Emily is a 15-year-old girl who was referred by her pediatrician because of cutting behavior and conflict with her parents. Her parents reported that she has had a high body weight in the obese range since early in life. She had tried various diets without success, and her parents were frustrated with the pediatrician’s emphasis on weight over the years.
Mood problems had begun when she was in the sixth grade when she began to be severely bullied about her weight. Emily said this time was so difficult that she did not have clear memories of it. She described feeling numb. She began experiencing intense anxiety about school, and she was sometimes reluctant to attend and started cutting herself as a means of managing her emotions. In middle school, she began to fight back and associated herself with a group of “mean girls” who drank. She began having increasing conflict with her parents over the drinking and the cutting.
Obesity is an extremely complex issue without simple answers. Severe obesity is correlated with numerous health risks including not only cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and cancer, but also psychiatric problems such as depression, anxiety, body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, and unhealthy weight control behaviors. While some of these issues relate directly to the weight itself, many of the psychiatric concerns stem from society’s extremely harsh response to obesity.
We are all aware that the percentage of overweight and obese children, teens, and adults has increased in the past 50 years, although with some recent stabilization.1 The rise in obesity is related to societal factors – the prevalence and advertising of nutrient-poor/high-calorie processed foods in the marketplace, the rise of technologies that have decreased the need for movement, increases in portion sizes in restaurants, especially fast food settings, as well as the subsidizing of unhealthy foods, limited access to and greater cost of more nutritious foods, and limited access to exercise opportunities in poorer areas. This is the “obesogenic environment.” As in numerous aspects of health, weight is also influenced by genetics. Those who are genetically more likely to gain weight are the ones who suffer most from these social changes.
The problem is that, except for bariatric surgery, the interventions prescribed for individuals with obesity don’t work for the vast majority of people in the long run. There is an assumption that if the obese would just eat and exercise the way a thin person does, then they would be thin. While there is evidence that lifestyle strategies that induce a negative energy balance through cutting calories (often by 500-1,000) and “programmed exercise” can help some people lose weight over the course of 6 months to a year, longer-term follow-up suggests that most people regain this weight in the long run, at 5 years out. Even the most optimistic estimates suggest that only about one out of five people can maintain weight losses of 10% in the long term with current standard lifestyle interventions.2
There is evidence that someone attaining a particular body mass index (BMI) through dieting is not able to consume as many calories as another person who has always been at that BMI, requiring constant dietary restraint and a very high level of exercise to maintain the weight loss.3 The great majority of people who are unable to lose the weight, or briefly succeed and then gain the weight back or more, are seen as failing by society, by many medical professionals, and by themselves. There is clearly a need to focus more of our efforts on making changes on a societal level.
There also are alternative individual approaches that take the emphasis away from dieting and weight loss and instead focus on body acceptance and self-care. These interventions go by several names including mindful eating, intuitive eating, weight neutral, and “Health at Every Size.” This approach acknowledges the environmental and genetic factors beyond personal control and discusses how society pressures people to be thin. Instead of emphasizing repeated restrictive dieting, these programs stress maximizing health through making sustainable changes to increase activity and nutrition. These programs encourage people to care for themselves now rather than focusing on dieting toward a future weight where one can start enjoying life. Enjoyment of food, taking time to savor food, and being aware of when one is hungry and when not are central. For physical activity, the emphasis is on discovering something that is pleasurable and sustainable, rather than an onerous duty, as a means to an end of weight loss.4