Someone once said to me, “Kim, the doctor just told me that I am obese.” She sounded devastated . . . and desperate. “Obese” is such an emotional term for many people. It is technically defined by a certain body mass index (BMI). Defined in this way, it is very mathematical, very exact, and simply factual. It is a number after all, not a feeling, right? Or is it?
In fact, being labeled obese has a very emotional meaning for many people. “Obese” can feel like a judgmental term. When one is told they are obese, it often sounds more like “You are really, really fat.” Panic is a natural reaction, along with shock in many cases: “UGH, I had no idea I was THAT fat!”
Whether someone has just learned they are clinically obese or has just felt “really, really fat,” the results seem to be the same. Feeling unacceptably fat appears to make it harder for people to lose weight; in fact, it looks like it might cause them to gain. Recent research on the subject was really no shock to me.
I have been telling weight loss clients for years that the first step toward improvement is accepting where they are. Then, putting a focus on changing behaviors instead of obsessing over numbers will help with forward movement in a healthy direction. Once this happens, tension releases, desperation lightens, and change is possible. The alternative is lots of stress, often using food as a soother, leading to weight gain, not loss or even maintenance.
The research report states that three studies “found consistent evidence that perceiving oneself as being overweight was associated with increased weight gain.” In fact, even people who just felt overweight (but were not) gained. The perception seems to be the important point. This makes perfect sense, since what we perceive is what affects emotions, not necessarily what is actual, factual reality.
“Individuals who identified themselves as being ‘overweight’ were more likely to report overeating in response to stress and this predicted subsequent weight gain,” according to the authors. “These findings are in line with recent suggestions that the stress associated with being part of a stigmatised group may be detrimental to health.”
The report also noted that the gains may have come from emotional reactions to being considered unacceptable, OR they may have been the result of aggressive dieting. Brilliant! Can we finally all agree that crazy, rigid dieting is not effective . . . unless of course you are trying to GAIN weight.