Overweight? Stop blaming yourself - redirect your attention to the real issue.
I predominantly work with women who are ‘serial dieters’. Almost exclusively, in our first chat, they will blame themselves for being overweight. This comes in various guises along the lines of “I’m not good enough”, “I’ve got no willpower” or “Something happens and I fail…again.”
At the root of their problem, is a sense of shame and worthlessness because they have lost and re-gained weight on numerous occasions over an extended period of time. And, in the absence of any rational reason as to why they continually fail, they grasp the only logical explanation and blame themselves.
I want every women who has ever struggled to control her weight to read the following quote and fully understand what it means for them:
“Obesity is the result of people responding normally to the obesogenic environments they find themselves in.” Swinburn, B et al (2011)*
Let’s dwell here for a few moments. The key words are ‘responding normally’. With my clients, I use my Gran as a case study. She was born in 1919 and was 100 years old on 27th April. Imagine being alive in this hundred year period.
In the first half of my Gran’s life, she lived through the end of the Great War, the economic crash, World War II and subsequent rationing. Food was scarce and had to stretch. Everything was prepared from scratch and she had to be inventive to use every morsel of nutrition. It was a daily toil to buy, prepare and cook for the family. Life was hard: she walked or cycled everywhere and daily tasks were physical, unrelenting and completed under her own steam. ‘Responding normally’ meant that you were slim.
However, the second half of my Gran’s life was in stark contrast to the first. Two revolutions conspired to change our environment beyond recognition: one was food production and the other was technology. Mass production techniques led to an abundance of food which previous generations would struggle to perceive. Food was cheap, processed and heavily marketed. This saw a rise in the quantity of refined carbohydrates and fats in people’s diets and a subsequent increase in the number of calories.
At the same time, physical exertion in daily life continued to decrease through technological innovation in every aspect of life. In 2019, you don’t even have to leave your house to get a take away. This caused a flipping point — the rise of an environment which has become increasingly unhealthy for the human species to inhabit. ‘Responding normally’ meant that you were overweight.
To understand why, we need to broaden our context. The purpose of any species is to survive. When we lived in caves, this meant conserving energy for three purposes: (1) to run away from other species trying to kill us; (2) to track and catch prey for food; (3) to reproduce. When we caught food, we ate everything as we didn’t know when the next meal would come along.
I liken these natural impulses of ‘do things the easy way’ and ‘more food is better’ to a default switch which we are born with. In the same way that an i-phone has default settings, so do humans. Foraging for food in a forest or stalking prey over rough ground is very different to shopping in Morrisons or walking along a high street. But, in both scenarios, we have the same default impulse to conserve energy and to eat or drink what is available.
When food was scarce and the environment hostile the ‘easy’ switch and ‘more is better’ switch saved our lives. Now it is slowly killing us. Thus, we arrive at the real problem. I want to shout from the roof-tops to every woman who struggles with her weight “You are responding normally. It’s just the environment that’s changed.” I want to ask her, “If you were born fifty years earlier would you have been overweight?” The resounding answer is no.
This gives women hope and allows them to be kinder to themselves. They can let go of their reoccurring theme that they are to blame. The battleground shifts. The fight is no longer with themselves but with external forces which they can re-direct their attention to fight. The marketers whom they can out-wit. The built environment which they can overcome. Once you see it, you can fight it.
It’s like putting on different glasses which allow you to see the impact of the obesogenic environment on your behaviour. Glasses which help you stop and notice triggers affecting your choices in a non-conscious way and to understand how marketers sell to these natural impulses so you act against your long term health interests.
Triggers are everywhere. And the obesogenic environment has become ‘normalised’. Take the proliferation of coffee shops as an example. They didn’t exist at the beginning of the 1970s, but now spending £3.25 on a coffee three or four times a day is normal. A coffee used to contain the calories of a dash of milk; now it can have the same calories as a dessert.
Plus we are suckers for an ‘easy or simple’ marketing message. Marketers tell us we are too busy and don’t have time to cook and we readily agree. Pre-washed and diced potatos or veg? Yes, I need that. My take away delivered? Yes, I need that too. Driving my car half a mile to the shops? Yes, I don’t have time to walk. It’s all nonsense. Since when did peeling a spud become so arduous?
To improve our health, we need to flick our default switches manually. We need to do things the ‘effort-full way’ rather than the ‘easy way’. We have to override the impulse to just bung ‘a meal for two’ in the oven and peel some veg and spuds. You’ll be surprised at how little time you need. We need to love that feeling that ‘less is more’ gives us — that feeling of ‘nicely full’ rather than being bloated from over-eating.
At the same time, policy makers need to do more to forcibly change the environment. Governments have abdicated responsibility for increasing levels of obesity to individuals and health professionals. But in countries, such as the Netherlands, which have better town planning and infrastructure, obesity rates are significantly lower.
Taxing high sugar content, forcing manufacturers to cut unhealthy fats from foods, clearly communicating nutritional value and teaching children how to cook in schools are other examples of what Governments could be doing to counter the obesogenic environment. This is not about being a ‘nanny state’; this is about creating a healthy environment where people responding normally will be of normal weight.
Until this happens, individuals will have to flick their default switches and go into battle on their own.
- Look around your environment with fresh eyes.
- Stop and notice triggers.
- Pause and make a different choice.
- And, most importantly, never blame yourself again.
*The global obesity pandemic: shaped by global drivers and local environments (2011), Swinburn B et al, Lancet. 2011 Aug 27;378(9793):804–14