Why the fight against obesity keeps getting it wrong.
Most people who do not have first hand experience of obesity see the problem as the following equation: obesity is the result of too many calories in and not enough calories out.
F(ood) — E(xercise) = W(eight)
If the two are even, there is a weight maintain, if there is more food than exercise there is weight gain.
Obese people just seem to have a pattern of consistently eating more calories than they burn. I admit it sounds like perfect common sense. And therefore it seems logic to address the issue by analyzing closely the type of food one eats, discarding junk food full of empty calories, lobbying against the corrupt food industry for using preservatives, addictive substances (sugar, salt, chemicals) and for generally resorting to anything in order to keep selling more stuff.
Along this strive for healthy food obviously there is the question of exercise and how to get obese people to move more, to enjoy exercise and to live a less sedentary lifestyle. Yoga, walking, fitbits, apps. Obviously.
This all sounds good, great even! Most people would naturally find it commendable that anyone would become an activist for quality food and enjoyable exercise.
However this approach will keep failing.
Because in fact, food and exercise are not the only two elements of the equation. There is a much bigger element, an invisible one, one that I would argue represents 80% if not 100% of the obesity equation. And that element is emotional management. Let me say it again. EMOTIONAL MANAGEMENT.
Obesity is an emotional management issue.
Obesity actually has nothing or very little to do with food itself. And I’m afraid that the more you will focus on food, the more you will — not only distract people from the real solution — but also add more stigma and guilt to the people who are struggling with it.
I would like to argue that obesity is a relational issue. It is the relation with the self, with others, with the world — and eventually with food — but not food itself that needs to be examined.
I would like to argue that obesity is a self-esteem issue, a boundary setting issue, an assertiveness issue. Not a food issue at all.
Well adjusted and emotionally regulated adults with healthy self-regard do not let themselves go to the point of reaching obesity. Most people are prone to fluctuating weight — during the Xmas holidays for example — but the discomfort they feel at putting on a few pounds usually triggers them into a period of enhanced self-care.
Obese people do not get stopped by the discomfort and cannot take action that will regulate their weight. Often it’s actually the opposite, the more discomfort they feel the more they eat. If this is not a mental health issue, then what is?
I want to be clear that stating this doesn’t mean I am putting the blame on the obese person. Quite the opposite, I want to show you that ultimately obesity is the result of some serious damage in the person’s developmental journey — most often during childhood.
Whether your propension to obesity became apparent in childhood or manifested later in life, often after a shock or a major life event, this emotional management issue has a cause, and that cause is external. You did not chose to have been wounded to the point of struggling that badly with your emotions. Something in your growth went terribly wrong.
Where I grew up in France we used to have compulsory medical checks at middle school. I remember a particular one. I was 8 or 9 years old and, like every year, the doctor would ask me to get on the scale. The verdict was the same as every year « you are overweight » (no kidding! I had been bullied for it for as long as I can remember). The doctor, without looking at me or asking me any question would then write down this list:
Morning: one piece of toast with fat free margarine, no jam / drink: hot chocolate
Lunch: white meat with vegetable and potatoes or pasta /dessert: compote or fruit
Tea time: one fruit
Dinner: fish (not fried) or white meat with green vegetables / dessert: fruit
And then send me off. How useful do you think that was? How much shame do you think it added to the existing shame that was overwhelming my young life at the time?
If you think you will solve yours or somebody else’s child’s obesity problem by buying organic lettuce you are kidding yourself real real bad.
I will tell you how to cure obesity: look at the family dynamics.
Most often than not obesity thrives in abusive homes.
But now… Are you even sure you know what abuse means?
Ask the average Joe what abuse is and they will tell you abuse is sexual or physical violence, sometimes they’ll say it’s verbal violence too.
Well, abuse is much more broad than that. Abuse — like emotional management — is often the invisible part of the equation.
Neglecting a child is abuse. Not listening to a child is abuse. Withdrawing affection or touch from a child is abuse. Ignoring a child is abuse. Using the child to respond to your own emotional needs is abuse. Acting out anger in a way that terrifies a child is abuse. Parentifying a child is abuse.
Raising a child in a home where the parents’ « love » is so suffocating and controlling that they feel paralysis in self-expression and healthy venting is abuse. Demanding of a child that they are always happy is abuse. Emotional blackmail is abuse.
Yes, abuse sometimes comes unintentionally but it doesn’t mean it does less damage. It might even be worse in terms of confusion as the child grows unable to identify where his problem comes from and feels convinced that he is intrinsically flawed.
Abuse I believe is central to the obesity question because obesity is merely a coping mechanism. Food becomes self-medication for highly troubling emotions, confusion, rage turned inwards, despair… and shame. And I believe investigating abuse, its consequences and how to reverse its damage needs to be at the core of any serious research. Let me put the question out there: why is sexual and physical abuse illegal but emotional abuse isn’t? Isn’t there a grey area that we need to look at? Child protection falls short so often because so much of what’s happening in a home is invisible.
If you want to cure obesity here are the important skills to teach kids and adults alike:
- Boundary setting: learning to say no, learning to say stop, learning to express discomfort immediately.
- Self-assertiveness, self protection and basic communication skills.
- Self expression at large: express preferences, tastes, emotions (good and bad), creativity.
- Connection with one’s emotions or gut feelings. Overwhelming emotions in childhood breed heavy dissociation and the connection with one’s emotions is lost. Teach about emotions as one’s own beautiful compass.
- Self championing, self-forgiveness, self-acceptance. Shame breeds more shame breeds more weight gain and inner conflict.
How many adults even have any clue about this? How many adults truly know how to self-soothe without the aid of drugs, derivatives or dysfunctional habits? And how can you learn these skills when they were never modeled to you?
Can this be implemented on a massive scale, nationwide? Can every school and every teacher model assertiveness and boundary setting? Can we have at least an hour a week of healthy emotional expression and well being? Nope. Instead there will be more doctors prescribing more diets to suffering children and more well-meaning professionals teaching about carrots and cucumbers.
This will only grow the problem.
Be a safe adult yourself and look behind the appearances, dig deeper.
An obese child or an obese adult is first and foremost an individual that is experiencing some deep excruciating suffering.