Tara Deliberto Ph.D.

Eating Disorder Recovery

Why Are You Anxious About Gaining Weight?

The crucial role of emotions.

Posted Oct 23, 2019

On a scale of zero to ten, how afraid are you of gaining weight? If you’re at all fearful, it’s important to examine why. Read over the list below and mark off any negative consequences you fear might occur if you gained weight:

  • Being socially rejected.
  • Having people say disparaging things about your body to you.
  • Having people say disparaging things about your body to others.
  • Having people think disparaging things about your body.
  • Losing a competitive edge.
  • Not finding a romantic partner.
  • Being abandoned by a romantic partner.
  • Getting ill (e.g. with diabetes).
  • Dying.
  • Feeling more feminine or less masculine.
  • Feeling unsafe (e.g. an object of attack for predators).
  • Other:_____________________________________
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Source: Canva

Although we are hardwired to fear many things — like, say, a lion hunting us down — we are not born fearing weight gain. Over time, we come to associate weight gain with a host of anxiety-provoking scenarios like the ones above. For instance, if someone is very afraid of social rejection, they may also fear weight gain because it could result in being ostracized. In this case, it is a core fear of social rejection that is associated with weight gain.

Upon examination of our associations, it quickly becomes clear that “weight gain” is really a red herring for all of the truly scary things that threaten us socially, psychologically, and physically. There is really nothing scary about gaining weight, in and of itself.  

Whatever is on your list above is really the issue to be addressed. Losing weight isn’t the answer. Trying to lose weight is simply an avoidance maneuver aimed at trying to prevent the things you are really afraid of from happening. As such, losing weight only temporarily provides a respite from your fears. Once you reach the goal weight you have set, those underlying fears will still be there.

We could debate all day whether the things you fear might happen as a result of weight gain. Most likely, some would and some wouldn't. But that’s not the point. The point is this: In an attempt to avoid something you fear, you are at risk for engaging in behaviors that are both psychologically and physically unhealthy (e.g. crash dieting, fasting, compulsive exercise, etc.). Generally speaking, we typically don’t make great decisions from a place of fear. Even with the noblest of intentions to lose weight (e.g. "just for health"), unhealthy behaviors can quickly emerge out of a desperation to avoid that fear.

As such, a word of advice: Rather than avoiding fear through unhealthy eating and exercise behaviors, face your fears related to weight gain (e.g. rejection). Because this is easier said than done, it might be helpful to seek out further education or treatment.

If fear of weight gain is something you struggle with, some helpful books include The Rules of Normal Eating by Karen Koenig, Health at Every Size, by Linda Bacon, and Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. If you suspect that treatment is needed, it will be helpful to find a therapist who practices Cognitive Behavioral Therapy-Enhanced (CBT-E, by Christopher Fairburn) or Integrative Modalities Therapy (IMT, an evidence-based practice treatment the author of this post co-created).