There are a lot of different opinions and strong emotions when it comes to the topic of obesity and weight loss. This article is simply another opinion about obesity in America. By writing this article, I am not trying to convince anyone of anything; I’m just trying to give you something to think about — perhaps a new idea.
The statistics regarding obesity in America are alarming. Currently, 35 percent of American adults are obese (CDC, 2012), and that number is projected to rise to over 50 percent in most states by 2030 (Henry, 2011). We’ve been fighting the so-called “war against obesity” since the 1980s, and yet despite all of our efforts, the problem has only gotten worse. Clearly, what we’ve been doing to try to solve this problem isn’t working and is possibly making it even worse. In my opinion, the reason for this is that the psychological piece hasn’t been addressed yet and until it is, we will have an increasing problem on our hands.
Years ago I was seeing a client who we’ll call Sarah. Sarah was very obese and desperate to lose weight. Her doctor had recently told her that if she didn’t lose a significant amount of weight she would lose her mobility as well as have a host of other medical consequences. Sarah tried numerous diets and exercise programs but nothing worked. She even enrolled in a weight loss clinic but had no success. She actually ended up gaining even more weight during this time. Not knowing what else to do, Sarah’s doctor told her that she needed to talk to a therapist.
When I met Sarah she was quite desperate to lose the weight and very depressed. Much to her surprise, I told her that I didn’t want us to work on her losing weight, but rather I wanted to work on her depression and teach her to accept and love herself unconditionally. This seemed the opposite of what she needed in order to lose weight, but Sarah decided to trust me anyway. You see, like a lot of people, Sarah thought that if she could just hate herself enough, that would motivate her to do whatever it took to lose the weight. As a therapist, I know that that is simply not going to work. We therapists follow something called the “Rogerian hypothesis,” which states that people tend to move in a positive direction only when given unconditional love and acceptance. Well, I’m happy to say that after we had alleviated Sarah’s depression and she had learned to love and accept herself, the weight came right off.
The current methods for helping people lose weight seem to be the opposite of love and acceptance. Much of the efforts seem to involve trying to shame and scare people into losing weight. This simply doesn’t work. The worst thing you can do is give someone more anxiety and depression regarding their weight, and I’m going to explain why that is later on. Also, the ways we go about teaching people to lose weight are much more complicated than they need to be. One should not have to read a book, go to a clinic, or take a class to learn how to lose weight. There is a very successful diet that has been around for thousands of years and all of the big celebrities do it. Can you guess what it is? It’s called “Moving more and eating less.” How you go about accomplishing this is up to you. I believe that losing weight is not complicated and that people intuitively know how best to do it when it comes to themselves. They simply need to stop feeling so anxious and depressed about it.
Obesity and Genetics
Before I talk more about how obesity is linked to depression and anxiety, I first want to briefly address the popular belief that obesity is purely a problem of bad genes. This is the popular belief and I can see why it is so popular. In a society where people are constantly trying to shame you about your weight, it can feel good to be able to say “Hey, you have no right to shame me about my weight! It’s not something I can control! It’s because of these bad genes I have!” But in order for this to be true, it means that our genes would have had to somehow change since the 1960s. Scientists agree that genetics is not responsible for the obesity epidemic, although they do agree it is a factor. Depending on which study you look at, genes only account for between 1 percent and 5 percent of a person’s body mass index (Li et al., 2010). I think that most people would agree that 5 percent of bad genes doesn’t excuse the 95 percent of it that scientists claim is due to bad habits.
When confronted with these facts, people often cite that most of the people in their family are also obese, so it must be genetics. However, the more likely possibility is that families tend to eat the same foods and have similar habits. Genetics also doesn’t explain why obese people also tend to have obese pets (Bounds, 2011). Obviously the dog doesn’t share the same genes as the owner, but they do share the same environment. Of course, we can’t mention genetics without looking at twin studies. Since identical twins have identical genes, researchers often compare twins to examine the effects of genetics and the environment on a person.
Obesity and Depression
Researchers aren’t quite sure if obesity causes depression or if depression causes obesity, but the two are definitely linked. In fact, the two conditions are so intertwined that some are calling obesity and depression a double epidemic. Studies have found that 66 percent of those seeking bariatric, (weight loss) surgery have had a history of at least one mental health disorder. And of course, it doesn’t help that the medications people take for depression and other mental health issues can cause dramatic weight gain.
Consider this: According to the CDC, half of Americans will suffer from some sort of mental illness, and most of them will not receive any treatment for it. 63 percent of Americans are also overweight or obese. There are almost as many Americans taking diet pills as there are taking antidepressants (8 percent and 10 percent). People with mental health issues are twice as likely as those without them to be obese, and that’s even before they start taking psychiatric medication (McElroy, 2009).
So why are people with mental health issues so much more likely than those without them to be obese? We know that depression and bipolar depression slows down your metabolism (Lutter & Elmquist, 2009). Depression also depletes our willpower, making us less likely to avoid eating unhealthy foods. Depression also causes us to crave high-fat foods and sugar. This is where emotional eating comes in. When we’re feeling down, fatty and sugary foods make us feel better, at least temporarily. Of course, you don’t need to have depression or a mental illness in order to engage in emotional eating. It’s something we learn at a very young age. Eating something unhealthy is much easier than fixing the problem or dealing with what’s causing us to feel unhappy. Teaching people how to deal with unpleasant moods other than by eating would certainly cut down on emotional eating and would certainly lead to significant weight loss.
So if depression causes weight gain and antidepressants cause weight gain, then what is the solution? Well, research has shown that talk therapy is just as effective at relieving depression as antidepressant medication (Doheny, 2010), and talk therapy doesn’t have the negative side effects that medication does. Another option is exercise. In a 2005 study on the effects of exercise vs. Zoloft (anti-depressant medication) on the treatment of depression, participants were randomly placed into two groups. On group received 150 mg of Zoloft while the other group engaged in 20 minutes of cardiovascular exercise three to four times a week. After eight weeks, they found that the exercise was just as effective at reducing depression as the Zoloft! Another thing to consider is that Zoloft has negative side effects such as weight gain, sleep problems, and sexual dysfunction. As you can imagine, the side effects of exercising are the opposite of that.