tired of feeling so awful. And I can’t even go to the doctor because I’m too sick to work enough to get health insurance, even through the marketplace (too poor for a subsidy).

        TBH everything feels pretty broken, both on a macro (system) and micro (my body) level… I feel like my diet is just a bandaid solution. But maybe it will be the difference between being completely disabled and being tired but functional. Sorry to ramble so much. It’s just been a rough year!

    • Sorry to hear your diet is causing you problems! I have definitely been there and it was miraculous when I figured out what works for me (paleo plus yogurt). Have you looked into the specific carbohydrate diet? Its origins are more about eliminating foods which might be harmful to your gut and your particular set of digestive issues rather than focusing on weight loss, similar to the FODMAP diet mentioned above. Look it up, and look for the original book – it might help. 🙂

      • Thanks for the suggestion. I’ve bookmarked it to look at later, but right now it’s a little too overwhelming and restrictive for me to really make it work. I hope I don’t seem like an askhole, lol. I get that everyone has a diet that works well for them and it always seems so obvious that someone would feel better if they just followed it. But I’ve tried SO MANY (and thanks for reminding me; I’ve tried both paleo and primal diets) and it’s a big energy and financial commitment to even try to overhaul your diet, you know? And I don’t have almost anything in the energy and finances department. My family is convinced I would be cured if I just did the Maker’s Diet, but same deal. It’s too much for me to handle.

        Plus in my case, my fatigue is literally an 8-10 every single day and the brain fog is at least that bad. My #1 priority in life right now is fixing the fatigue. Gut issues are not my priority right now… they’re not really even on my radar tbh. They could definitely be connected, but a lot of diets suggested for IBS only seem to address the GI issues. FODMAPs, for instance, doesn’t have a good reputation for improving energy. People on keto raved about it giving them sooo much energy, so I really threw myself into it like my life depended on it (which I guess it does), but I had no difference, even after months. And that’s happened on at least a yearly basis over the past decade! So I’m a little burnt out on trying radical and restrictive new diets right now.

        I have all the symptoms of Celiac, and gluten free is super easy (compared to basically everything else I’ve tried), so that’s the direction I’m focusing on right now. But I’m definitely bookmarking other diets for later, for the next time I’m well enough to make another drastic diet change. 🙂

  7. This is great!

    Focusing on health rather than weight seems so simple and vital, it’s frustrating that it isn’t encouraged more often. Walking an extra 10min a day probably won’t have a huge impact on your waistline, but it is enough to make your heart a little bit stronger. And if you are only worried about the scale then you risk getting disheartened and stopping.

    I wish we had more sports/exercise related articles on Autostraddle. I really miss Crystal’s column. It made me realize how often I just accept my own laziness instead of taking an opportunity to move just a little bit more, like waiting 6 minutes on a tram when I could just bike to my destination in 10 minutes.

  8. If you want to lose weight, have a protein shake and a glass of water in the first 30 minutes of waking up. Just be sure that what you consume during the day fulfills your nutritional requirements and keep drinking more water. Stop stressing about what you eat. Laugh more and worry less. Even if you don’t lose weight, the change in attitude will definitely make your life better.

  9. This definitely speaks to me! I used to compulsively exercise with the goal of losing weight, and I hated every minute of it because I also wasn’t eating enough and I wasn’t choosing forms of exercise I enjoyed. It’s taken me almost 10 years to get to the point where I can actually exercise without obsessing over weight loss, or getting into a horrible feedback loop of restricting calories so I don’t “waste” my exercise efforts. And that was only possible because I actually like my body now. I hope the idea of being active without tying that to a hoped-for change in our size or shape, becomes much more mainstream.

  10. Finding an activity that you really like to do makes exercising so much easier to do. For me it is playing tennis (only takes two people) and just walking in a pleasant area.
    Also, I found that if I get into an “automatic” habit eating or drinking and would feel bad about myself after, if , when I got the emotional urge to eat or drink, just make myself relax deeply and I can often let those urges pass. Relaxing seemed to refocus me and remind me of my goals.

  11. YES TO ALL OF THIS

    Since coming out and dating women I discovered body positivity, and it’s such a shame that it took leaving mainstream straight dating culture to realize that I’m not a hideous monster. Body positivity has allowed me to see getting “healthy” as a way to show myself self-love, rather than a punishment for taking up “too much space”. My girlfriend and I continually aim to get healthier, not thinner–a goal that others want for us, not that we want for ourselves. Ironically, as a result of accepting our bodies, we have lost some weight; it’s simply a side effect rather than a goal. And if we didn’t decrease our weight, well we could still increase our health.

    Anyways I love that the goals of the fitness initiative were very attainable and very universal: if you’re able-bodied, exercise is the best thing you can do for yourself; pretty much everyone agrees that sugar is bad for so many reasons; and that fruits and vegetables are basically the best. I love health culture that is not about fad diets and losing weight and self-punishment, but about sustainable lifestyle changes and self-acceptance and self-care.

  12. This is great! It totally mirrors the reasons why I started going to the gym earlier this year and watching how much sugar I eat. I especially find that my anxiety is waaaaay better if I get enough exercise, so it’s about mental as well as physical health!

  13. This is so on point to how I have felt lately. I am at my heaviest and yet am the most comfortable I have ever been with my body. I have started making changes to my life to be healthier, to be stronger and happier, eating healthy foods that I actually like and make me feel good. Doing exercises that I enjoy. My 20s it was about restriction diets and exercises I hated, but the more I have grown into being super comfortable about my sexuality and being open with it, the more I love myself.

  14. Which is pretty ironic given that men are typically more interested in a healthier body type than thw unrealistic expectations of women for their bodies. Time and time again studies have shown men prefer women in the healthy area of the BMI scale while women seem to think other women on the underweight side are the ideal of attractiveness.

    http://www.medicaldaily.com/what-men-want-womens-body-image-largely-influenced-false-assumptions-male-opinion-318040

    http://www.dailystar.co.uk/fashion-beauty/507546/Perfect-woman-ideal-female-body-type-figure-revealed

    I am curious however if this is mainly with straight women. Because most women I have dated seem more forgiving of physical faults in me or other women. That doesn’t mean we don’t comment on it, but it is almost never harsh commentary.

    But the girls in school were by far the most critical and weighed heavily on my self confidence.

    When I think about it, I don’t think most of the things men I have dated have said or done are really that critical unless it’s them with other guys oggling women. I almost wonder if my expectations of criticism from men shapes how I perceive things they say. I wonder if that comes more from a combination of the things other hyper competitive straight women say and the things these guys say when they are with other guys, and not actually from them at all.

    Maybe if everyone was pansexual or bi we could all just calm down and find the person/people we are meant to be with without all this.

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