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-   Rethinking Thin - a book discussion (http://www.3fatchicks.com/forum/rethinking-thin-book-discussion-220/)
-   -   Topic 4 - Emotional Eating (http://www.3fatchicks.com/forum/rethinking-thin-book-discussion/115855-topic-4-emotional-eating.html)

Meg 06-21-2007 09:10 PM

Topic 4 - Emotional Eating
I'm guessing that most, if not all, of us here at 3FC would describe ourselves as emotional eaters. Anger, boredom, joy, loneliness, depression, stress -- we respond by eating. We reward ourselves with food and we console ourselves with food.

Some of us even say that we're addicted to food, or to certain foods such as sugar or carbs.

And many of us would say that emotional eating is what made us fat in the first place.

Chapter 4 of Rethinking Thin is devoted to debunking the ideas that fat people got that way because they’re emotional eaters and that overeating to the point of obesity is a psychological problem. To the contrary, the book reports on studies showing that the incidence of emotional and stress eating is the same in normal weight and fat individuals:


“Most obese people are no different than non-obese people,” Stunkard [the researcher profiled in the chapter] says. They are not eating because they’re depressed or because they have a pathological relationship to food or to their parents. If all you had was their scores on psychological tests -- if you could not actually see the people you were testing – you would not be able to tell who was fat and who was not.

… There is no psychiatric pathway that spells obesity. And there is no response to food that is not shared by people who are not fat. You can’t say you got fat because you, unlike thin people, are unable to avoid temptation. Both fat and thin people are tempted by the sweet smell of brownies or sight of a dish of cold, creamy ice cream. You can’t say you got fat because there’s a lot of stress in your life. Thin people are just as likely to eat under stress. You can’t say it was because you used food as a reward. If that is the reason, why do thin people, who also use food as a reward, stay thin? (p 93-94)
Bottom line, according to the book, is that we can’t blame our weight problems on emotions or psychological issues. "There is no distinctive fat person's eating behavior; no fat person's psychology ..." (p 97)

When I read this chapter, it seemed counterintuitive to me. So many of us accept -- without questioning -- that our emotional and psychological responses to food are what made us fat. Yet here the book is saying, no – studies show that normal people have the same emotional responses to food as the obese.

What are your thoughts on the chapter and the idea that emotional eating is NOT a cause of obesity?

srmb60 06-21-2007 09:21 PM

Obesity is a result of the symptom of overeating as a response to disordered thinking ????
Some folks fidget, some folks pick, some folks sleep around, some folks explode in tempers, some folks eat ???
What if that symptom (overeating) was combined with sluggish genetics and a food centered cultural upbringing.

SoulBliss 06-21-2007 09:33 PM


Originally Posted by SusanB (Post 1742773)
What if that symptom (overeating) was combined with sluggish genetics and a food centered cultural upbringing.

What if? TaDa! You get most of us on 3FC! :o

I know from experience (mine, my friends, my clients, people here on 3FC) that there is an emotional component to nearly anyone's weight and the way they approach food. To say there isn't is ludicrous, in my opinion.

I took a class that focused on "The Psychology of Obesity" at college. It was fascinating.

Heather 06-21-2007 11:15 PM

I think this is where the book gets really interesting, as she's starting to make the argument that obese people are biologically different from the non-obese. Not psychologicallly different, but biologically.

So, here her point is that thin AND obese people eat from stress, suffer from depression at equal levels, etc. But only the obese ones gain weight from the behavior. I think she's saying that there IS an emotional component for obesity, in that we got fat because we overate, often for emotional reasons. But, her bigger point is that non-obese people engage in the same behaviors and just don't gain weight.

She also tries to make the point that it's not culture. Obese people and non-obese people are exposed to the same culture and yet the obese gain weight and the non-obese do not.

That is what I perceive her argument to be. I'm not sure what I make of it. I'm a cultural psychologist, and I would like to believe culture and environment are significant factors in all sorts of our attitudes and behaviors. In my work, I tend to ignore the biological to a degree. I think I carried this over to my thinking about weight and obesity.

Kolata raised a lot of points I hadn't really considered before -- and I think her argument is not really strong here. I don't know enough about the research to be convinced by it. Her argument seems much stronger in the later chapters dealing with the biochemistry of obesity.

JohnKY 06-21-2007 11:47 PM


Originally Posted by SusanB (Post 1742773)
What if that symptom (overeating) was combined with sluggish genetics and a food centered cultural upbringing.

I'm with SusanB on this one. I was thinking along the same lines. What if obesity is the result of a confluence of factors including genetics, stress and upbringing? Most of the people in my immediate and extended family are obese, so I know I've potentially got the genes. I know for a fact I eat more when under stress. Like probably most people in America I learned as a child to treat food as a reward or comfort. If I don't take great care to eat extra low-caloric density foods at times of stress and step up my exercise, I'd be in trouble.

So what's the difference? If unchecked, would I eat twice as much as naturally thin person during stress? Or is my metabolism in the basement? Ok. So naturally thin folks also stress-eat. But do they consume the same amount of calories when under stress? Looking back at some of the binging I used to do, I have to wonder. I'm ashamed to admit I'm not this far along in the book at this time so I don't know if it expands on this point. I'm trying to catch up!

gailr42 06-22-2007 12:08 AM

I think that Kolata is heavily invested in the idea that obesity is biological and biological alone. What passed through my mind after I was done reading the book, was that she is presenting obesity as ulitmately being a disease like diabetes and sooner or later there will be a medical cure for it. I have mixed feeling about the concept of obesity as a disease.

In the sense that any eating caused me to get fat, I am sure emotional eating contrubuted. Along with my love of food/cooking/eating out etc etc etc. I don't see emotional eating as the sole culprit in my case.

Kery 06-22-2007 02:27 AM

I had mixed feelings on that chapter.

First, "obesity is a disease" (since it's been mentioned above) doesn't hit home for me. If you've read my other posts on the other topics related to it, you know by now what I think of 'the natural tendency to put on weight easily': it's a curse in our society, BUT 500 years ago we would have thanked the Lord, the Goddess or whoever our deity was that we were healthy and more able to survive starvation periods. I don't see how a biological mechanism designed to allow us to survive ever deserves to be considered as a disease, no matter how hard things are for us currently. (Of course, that doesn't mean I don't give a fig about gaining weight--if it was the case, I wouldn't be here! :)--but I also don't want to view my body as something fundamentally flawed.) What I *would* consider the disease is the current state of our food surroundings. That's a whole other problem in an of itself, I guess.

Second. Regarding the psychological aspect. Yes, non-obese people may engage in the same behaviours, but maybe not to such an extent. And fast metabolism or not, there comes a point when you will gain weight all the same if you overeat by a lot. I know we most often tend to use the term 'emotional eating', because to be honest, it does have a clear meaning. But maybe a more appropriate word would be 'behavioural eating' (cf. also what SusanB wrote: "What if that symptom (overeating) was combined with sluggish genetics and a food centered cultural upbringing"). We've been given tools to learn to eat in certain circumstances, for instance, so is it so surprising that we go on applying them once we're adults, and then of course it starts to really weigh on us (yes, pun intended)? Ever growing portion sizes and huge plates are probably part of this, too. The importance of our environment is overbearing, I think. This indeed probably plays a role.

Now, can we say there's no emotional component? Maybe the emotional component is here, but not exactly in the shape of food itself, and food is just a part of it. I don't know exactly how to put it. I'm not even sure I've formed a clear opinion on that matter yet. But to me, obesity is not biological only. There is a clear behavioural component to it. Whether it is only a matter of semantics or not, it is here IMHO.

Heather 06-22-2007 08:27 AM

So much of what everyone is saying is resonating with me.

It sounds like many of us could get behind the notion that it's nature (genetics/biology) AND nurture (environment) that cause obesity. Yet, as gail said, Kolata seems invested in hammering home the biological message, for whatever reason -- perhaps because society's message really does blame the obese. If it's biological, then it isn't our fault.

And yet, I KNOW I overate. I needed to take responsibility for my actions. Thanks Gina Kolata -- your emphasis on biology seemed to take that away. :(

Also, if it's biology, then maybe there's nothing I can do about it -- maybe temporarily, but not permanently. I was really glad I hadn't read the book BEFORE I lost the weight. I might have never tried!

srmb60 06-22-2007 08:35 AM

This seems to be a good place to put something (Thanks Heather). I really did not enjoy this book. I felt it was a compendium of reasons to not even try. I'm so glad I have 3FC to come back to for this kind of thinking. And Anne Fletcher's book Thin for Life.
It can be done!

... sorry ... that's about as close to a rant as I ever hope to post ...

rockinrobin 06-22-2007 08:36 AM

Well emotional eating IS the reason I got so heavy. I didn't get that way from going back for leftovers one time too many. I got that way from eating when I was bored, lonely, depressed?, sad, happy, angry and on and on. I do think at some point though it became habit. But that's another story.

You can then easily say, well why did I use food in those situations and to such a large extent? Why if I was bored, sad, etc.., didn't I stop at a certain point?

I do think there is a genetic component and without a doubt an environmental one. I don't think those are the MAIN factors though for obesity.

I was the cause of my obesity. Me, myself and I. Like Heather said. I take full responsibility for it. I was the cause of every single pound of me, circumstances aside. It WAS in my control. I just chose to NOT control it. I thought that I COULDN'T control it, but that was the denial I was living in.

rockinrobin 06-22-2007 08:38 AM

Susan, we posted at the same time. I have struggled to get through about 70 pages of the book. I too am not enjoying it. I find it boring and pointless. I know I haven't gotten to the "meat" of it yet - but if it continues on like this, I just don't see that she's telling us anything compelling or new. I'll save my final judgement if and when I get through with it.

srmb60 06-22-2007 08:44 AM

I wasn't bored. In fact I enjoyed the reading. It's amazing to me the work that has been done without any conclusive results. What does it mean that we've been studying this for centuries but still have no 'reason' for obesity? A book with no point?

I also wish that just once she would have talked to folks who have been successful. But hey ... maybe I'm looking for the complete works of all weight loss studies and the evidence ... all in one book. Kolata was not writing that.

Heather 06-22-2007 08:58 AM


Originally Posted by SusanB (Post 1743156)
I also wish that just once she would have talked to folks who have been successful. But hey ... maybe I'm looking for the complete works of all weight loss studies and the evidence ... all in one book. Kolata was not writing that.

I wished that too, Susan. You're right. That wasn't the "story" she was telling. If she had talked to successful losers and maintainers, that wouldn't have fit with the biology story she was telling.

It's funny. I hear on this site all the time people complaining that researchers spin their statistics and evidence. However, I wonder if people also think about the degree to which journalists (which Kolata is) do the same...

I enjoyed Kolata's book all in all. It gave me some things to think about, and the newer research focusing on leptin is fascinating. She made me believe that there is more to the biological component than I had believed. And, maybe that's because she did "spin" the book the way she did.

In the end, I don't believe that we yet have the full story (I bet we all agree on that, even Kolata). Yes, biology plays a role, and hopefully that knowledge will help us develop better medications and "whatnot" down the line. However, I also know of a number of people who HAVE successfully maintained a large weight loss thanks to 3fc, and know that gaining it all back is not necessarily inevitable. I can think of some research questions I would like the answers to (such as the role of exercise and especially weight training...).

But what I didn't like about the book is Kolata's framing of the issues -- her spin. Her certainty, if you will. Though, I guess books that sell you "answers" sell better than ones that raise more questions. I think we, the public, want "truth" and certainty, so that's what we get, even if it's not the whole answer.

AnneWonders 06-22-2007 09:37 AM

I've been following the discussion, but haven't participated yet because 1) I haven't read the book and don't intend to, and 2) was pretty underwhelmed with Kolata's controversial book on exercise a few years ago. But I'm a little puzzled by this discussion.

I am both an astonishing success as a 110+ pound loser and maintainer of that loss over several years, and a failure at controlling my weight, as my BMI is still in the 'Overweight' range. But the perspective from being 15 pounds overweight as opposed to 115 pounds overweight is VASTLY different. While I am responsible for everything I put in my mouth, to get to be +115 pounds overweight I had to actively work at that, buy and eat a lot of junk food basically, with a lot of emotional, compulsive and habitual eating. To stay at +15 pounds is really easy--that is within the 200 calories a day that Wansink calls the mindless margin in his wonderful book, Mindless Eating. Pick up one candy that a co-worker brought into work, eat 3 extra bites of noodles off a dinner plate that is sized too large, the licks, bites and tastes that Meg likes to talk about. No major emotional baggage required for that.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that, while it does happen, as an overweight person (now) I just don't do a lot of emotional eating, most of the excess is just sort of thoughtless, it-happens-to-be-there kind of stuff. Not too much different from my thinner friends. As a morbidly obese person I did a lot of emotional eating.

(Now I do a scientifically untenable thing and extrapolate from my experience to the world at large, where there are people like and unlike me.)

So which is true? Both, certainly. How do you report that in your book, if you want to be controversial, and make a lot of sales, and make overweight people feel good about themselves so they'll buy your book. You tell them, hey, you are 100% normal and this isn't your fault. It might even be true for the majority of people like me who are a little overweight. A "healthy" survival instinct in a rich environment, at least from an evolutionary point of view. There is nothing healthy about morbid obesity. If Kolata does make a distinction, I'll be forced to retract this disparaging statement, but I'm guessing she doesn't.


ValerieL 06-22-2007 09:42 AM

I loved this book, it validated many of my own ideas about obesity, which probably explains why I loved it. Human nature, we like things that validate our own beliefs. ;) And, FWIW, I don't dispute that it's one-sided. I don't think her goal was to produce a balanced look at this issue, but to highlight a side that is too often ignored. The goal wasn't to present evidence, but to try to persuade and I take it in that context.


So, here her point is that thin AND obese people eat from stress, suffer from depression at equal levels, etc. But only the obese ones gain weight from the behavior. I think she's saying that there IS an emotional component for obesity, in that we got fat because we overate, often for emotional reasons. But, her bigger point is that non-obese people engage in the same behaviors and just don't gain weight.
That to me was the crux of chapter. Yes, there is emotional eating, but the reason it results in obesity isn't that emotional eating exists, but that the weight control regulation is broken in the first place.

I eat to handle emotions, most definitely, but so does my never-fat, stick thin sister. But in her, eating emotionally doesn't turn on a hunger mechanism that won't shut off after. It does in me. When her emotional issue is over, so is the eating. I can't stop mid-cookie bag though. I keep going after the emotional part is over.

I find a really strong sense in most people that I talk to about this issue, especially the successful losers, who deal with weight issues that they don't want to acknowledge the possibility that a huge component of it might be biological. It's like it takes away our power in the situation. We might as well throw up our hands and give up. It's better to believe we were bad people doing unhealthy things before and we are good people who care about ourselves now. At least that way, we have a way to change it.

I guess I never saw the arguments in the book that way. I look at them more as an explanation. An explanation that helps map out strategies for overcoming the disadvantage of genetic predisposition to obesity. I don't think that admitting there is a strong genetic predisposition to obesity lets us off the hook from solving our own personal fight with obesity. It just means we need to be aware that we can't do the things that someone who doesn't have the predispositon can get away with. We can't allow emotional eating to get hold of us. We can't let up vigilance in eating well. We might have to exercise more to increase our metabolisms more than a forever thin person might. We can't trust our bodies to just do what is right for our weight.

I also wish she'd looked at successful losers and tried to figure out what worked for them. I think of the things we already know that make successful maintainers, daily exercise, constant weight monitoring, continued focus on food and healthy eating. Those things are what successful maintainers do. They *aren't* what the never been fat folks do.

If there was no biological component to obesity, wouldn't we be able to behave like the never fat people once we got thin? Couldn't we exercise sporadically? Couldn't we stuff our faces from Thanksgiving to Christmas & not worry about it? Couldn't we have cookies everyday with our kids?

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