Valerie had an interesting question in the comments from Wednesday’s post. I started to answer it there, but my response got so involved, I decided to bump it up to its own post.
Finally, Beth, if I may ask, what makes you think there is some deep psychological issues behind obesity/overeating? I am firmly in the biological/hormonal camp, that is, I think obesity is overwhelmingly attributable to physiology. I also think that a “bad relationship with food” comes straight from calorie restriction (and the hormonal havocs that ensues). You seem to believe it goes the other way around, that is, obesity comes from a bad relationship with food. Why?
Physiology vs psychology
Hmm, a couple of thoughts. First, in the larger scheme of things, I think it’s hard to disentangle what’s psychological with what’s physiological. I like what Chris Kresser has to say re Chinese medicine and looking at this in a cyclical way. I’ve definitely found that my “emotional” eating is greatly lessened by a nutrient-dense diet. But the reverse is both true (it’s easier to eat a better diet in a better mood) and not sufficient (eating a better diet hasn’t been the end-all, be-all for me). And in the bigger scheme of things, I don’t think I’d say obesity is overwhelmingly attributable to either/or.
I used to be convinced that it was all about the Western diet (I was an early fan of Kurt Harris’ neolithic agents of disease). But over time, while I realize there are other physiological components to obesity/overeating (especially related to sleep and stress), there’s also seems to be something more. A lot of people just don’t seem to be able to eat in the apparently healthy way that they want to. They say they want to eat Paleo or do a Whole 30, and then they go on PaleoHacks or some other forum and talk about their desire for cheats or an episode of binge-eating. Or they eat “clean” all week, and then the WTF effect kicks in at a party over the weekend and their plans for eating nibbles of things turns into “off-plan” eating that lasts for days or weeks or more. Why does this happen? I’m not convinced it’s physiology in the way we’re talking about.
In fact, there are behavioral psychology folks (like Dan Ariely or BJ Fogg) who have ideas about the ways people can apply psychology principles to be more successful. But I don’t think that even their approaches are the full story. And it’s certainly a fair point that anything involving the brain is as much physiology as psychology.
Psychology vs sociology
Second, my other thought is that I wouldn’t characterize Wednesday’s post as pointing to “deep psychological issues” as a cause of obesity. Some of us with truly disordered eating may fit that description, but what I was talking about in that post is really more sociological than psychological.
The very short-hand version of this is that I think the cultural and environmental pressures we face as a society make overeating the rule rather than the exception. So rather than constantly make it about personal responsibility and the way you should eat or exercise to lose weight, IMO there needs to be as much if not more discussion about why it is that people behave in ways that our counter to their best interest.
A theory that I find very compelling is from researcher Bruce Alexander. Now, BIG caveat: Alexander’s work is in addiction; I am NOT saying that everyone who is overweight or obese is a food addict. However, I do believe that there is a continuum of behavior, with addiction/compulsion essentially being an endpoint. Given that, I think that looking at addiction can yield clues to more common overeating.
So with that caveat, here’s what Alexander found in his rat park studies: it’s not primarily the substance that plays a role in addiction, it’s the environment. It turns out that rats are very social animals, and when Alexander compared rats in typical research cages against rats in a more pleasant environment (Rat Park), he found the latter were far less likely to abuse available drugs.
I’m not doing this justice, so I encourage interested folks to check out Alexander’s report (or Stuart McMillen’s easy-to-read comic version). But the jist of it, as McMillen asks below, is what if the difference between not being addicted and being addicted was the difference between seeing the world as your park and seeing the world as your cage?
So my post yesterday was not to say that we’re all suffering from some deep psychological issue, but that there are important implications of living in a culture or environment that is inhospitable to us. And remember, I’m NOT saying we’re all food addicts. But the kind of food that is available to us 24×7 may well be something that is hard to resist given the constant pressure on us to be thinner, be more attractive, be younger.
When weight loss is possible
Basically here’s what I think. We cannot all be thin, and even those who are apparently are insecure about their looks. So trying to lose weight because you think you will feel better about yourself when you get to any specific lower weight is probably an exercise in futility.
I also think some (many?) people have physiological reasons for being heavier than they might like. I agree with the idea that weights occur on a bell curve. Folks who naturally occur on the right side of that curve have to decide how much energy they want to give in order to move to the left. The HAES & FA folks are likely correct that this too has a low rate of long-term success.
So what’s left? From my perspective it’s people who are eating too much. Some of those may be doing so because they just don’t know how much they are eating. These are the folks who can benefit from learning a better way to eat (translate: cut back on highly processed hyperpalatable foods).
The others are the folks I write for (since I’m one of them). I eat too much and I know I’m doing so. And call me crazy, but I think that what will work for me (a poster child for binge eating disorder and maybe food addiction) will work for other folks who are emotional overeaters.
BTW, just as I was finishing this, wendyrg responded to Valerie with this:
Not every fat person has a particularly messed up relationship with food (though our society in general definitely does).
LOL … wendy said in 20 words what I said in 900. I agree 100%!