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Attacking the root causes of obesity

by Bill Rutherford
| June 23, 2010 9:00 PM

Obesity is becoming our nation's top healthcare concern with little relief in sight.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 65 percent of Americans are overweight. In the 1960s men's average weight was 166 pounds and women 140 pounds. In the early 2000s, men's average weight is 189 pounds and women 163 pounds. Children who watch the most television are the most overweight.

We are becoming a fat country. These facts, although sad, are our reality.

Availability of fat and caloric-laden fast food, laziness, gluttony, chili cheese fries, Romanist fashioned overabundant meals and the celebration of our consumption nation is not fully to blame for the widening of America. We must take personal responsibility for our growing girth.

The good news: being overweight does not equate to being unhealthy if the overweight person participates in a regular fitness regiment. Wow; one can be overweight and healthy? Yes, if that person also maintains personal fitness. The worse option for an individual to ensure an unhealthy and shortened life is to gain weight, lose that weight and regain the weight lost - which is the choice or behavior of most dieters.

Diets, weightloss programs, medication and operations, intestinal cleansing, exercise regiments and fasting have become the standard list of options for those overweight, but have these programs worked? Some have found success and have kept the weight off but most add the lost pounds back on with extra weight added for their trouble. If these programs collectively worked, the obesity rate would decrease and our nation will once more become fit and healthy. This is not happening. We continue to grow in circumference while our mood shrinks and energy level decreases.

These weight loss programs don't work because weight loss and weight gain is not just physiological but also psychological. Attention must be paid to the way we think of food, our behavioral approach to food and our instinctual need to consume sugary, fat-laden foods.

The premise of psychology is, no two humans act the same way - we are individuals. So, no two people overeat or eat unhealthy food for the same reason. If we all become overweight for the same reason, one cure would work for all people. One cause (overeating) does not produce one effect (weightgain).

Let's examine unhealthy psychological eating then explore behavioral changes that change the way we think about eating.

We condition ourselves to eat in a healthy and unhealthy way. I believe there is five reasons most people use food to torture their body and subconsciously and consciously become overweight.

1. Emotional eating is paring positive past memories with the food eaten during the time of that memory. The brain's circuitry has a hotline, which runs between the brain area that gets information from the nose, and the brains ancient limbic centers associate with memory and emotion.

Information from the taste buds travels to an area of the temporal lobe not far from where the brain receives olfactory information, which interacts with taste. The brain's circuitry for smell also connects with areas involved in memory storage, which helps explain why a smell can trigger a memory explosion.

When we eat or smell food, we create emotion from past memories. Huge holiday meals with all the trimmings are paired with past memories of family, friends and the people we love who have left us or who we have become estranged. We remember meals as a child when mom and dad ate together and we laughed as a family. A first date at a romantic restaurant reminds us of the anticipation of a first kiss. These memories create a subconscious behavioral desire to repeat the memory and relive the joyous feeling.

Image briefly smelling bread baking while walking downtown then suddenly creating a cognitive impression of standing in your grandmothers kitchen as a child deeply breathing the same delicious yeast. You smile softly and breathe more deeply to continue the memory.

Taste and odors have the power to evoke memories and feelings. When feeling lonely, depressed, sad, mad, frustrated, anxious, unloved, grieving or unwanted, some turn to food to subconsciously and odiferously fill the void left by past memories. People eat to change their emotion.

2. Eating because one is depressed or has poor self-esteem is the chicken or the egg quandary - which came first? Some become depressed when their waistline begins to increase and they begin to feel out of control, less healthy or less attractive. Some begin negative self-talk when they feel unfit. Others eat when depressed or lack self-esteem to gain happiness in their unhappy life. Food satisfies temporarily and offers brief happiness. The happiness waivers when the meal is over and the guilt of overeating take over the feeling of happiness.

3. Some overeat to punish themselves or gain control of an out of control life. This self-injurious behavior rewards the eater by punishing themselves or the people controlling them. A person sexually or physically abused might overeat to subconsciously become too unattractive to again be abused. Some eat to gain control of their life when another - a spouse, parent or friend controls all other life factions. This behavior is analogous to a person who suffers bulimia or anorexia and does not eat or purges their food for the reasons suggested above.

4. Some behaviorally overeat because they simply are used to overeating. They have been behaviorally trained to eat unhealthy food. They consume the same type of food every week, eat when food is present (even though they are not hungry), their home pantry is filled with unhealthy food and they seldom waiver from this pattern. A person who behaviorally eats is not an adventurous eater and seldom tries new food.

5. Lastly, some eat for instant gratification. People who desire instant gratification have not learned or lack the willpower to delay their gratification. We delay our gratification when we work 12 years for a high school diploma. We understand that the reward comes at the end of the work and continue to work for the reward. One who drops out of school prior to receiving their diploma, is not capable of delaying their reward and desires the instant gratification of being able to enter the workforce or sit at home on the couch and watch "Sponge Bob Square Pants" reruns, which is more rewarding, at the moment, than finishing their senior year of high school.Some overeaters do the same. They eat for the moment, knowing they will gain weight but rationalize their eating as satisfying their present hunger needs - damning the future result.

This list is inconclusive and mostly my own opinion based on my research and observations from my private patients. I'm sure there are other reasons people overeat or become obese and I welcome your personal observations or stories of your experience or beliefs. Next week I will focus on the therapy to aid individuals who struggle with weight management. As always, e-mail or call with questions, thoughts or ideas.

Bill Rutherford is a psychotherapist, public speaker, elementary school counselor, adjunct college psychology instructor and executive chef, and owner of Rutherford Education Group. Please e-mail him at bprutherford@hotmail.com and check out www.foodforthoughtcda.com.

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