Text: Alejandra Misiolek
It has been less than a century that we have lived in a world with an abundance of food. However, humans have adapted to survive in the conditions of food scarcity, and we have a series of mechanisms, both physiological and neuropsychological, to survive periods of starvation.
At the metabolic level, scientific studies confirm that there are a series of mechanisms that, on the one hand, increase appetite and lower metabolism when we deprive ourselves of calories, and on the other, facilitate the recovery of adipose tissue after weightloss. It is a mechanism that has helped us to survive periods of lack of food but that makes us gain more and more weight when we have such easy access to food and temptations everywhere.
Therefore, we are not yet adapted to managing excess food well and this contributes to the fact that the percentages of overweight and obesity are increasingly high in our population. Studies show that 2.55 billion adults worldwide are overweight or obese, while in Spain more than half of the population is overweight.
Let’s first clarify what obesity is.
Obesity is defined as a body mass index above 30. It is not a medical or psychological disorder; it is a metabolic state that can be the cause of other medical illnesses and that can generate social stigma and psychological stress.
Obesity does not have to be a problem, but it is a risk factor for triggering medical and psychological problems.
Therefore, a lot of time and money is invested in seeking treatments for obesity. The most common treatment for obesity is diet and exercise. However, 81% of dieters trying to lose weight have been shown to fail, and studies seem to confirm that dieting in effect makes us gain weight.
One of the most important difficulties of obesity on a psychological level is the formation of vicious circles. Diet or restriction triggers a feeling of deprivation, both physiologically and psychologically, and activates a series of mechanisms that make us overeat. But instead of understanding that long-term restriction is not feasible, we often blame ourselves and feel ashamed for not being able to follow a diet. Therefore, obesity generates discomfort and shame and one of the ways to manage these feelings is to anesthetize ourselves with food. It is not a healthy emotional processing but a disconnection mechanism that many of us use when we do not know how to better manage our emotions or when they overwhelm us. However, to anesthetize ourselves with food is to binge on food that causes us even more overweight that generates even more shame and discomfort.
We can conclude then, that apart from the physiological mechanisms, both the causes for which we suffer from obesity, and the consequences of it, very often are also psychological. Problems with self-esteem, proper emotional management, depression or anxiety are some of the examples. Being obese carries a social stigma and causes embarrassment and insecurity for many people. Furthermore, Binge Eating Disorder is a very common cause of obesity.
For all these reasons, the treatment of overweight and obese people should also focus on better managing the psychological causes and consequences of this condition, which until now has received mostly medical help and a lack of understanding of the psychological difficulties in losing weight.
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- Heymsfield, S. B., & Wadden, T. A. (2017). Mechanisms, pathophysiology, and management of obesity. New England Journal of Medicine, 376(3), 254-266.