Yes, it’s true that I spend hours each week helping people get their weight and eating in check. However, it’s also true that I find it essential to see such issues as much more than individual problems. The world we live in tends to place all the responsibility, and the blame, on the individual person who struggles. That’s not necessarily fair or helpful, nor is it an accurate reflection of reality.
I thought of all this recently as I reacted to magazine headlines for Geneen Roth’s new book Women, Food and God. Geneen Roth has been writing about emotional overeating for many years now. Her new book describes how women substitute food for other hungers—emotional, spiritual. And what she’s saying is pretty much true. What I reacted to was the magazine’s bold statements about what overeaters are hungry for: “It’s Not Food. In Fact, It’s Everything but Food.” Because that is pretty much not true.
As many overeaters know, and science now confirms, certain foods do trigger intense appetite for more, and more. Also, a larger body, more overall fat, and a stretched stomach all add up to more hunger signals reaching the brain. It is of course extremely important for people to target their emotional overeating and find ways to care for themselves differently. It’s important to meet those other, non-food, hungers with kindness and caring and the intention to bring into one’s life those things that really matter: loving relationships, a sense of purpose, time for reflection, etc.
Once on the road to doing so, however, you can find yourself still facing an uphill battle to cope with cravings—and not only emotional ones. The work of changing the body and brain circuitry may likely remain. A healthful weight won’t necessarily settle in once the emotional overeating has decreased, even if that decrease helps the overall goal.
What worries me most about the belief that all overeating is emotional is that it reinforces the idea of weight problems and obesity as individual personal problems. When you don’t see the whole picture—including an extremely unhealthy food environment and complex biological factors, to name just two parts—you end up blaming individuals in unfair and even harmful ways. Here I refer to another media item, namely Harriet Brown’s essay in the Tuesday New York Times (Science Times, March 16). Brown enumerates the ways such a focus hurts people with weight problems. Overweight people are routinely discriminated against in job seeking. They often receive less than ideal medical care. They are exposed to stresses as a result that can actually make losing weight even harder.
So, we live in a stressful world. Overeating is one of the unhealthy ways people cope. Let’s not make being overweight even harder than it is by assuming that anyone who struggles with weight has emotional issues any greater than any of the rest of us.
(to see Brown’s essay, go to www.nytimes.com/health , “For Obese People, Prejudice in Plain Sight” )