Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Kimerer L LaMothe Ph.D.

The Real "Fat Trap"

Why must the path to health entail fighting against our bodily selves?

In her Sunday Magazine article, Tara Parker Pope offers the latest scientific evidence for a "fat trap." As Pope reports, researchers found that people who lost weight on a reduced calorie diet had difficulty keeping the weight off because their metabolisms adjusted to crave more and burn fewer calories. Up to a year after losing 10 percent of their body weight, dieters had irregular levels of the hormones that regulate sensations of hunger and satiation. They also reported feeling more obsessed with food than before the experiment.

People who become overweight, Pope concludes, are likely to stay that way for reasons that are largely biological and genetic. She calls it the fat trap.

The real fat trap, however, is not biological or genetic. The real fat trap is conceptual and perceptual.

The real fat trap is a tendency to think that we are mental minds living in material bodies.

The real fat trap is a tendency to experience our bodies and their desires as enemies against whom "we" must battle if we want a svelte health.

The real fat trap says that diets work, that losing weight requires a mere correction in calories, and that our best resource on the path to health lies in exerting the power of our minds over and against our bodily selves. As Pope writes: "Clearly, weight loss is an intense struggle, one in which we are not fighting simply hunger or cravings for sweets, but our own bodies."

Clearly, our bodies betray us. Clearly, "we" must take charge. But who is fighting whom?

Clearly, this way of thinking about and perceiving ourselves is the problem--not the solution.

Diets don't work. They don't work because they reinforce the real fat trap: they teach us to ignore our bodily sensations and thus exercise the same split from our sensory selves that allows us to eat when it isn't giving us pleasure.

How can we spring ourselves free from the real fat trap?

1. Entertain a thought.

Like it or not, we humans are bodies, and the bodies we are are amazing.

Take another look at the article. Why not be struck by the astounding resilience and creativity of our bodily selves? Not only can we learn to make new movements in response to environmental changes, we can and regularly do remake ourselves at every level, from cellular to systemic. We can alter our bodily chemistry, the efficiency with which we metabolize energy, and the shape and tenacity of our emotional attachments. And we can do so by making different movements in our lives--as in changing what we eat.

Moreover, these same bodily selves that we are find ways to resist our best mental efforts to mold "them" to "our" will." We bodies are that resourceful, that independent, and in this capacity, we also never sleep. We are ever processing air, energy, and experience, ever re-membering ourselves--even in spite of ourselves.

Like it or not, we humans are bodies and the bodies we are are what the movements we make are making. What a gift! We can imagine and pretend and wish that we were not bodies. We can imagine and pretend and wish that the movements we make when we think, feel, act, or eat wouldn't make us. But we are and they do, and the implications are huge!

In fact, the capacity to create and become patterns of movement that relate us to one another in life-enabling ways is the source of our power as humans. Our capacity to create and become learned patterns of movement is the enabling condition of culture. It is the secret to our adaptability as individuals and a species. It is how we learn to make words and art and love. We are creatures who can participate consciously in the rhythms of our own bodily becoming.

Why fight against our greatest asset--the key to our evolutionary success? We are bound to lose.

2. Choose to participate.

Once we embrace the idea that we are bodily selves, we can begin to take responsibility for what the movements we make are creating--our health and well-being, our relationships, our world.

But beware: the fat trap has a tendency to snap right here, causing us to fall into the mental habit of blaming ourselves for bodily heft, and then both mustering and lamenting our lack of self control. We turn to the next diet or drug for help and ensnare ourselves further.

The kind of responsibility I am talking about is different. As bodies becoming, we are and are not responsible for the movements we are making that are making us. By the time we are old enough to think "I" and claim blame, our bodily selves have already been shaped by innumerable forces and relationships that extend far beyond what we can imagine. Who we are is not and never can be "our fault." In a real sense, we are given to our (thinking) selves.

Nevertheless, neither are we victims of our bodily circumstances. Because the bodily selves we are are always moving, always recreating, always becoming who we are, there is always some play in a given moment around how the next moment will unfold.

So too, the movements we are making are always relaying back to us vital information about what we are creating and who we are becoming. These sensations of pain and pleasure are information that can alert us to the play in the moment, and help us find it. They register the trajectories of our own health and healing at work in us, which we can choose to honor or ignore.

The challenge of taking responsibility for our health, then, has nothing to do with exerting will power in a fight over and against our bodily selves.

The challenge lies in shifting our experience of our bodily selves such that we are able to perceive our own sensations differently--as spurs to action guiding us along the path to our pleasure and health. The challenge lies in learning to follow the arc of our pleasure, in all realms of our lives, to a sense of enough.

How do we invite such an experience shift? How do we learn to participate consciously in the rhythms of our own becoming?

We engage in forms of bodily movement that bring our senses to life. We draw our attention into and through our bodily selves, so that we are able to perceive ourselves as movement. It is not about exercise or calorie burn. It is about play. It is dance.

As we breathe to move and move to breathe, we open up safe sensory spaces for doing the work of discerning, trusting, and moving with the energy and wisdom of our desires. Gently tracing the fissures of our pain, we find the energy and guidance we need to make new moves and recreate ourselves at every level-cellular to conceptual.

Our bodies are not making us sick or fat. Our bodies are sick and fat because we no longer know how to experience our sensations of discomfort as catalysts to action.

The pain that our movements are creating in us is an impulse to move in ways that will not reproduce that pain. An obsession with food, physical discomfort, shortness of breath, difficulty moving, depression, elevated levels of cholesterol and blood pressure are just some of the ways in which our bodies are signaling, loud and clear, that we want to move differently. The ability to discern this wisdom in our own desires is one that the real fat trap destroys.

But we can spring free.

We can learn to find and follow the arc of our pleasure to a sense of enough. And we can begin by remembering that the basic acts of knowing what we are putting into our bodies and giving our bodily selves time and space to move every day do not require super human self-control. They simply require tuning in to what feels good. Such attention is what being a body, whether we like it or not, is all about. And it is amazing!


About the Author

Kimerer L. LaMothe, Ph.D., is a dancer, philosopher, and author of five books, including Why We Dance, Nietzsche's Dancers, and What a Body Knows.