The attractions of obesity: Why it’s so hard to change

Posted: May 12, 2011 in Obesity, Uncategorized, Weight Loss
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Why, one might ask if one is not overweight, would someone not do all they can to lose the weight?

First, it’s like making any change in your life, and particularly akin to overcoming any addiction (if you don’t know the drug-like effects of carbohydrate overdose, you may never quite appreciate just how addictive it can be). Overeating has become, by this point, a habit. You need more to keep hunger pangs at bay because there’s more of you wanting energy to sustain you. One doctor told me that it varied by your activity and metabolism, but that to stay at your current weight you needed to consume approximately 8 calories per pound. In order to lose a pound, you have to take in 3500 calories less than your body needs to stay at the current weight. Hence the ability to create formulas to tell you how much you need to eat to lose weight and why it’s harder to lose those last few pounds than the first ones.

Two Harvard professors, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey,  in their book How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, contend that people resist change because they have powerful subconscious reasons for maintaining their current behavior, and that discovering those reasons, talking about them, and figuring out how to reconcile them to the desired behavior is key to successful, permanent transformation. Even though the book is primarily aimed at business leaders, the principles they discuss are still useful.

Over the years, I have considered the reasons why I might, subconsciously, want to stay overweight. Not the attractions of eating, which seem self-evident to me. No, I’m talking about why I wouldn’t want to lose weight. Again, not just that it’s hard, which is again self-evident. But the things that, on some level, I find to be beneficial about being overweight.

First, there’s what I call the “eunuch syndrome.” I have no real idea of what I’d look like at an optimum weight now, a decade after I last put on a substantial amount of weight and much longer since I was anywhere near where the weight tables say I should be.  Age is definitely an additional factor, so I just can’t judge. But once upon a time ago, when I was about 100 lbs lighter, I was attractive enough to garner some male attention. As a professional woman, that was generally not an advantage. You get the wrong type of attention, and as a married woman who genuinely likes her husband, I found that type of attention discomfiting.

I also found that, in the eyes of some colleagues (and, worse, judges) that it seemed to lower my perceived IQ substantially. Once I was overweight, all of the aforementioned problems went away (for the most part; the guys who hit on me after were ones to whom I generally wanted to say, “Really? Have you *seen* my husband? Whatever makes you think I’m that desperate?”). I believe that’s because that I then appeared, at least in their eyes, to be an asexual being, a eunuch of sorts.

As a corollary to that, it was around that time that I began having more friendships with other women. In my conscious brain, I believe that was more a result of what else was going on in my life at the time, but my subconscious may believe that getting fat was a part of getting more friends. Women can, indeed, get weird about what they see as competition for male attention, but I don’t believe that losing weight will lose me my friends. Again, that’s what awake me believes; don’t always know what the sleeping me thinks.

The other major emotional gain, it pains me to admit, is that the people who stuck by me, in particular my husband, despite the weight gain, proved their love. I know that my husband will love me no matter what, given that he has only objected to my weight on the basis of the health consequences and never given me cause to think that it has in any other way affected how he feels about me.

And the last reason, an avoidance reason, is the fear of failing once again. I’ve been on pretty much every diet there is, and none of them have resulted in longterm weight loss. Why bother, I thought, when I’ll just get back where I am now, or even worse, weighing more than before I’d lost weight (a pretty common problem). Lifelong changes, real change, seem overwhelming.

I’m not the only one that has reasons, conscious or sub-, not to lose weight. Tracy Rose says, “Just as dieters can create a list of why they want and need to lose weight, most people can match it with a Christmas list worth of reasons not to lose weight.”  In their landmark book, Overcoming Overeating, Jane R. Hirschmann and Carol H. Munter discuss the fact that dieters may be surprised to discover that their feelings about being big (or even bigger) aren’t completely negative:

[In a] larger body you [may] actually feel safer or more protected … Many of us who attribute magical powers to food also attribute magical powers to our body size.

In other words, if you believe on some level that being thin may fix a lot of your problems, you probably also believe (on some level) that being fat also has some advantages.  In their book, they include “Friendly fat exercises” to help you discover what positive feelings about being overweight you may have that you’re not aware of.

Bottom line: The solution to being overweight lies as much in your head as in your mouth.  Chew on that.


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