When Food Is Family

Key ingredients in the eating disorder mix

The Fear of Fat: What Does It All Mean?

Eating fat is vital for health. Yet we fear eating it or becoming fat.

Americans invest an inordinate amount of time, energy and money trying to avoid gaining weight, losing weight and trying to keep weight that was lost permanently off. The term “fat” is synonymously used to describe how we should avoid looking as well as what foods we should avoid eating.   

Restricting food intake is counterproductive as a means to lose weight. Eating regularly and normally as the ways to stay thin has become counterintuitive to many people’s thinking.    Weight loss usually happen by going on any diet du jour. The diet, therefore, is deemed successful. However, diets fail long term to keep weight off. Metabolism slows to conserve energy when food intake is in restriction mode. Weight gain is fast when a person begins to adjust their eating after weight loss because metabolism is still in restriction mode and additional food quickly turns in to additional weight. Genetics also predict body size and shape and though someone may lose pounds by dieting the distribution of weight remains genetically pre-determined. So, the area of the body that someone may seek to lose weight is generally the last place weight loss will occur, if at all. The myth that not eating fat is a way to lose weight and stay thin is not true. Food rich in healthy fat takes a longer time to digest so hunger is decreased.  People who eat healthy fat tend to be thinner than those who eat low or no fat and people who eat breakfast tend to be thinner than those who skip breakfast. (Journal of American Medical Association – June 2012.)   

What is it that we fear when we speak of fat? 

If eating fat is good for us, even necessary in maintaining health and normal weight, then vilifying fat is perhaps a smokescreen or scapegoat for some other, perhaps less tangible, issue.  

There is no good versus bad food and no feelings are unacceptable. All food is good and all feelings are normal.” From a psychological perspective, we project on to the term ‘fat’ what we fear or feel to be true about ourselves in general. For instance, fat, for the eating disorder sufferer often connotes self-loathing, loss of control, ugliness and dirtiness of body and mind.  So, not eating fat is an attempt to stay in control, feel self worth and good. For the eating disorder sufferer, if I don’t eat fat or don’t get fat, I won’t feel bad, angry, or ashamed of my needs and wants.  BUT, not everyone has an eating disorder and yet lots of people go on diets, which are severely restrictive of calories or free of fat. So, is everyone who goes on a diet attempting to rid themselves of negativity and self-loathing?  

The desire to fit in and be accepted is part of what makes us human. Social and media pressure ups the ante and tantalizes us with their claim that if we fit the cultural ideal of beauty then we will find greater acceptance, inclusion and be more desirable. We believe the myths that media promulgates about how we should look and the myth that the way to get there is to lose weight.   Ok, so we are victims of cultural dictates. Weight loss, therefore, is not the issue.  In fact, America has an obesity problem so it is good for many to lose weight But, not eating fat, or severely restricting intake as the means to get there IS the issue. If we accept that eating fat and eating normally are better ways to stay thin than going on a restrictive or fat free diet, then why are so many convinced to choose the latter to lose weight? 

We are a culture of quick fixes. More and faster is considered generally better than less and slower.Tolerating frustration and negative emotion, in effect, have become, intolerable. Feeling, rather than doing, is unacceptable. Patience, compassion, respect, non-judgment of others and ourselves is no longer necessary because we are convinced that we can buy or diet our way out of anything uncomfortable or unacceptable. We are taught, perhaps at home initially, and then reinforced by our culture, that we don’t have to feel bad about anything and the path to mental paradise is dictated by what we are promised by advertising and media. We are so willing to believe and so wanting to feel good all the time. The rational brain that can assess the situation and make decisions based on sound judgment loses to the primitive brain that wants immediately whatever the “it” is at the moment. 

Yes, it is true that we have also been misled by faulty medical research—remember what we were told about eating soy? And, more recently in the eating disorder community, research was laying claim that “genes” were the sole cause of eating disorders. So, why should we believe that eating healthy fat and normally will keep us thinner “simply” because research tells us that this is true?   

Eating healthy fat is necessary for the production of estrogen, which is responsible for fertility, brain development, organ sustainability and maintaining healthy bones. Simple. So, not eating any fat or severely restricting is not reasonable or healthy and not effective as a long-term weight loss measure. If we accept this as true then perhaps not eating fat or the endless quest to find the perfect diet are really vehicles to express what ails us as a culture – dissatisfaction, never good enough, the inability to be patient and use our rational brain to make decisions and the desperate need to fit in to a culture that redefines its standards at its media driven whim. Judy Scheel, Ph.D., LCSW 

Judy Scheel, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., author of When Food Is Family, is the Founder and Executive Director of Cedar Associates Foundation.

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